A garden grows on Simpson Street

Libertad Urban Farm continues to operate as a lifeline of healthy food for residents, even as Longwood undergoes a construction boom that is transforming the neighborhood.

Tanya Fields, center, points out strawberry plants that have already begun to bear fruit at Libertad Urban Farm. Behind them, construction is underway on three residential towers.

In the shadow of new housing, Libertad Urban Farm keeps growing food for the neighborhood

While drilling and hammering filled the air and cranes lifted building materials overhead, two dozen young people down below the tumult tended a garden at ground level.

That garden on Simpson Street, Libertad Urban Farm, continues to operate as a lifeline of healthy food for residents, even as Longwood undergoes a construction boom that is transforming the neighborhood. Right next door, at 923 Simpson Street, construction is well under way on three residential towers that will eventually cast a shadow over the tiny community garden. 

Tanya Fields, executive director and founder of the BLK Projek, has overseen the garden since its inception in 2013. The young people working in the garden that morning had come as part of their six-week internship through the city’s Youth and Community Development Summer Youth Employment program, which offers them hands-on experience in the garden and a day per week in the classroom.

Despite pressure all around to build new housing to ease a historic housing crisis, Fields says that community gardens can exist alongside all the new projects.

“People in this community need housing, but it doesn’t have to be an ‘either or.’ It can be an ‘and,’” she said. “I have no interest pitting one against the other. Having community projects like this are just as needed.”

Libertad stands on what was once a flourishing green space known as Guadalupe Garden. Francisco Alvarez, who has lived off Simpson Street for 40 years, says that 15 years ago the narrow plot he stewarded was filled with flowering plants, animals and statues of saints.

“People would come just to see them,” said Alvarez, 67, who suffered a stroke 20 years ago that limits mobility on his right side. Even that, however, did not stop him from keeping the garden open back then. Choking back tears, he expressed joy that the garden is once again being tended to.

Fields is familiar with community gardens’ fight for survival around the city. Residents took over the small strip that now comprises Libertad during the last mayoral administration, to protect it from being developed. Then the BLK Projek secured a temporary license for it in 2013 under the parks department’s Green Thumb community garden project before the city granted the space permanent garden status.

After a series of thefts last year resulted in the loss of all their tools and produce, Libertad has sprung back to life. Through the BLK Projek’s fundraising campaigns, says Fields, the farm is having one of its best seasons so far, with chicken coops, planted perennials, and, soon, a stage.

The young people said they are learning valuable lessons this summer—while helping their neighbors.

“Knowing that a community like this can come to a garden and pick a cherry from the cherry tree and know that it’s fresh—it’s a good thing,” said Keyson Mitchell, 18, a resident of Mill Brook Houses in Port Morris, who is interning at the farm.

West Farms resident Kristina Luz Medina, 16, said that internships like this one are about much more than the pay. “It makes me happy to know that what I planted is growing healthier and bigger and it’s going to become something more than just a plant to the community. Everything that we made is good for them so they don’t have to eat processed foods from the store.”

The interns learn not only to plant and build, also teamwork and accountability, said Fields. They spend Fridays in a classroom, learning about community organizing, along with the effects that racism and sexism have had in neighborhoods like the South Bronx.

“Projects like this give people the opportunity to get invested in their community and have some sort of political capital without necessarily having access to financial capital,” said Fields.

Alvarez concurred that the small space on Simpson Street is a special place.

“The garden is for everyone because it gives life,” he said.

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