The Riley-Levin Children’s Garden at Sherman Creek Park in New York City is providing public green space, training, and resources to help foster a deeper relationship between youth and local food systems.
“This garden was built for the sole purpose of education,” says Edwards Santos, the park manager. Riley-Levin’s 16 planting beds full of tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, and chard are tended to by community organizations and school groups from the nearby elementary school.
The garden is stewarded by New York Restoration Project (NYRP). NYRP manages 52 community gardens, cares for 80 acres of parkland, and helped plant over 1 million trees throughout all five boroughs in New York City. Founded in 1995 by actress Bette Midler, NYRP is New York City’s largest private land trust.
Currently, just 16 percent of New York City’s land and 0.6 percent of its budget is used for parks and recreation. New Yorkers for Parks found only 0.2 acres of active open space per 1,000 residents in Riley-Levin’s East Harlem neighborhood.
Santos, who began as a volunteer in 1996, remembers when the garden was an illegal dumping ground. He could see the land’s potential, and planted the first seeds for a Three Sisters garden using the traditional Native mound method— a practice where bean, corn, and squash seeds are planted together in a mound of rich soil. And food production there has expanded: the Park’s proximity to the Harlem River keeps temperatures cooler than at inner city parks, allowing a variety of crops to flourish. On the waterfront, an artificial oyster reef constructed by NYRP helps preserve biodiversity. Free gardening workshops, movie nights, and a recent build-your-own salad event encourage community members to engage with each other and enjoy healthy fruits and vegetables.
“There is a change in people when they finally see that they deserve this,” Urban Agriculture Coordinator Monti Lawson tells Food Tank. “Great food, great spaces, maintained by people who love the community… it’s amazing to see what Bette was able to start.”
To keep volunteers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, NYRP relied on staff gardeners to care for beds and shifted their focus to mutual aid. They planted fast-growing crops like cucumbers and tomatoes in all of the Riley-Levin beds, and donated harvests to community refrigerators and Children’s Aid Society food giveaways.
In mid-2021, partner organizations began returning as part of Riley-Levin’s Adopt-A-Bed Program, which gives community groups access to planting beds. These organizations use their space member engagement in different ways. Papai’s Garden, for example, trains persons with disabilities for gardening careers. Amaya’s Bookreads promotes healthy eating and literacy through their Read It, Grow It program. And the Washington Heights and Inwood Food Council manages six beds, inviting families to harvest together. They also host food justice seminars.
In addition to managing their 52 gardens, NYRP also helps community groups renovate public spaces in their neighborhoods. The Gardens for the City program distributes soil, lumber, labor, and other resources to groups in the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, Northern Manhattan, and Southeastern Queens. NYRP recently distributed over 1,100 plants to satellite gardens, something Lawson says furthers their mission to “get plants into beds, and get food into bellies.”
“There is a power people have when they know they can use their own hands to sustain themselves and their families,” Lawson tells Food Tank. “There is so much wisdom already in the community… in many ways, it’s [gardening] very intuitive. We want people to create more connections between each other and learn from each other, and also share what we know.”
Photo courtesy of Sara Bond