Competing visions spark turf war in Longwood park


On Sept. 26, the organizers of an effort to create a community garden as part of the run-down Fox Playground held a street fair to gather support. Two days later, the Parks Department announced plans to begin renovating the park at Fox and E. 156th Street without considering the plans for Libertad Urban Farm.

The move caught City Council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who had attended the fair to voice her support, by surprise.

Community organizer Tanya Fields, who has spearheaded the plan to turn a neglected grassy patch of ground next to the basketball courts into a garden, condemned what she called “a concerted effort to ignore this plan or continue to give me the runaround.”

But, characterizing the Parks Department’s plans as a done deal, Community Board 2 tabled a call to support the urban farm at its monthly meeting on Sept. 30.

Arroyo says she still hopes to salvage the garden. “We are trying to merge the two ideas together to allow for a farm on this lot,” she said. “There is a lot of passive space here that could be used for something more productive.”

But Fields said Bronx Parks Commissioner Hector Aponte had declined to meet with her, saying a meeting was unnecessary, because the Parks Department was proceeding with its own plan. The organization she founded, called the BLK Projek, is seeking signatures on a petition asking the department to reconsider.

The Bronx Borough President’s office and Councilwoman Arroyo’s office set aside $1.5 million to redesign the park two years ago. Arroyo said an additional $3.5 million would be needed for a complete renovation.

At a meeting with residents, Fields said current plans include a new play area for children, but would leave most of the 1-acre plot of land vacant. She fears that if the Parks Department runs out of money before renovations are complete the park could be closed until construction can be finished.

So far, the Parks Department has committed “to installing a new spray shower and swings, reconstructing the existing handball court, basketball court and playground, creating a dog run and installing steel picket fencing,” according to Jesslyn Moser a spokewoman for the Parks Department.

She did not comment on whether or not the Libertad Urban Farm would eventually be included in the renovation.

Arroyo said that the she hadn’t known that the Parks Department had not considered the Libertad Urban Farm in the redesign.

“My hope is we can get people to the table to get something done about this,” Arroyo said. “I want to ensure we have good quality open space.”

“This should be a green oasis in our community,” Fields said, but “nobody was doing anything with it.” So this summer, with a shovel, a bag of dirt and some plants, she decided to start transforming the lot into a garden to grow food and flowers.

Fields’ plan has generated enthusiasm from local activists along with skepticism from some of her fellow residents.

“Kids have serious health problems here. We are dying because of lack of access to good food. We need to start taking the city back,” said Karen Washington, a community organizer, who in 25 years as an urban gardener, has rescued and developed 600 community gardens.

The South Bronx has the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in New York City, according to the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“We need to grow our own produce. What you find in bodegas and supermarkets is too expensive,” Washington said. “More funding needs to go towards this initiative.”

Deputy Bronx Borough President, Aurelia Greene also attended the block party to support the healthy food options a project like the Libertad Urban Farm would provide.

“We need to take charge of our own diets and what we are eating. We need to become aware of our health,” she said, “This is a good way to get people involved and to enrich our community.”

Ayo Kingsley, 32, a local resident is skeptical about the future of an urban farm in her community and says it would be more productive to build a bigger, better playground.

“I don’t think it’s productive for this neighborhood; people are just going to tear it up,” Kingsley said.

Her fiancée Thomas O’Brien 25 agreed.

“Or else the Parks department will come and they’re going to tear it up,” he said.

Isabel Burgos, 53, who lives right across the street from the park was eager to learn about the farm.

“It’s a nice idea; the park looks sorry,” Burgos said. “They’ve been saying they’re going to change it the past two years. They don’t do anything at all.”

Washington looked over at the raised beds and the plants that are beginning to wilt on the Libertad Farm.

“Tanya’s not going to be here forever. The community needs to own it and take it over. That’s the only way to maintain a sustainable garden,” she said.