In 2017, Kofi Thomas came across a long-forgotten garden in Bushwick, Brooklyn that had fallen into serious disrepair. Where most people would have seen nothing but an eyesore, Kofi glimpsed the possibility of something amazing: a beautiful public garden that could nourish communities in need while also bringing them together. Since opening to the public, the Good Life Garden has grown more than just vegetables — it has cultivated a sense of community that spans generations.
Kofi first heard about the 13,000-foot plot of land through a friend in the gardening community. In an area that’s one of the fastest-growing real estate markets in New York, the massive lot had somehow been forgotten for over a decade. When Kofi first found it, the area was filled with piles of garbage and shattered glass; its only residents were vagrants and drug dealers.
“I like to think about how the things you see every day affect your life, and the potential they have,” says Kofi. “I wanted to see how this space could serve the neighborhood.”
To start, he needed to determine who owned the lot so he could get permission to bring his vision to life. After countless hours of research, he was given the green light to begin cleaning up years of trash and decay. Throughout months of hard labor, Kofi and a few close friends cleared endless piles of garbage, removed 14 invasive trees, and hauled in roughly 10 tons of soil for planting, often working late into the night.
In April 2018, all of their hard work paid off and the Good Life Garden opened to the public. It has since become a place for different generations in the area to learn about one another while also learning about growing food.
“All of the food that we grow serves as an educational tool,” says Kofi. “A lot of kids around here have never seen a tomato plant, or kale, or a Roly Poly. It’s really cool to have the youth understand all of the health benefits of growing their own food.”
It’s was important to Kofi that elderly community members felt welcomed in the garden. He understood that public spaces are crucial to enriching their lives and expanding their worlds, so he devoted a special section of the garden to them. He says there are now over 30 senior gardeners who grow food there
After the produce is harvested, Kofi makes sure it’s given to those who need it most. He shares some with the elderly folks of the community, even delivering bags of collard greens and hot peppers to their homes. A nearby women’s shelter receives some of the harvest, as well as people passing by the garden. Lastly, those who have helped out in the garden can enjoy some of the fruits of their labor. Over the first summer, the Good Life Garden community gave away over 1,000 pounds of produce. And during this past summer, they doubled that number.
To continue building the kind of community space he envisioned, Kofi knew he needed some extra help and decided to start a GoFundMe.
“From watching other community gardens, I knew there was a very prevalent struggle to raise even basic funding to buy seeds and do any kind of community programming,” he says. “ I wanted to have a way to tell a bit of our story and see if it would resonate with people who could help us build a better community.”
While fresh produce is central to the Good Life Garden, the space is about so much more than only food. The garden also serves as a place where neighbors can share music, art, and even common struggles. He recalls one instance when a group of people who lived in the same apartment building realized they were all being harassed by their landlord. They formed a tenant’s group right there in the garden and ended up winning a lawsuit against the landlord.
“All of this stems from having a public space where you can have conversations, build up trust, build a community, and become more than neighbors,” says Kofi. “You can become friends and family that rely on each other.”
To spark creativity, the garden features a performance stage where community members host music festivals and poetry readings — and anything else that allows people to express themselves in a safe place. There’s also a playground area where kids can let loose and paint.
“We just let them get messy and silly and paint all around the garden,” says Kofi. “If you have a space where kids can paint, you’re instilling in them that they can help shape how the world looks.”
As for future projects, Kofi hopes to continue making Brooklyn a little bit greener, one garden at a time.
“I’m excited about the challenge of making the garden better, making it bigger, and making it serve our community in a deeper way,” he says. “If we hit our fundraising goal, I guarantee that we will be able to change a lot of gardens here in Brooklyn.”
Listen to Kofi’s full interview on True Stories of Good People.