Amanda Brown: Spaces for Community, Community for Spaces

NYRP’s Director of Community Engagement, Amanda Brown, has seen many open-space transformations throughout the city, but no tool, supply, or source of manpower is more transformative than the most important asset in space-making: dedicated community members. After a renovation, Amanda says, sense of community is what makes a public space really thrive.

In summer 2014, Amanda met me at the corner of Nostrand and Myrtle Avenues in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. We strolled into NYCHA’s Marcy Housing Development and stopped at a gated area of grass that was about 20 feet by 10 feet in size.

We were meeting with Cynthia Simpson, a long-time resident at Marcy, who had a vision to transform the empty lot into a community garden for all to enjoy. There were private gardens already established nearby on the property--you could see them from where we stood. They looked like small yards sprinkled between tall apartment buildings. Many NYCHA properties are outlined and veined with grassy strips, some of which are now being turned into planting spaces or communal gathering spots by “Resident Green Committees.” NYRP’s Gardens for the City (GFTC) program has helped build 32 garden plots on NYCHA property since 2013.

Many barren or abandoned open spaces in under-resourced areas throughout the city are not just eyesores; they’re wasted space and subject to turn into a litterbug’s paradise--A shame because many have potential to be beautiful, highly-functional oases for community use. Many New Yorkers who realize this possibility apply to programs like Gardens for the City to be considered for assistance to build more green space in their neighborhood. NYRP works with locals to create a design plan, provide supplies, tools, manpower and education to turn a dilapidated space into a highly-functional one for gardening, socializing, learning, and relaxation. Applicants demonstrating vision, community engagement, and long-term commitment, have the best chance of being chosen.

The key to a successful space is selfless commitment to the community at large. Our volunteers give their time and expertise every season to create public green spaces that will serve the needs and desires of the community.Amanda Brown, NYRP Director of Community Engagement

Without programs like GFTC, New Yorkers can go through desperate measures to carry out their gardeners’ dreams. "Some gardeners create makeshift plots and others just grow in pots on the fringes of an existing garden," Amanda said. "They grow wherever they can.”

As we waited for Cynthia to come down, Amanda busied herself picking up random pieces of litter strewn on the ground. A potato chip bag here, a plastic bottle there. I wasn’t surprised to see her do this. On more than one occasion I’ve witnessed her pick up trash from the ground or dead leaves off a plant, and it’s often paired with her refreshing thoughts on how people will surely take care of their environment when they see others do the same. She’s not preaching; it’s just a part of her nature. And it’s contagious, too. I followed suit, picking up some candy wrappers from the hollow vegetable beds nearby.

When Cynthia finally joined us, we sat on the edge of the beds and chatted about the history of the space. After shaking her head surveying the litter strewn on the ground, she talked about how excited she was that our team was going to build additional beds and trellises, and add plants--“life”--throughout the space. After our team was to make these improvements in the coming days, the residents were also throwing a celebratory clean-up day to further spruce up the area. Cynthia looked forward to getting everyone together to plant flowers.

In owning and maintaining 52 of our own community gardens throughout the city, we know the challenge of having all the right elements to help spaces thrive, the most essential one being dedicated community members like Cynthia. She is just like our garden volunteers: caring, resilient, and lively. They’re gatekeepers. They look after their community’s shared spaces, and strive, often at great lengths, to improve them to enhance the livelihood of their neighbors.

“The key to a successful space is selfless commitment to the community at large,” Amanda reflects. “Our volunteers give their time and expertise every season to create public green spaces that will serve the needs and desires of the community.”

Check out photos of the transformation of this plot at Marcy Houses, as well as other recent projects, in our 2014 GFTC photo album on Facebook here. If you know a community group or organization that could use help improving an open space, consider sharing the Gardens for the City application.

PHOTOS: NYCHA Marcy Houses before Gardens for the City renovation | NYCHA Marcy Houses after Gardens for the City renovation

PHOTO: Amanda (far right), NYRP staff and residents at Marcy Houses