Hunts Point Resiliency: Connection Stories

A Garden Grows in the Bronx

This is the fifth installment in our Hunts Point Connection Stories Series that have been published throughout this project to spotlight different voices and resiliency-related stories in Hunts Point. Throughout the series, both members of the Hunts Point community and those with ties to the community have been paired with different City representatives to explore different aspects of resiliency in the peninsula.

This story, which examines the impact of climate change in our backyards, features Lucia Hernandez, a long time Hunts Point Resident, member of Hunts Point Resiliency Neighborhood Outreach Team, and keeper of the Bryant Hill Community Garden. Lucia was joined by Tommy Boston, a Planner at the NYC Economic Development Corporation and EDC’s outreach coordinator for the Hunts Point Resiliency project.

Nestled between a redbrick pre-war and an old row house is where you’ll find a plot of land whose appearance is unlike any other on the block. A welcoming break in the street’s typical urban fabric gives way to a breath of fresh air. Light breaks up the stone facades. Mature trees reach toward the sky and drop leaves that gather along the curb. The last of the summer’s crops yield a final harvest. It’s fall at the Bryant Hill Community Garden.

Though it has no searchable address, the curious visitor can find the garden’s gate halfway down the western edge of Bryant Avenue between Seneca and Garrison Avenues. It is here where I met Lucia Hernandez, the garden’s keeper, who lives just around the corner. A longtime resident of Hunts Point, Lucia had noticed the garden sat empty and closed off from use. A phone call later to New York City Parks’ GreenThumb program, the City’s community gardening program, and Lucia was put in touch with the former manager of the garden. After finding out from the then-manager that the garden had sat abandoned for over 60 years, Lucia took charge and reopened it to the public under her purview.

She attributes her inspiration to restart the community garden from her heritage. “I [am] Taino, that’s a Native American group, and I was in a meeting at one point and there was a gentlemen that said that in his island in Santo Domingo, a lot of people are farming and doing a lot with nature. But, in Puerto Rico, a lot of people had gone to the city instead of farming. A lot of people — if they came from the country and came into the city — they became more urban, and to go back to the countryside was a very different animal for them at one point. So he was saying ‘let’s go back to nature, let’s go back to farming’, and I thought it was a good idea to look for a garden that the group could start working,” said Lucia. While original plans for the group to use the space didn’t work out, Lucia pushed forward in bringing the garden back to life herself.

After years of being plagued by the pain of her arthritis and fibromyalgia, Lucia channeled her pain as motivation to get up, go outside, and fix up the garden even if only for a few hours at a time. This began the start of her new passion.

Upon its opening, the garden was a popular spot for the young neighborhood children to gather and help out with the day-to-day work. “I was really good with the kids over here because I used to take them to the GreenThumb’s GrowTogethers and any [other] gardening events. They used to come and help me because the neighborhood would not come in, only the kids would come in. I always get help from the organizations around here. And the members they don’t have to necessarily live in this area. They could come from the five boroughs, it’s acceptable. I do have a family in Vale Street that comes and helps me out,” Lucia said. “And then I have an organization called Build On and they work with youth that helps me out.”

Over the years, she was able to secure grants to make upgrades to the garden, like the one she recently received to purchase the cedar gazebo we sat under. Lucia motions with her cane to a retaining wall along the street. “There’s a retaining wall over there that took me three years to build. That was with the help of Sustainable South Bronx and THE POINT that also helped me,” she said. Her resourcefulness does not end with procuring grants. Many of the benches, screening, and lawn ornaments were all salvaged by Lucia and brought to the garden to be restored and put to new use.

The lot itself is mostly shaded by mature trees, but there is a small, cleared area in the uppermost corner where Lucia started the vegetable garden. Lucia explains: “That’s the only area that gets direct sunlight. You need eight hours of sun for things to grow, for the crops to grow.” The vegetable and herb gardens were planted in raised beds crafted by Lucia with the help of volunteers. The raised beds, sealed from the bottom and filled with fresh topsoil, formed a sealed separation from the environmentally contaminated soil that lies beneath the lot’s surface. Because of Lucia’s intelligent engineering and craftsmanship, all crops grown and harvested in the raised beds are able to be consumed safely by residents year after year.

A green wooden box positioned down along the path behind us, in close proximity to where the vegetable garden grows, is where Lucia keeps her beehive. Yes, that’s right — bees in the South Bronx. “Before I had the beehive, I didn’t get as many crops as I wanted to get. Little things would grow, but it wasn’t sufficient to sustain anyone. So I said, ‘What’s going on?’ There was an organization called The Butterfly Project and they gave us native plants and the native plants would attract butterflies and bees to the area. That first year I had 400 lbs. of vegetables and herbs just from getting plants in!” she excitedly exclaimed.

“It was advertised on the bulletin from GreenThumb that there was an organization called NYC Beekeeping and that they were going to have free classes. We used to go to The Armory in Central Park and we used to have classes in the evenings and the weekends and I learned beekeeping”. Though it’s difficult to estimate the exact count of the bees, it is possible to get an understanding of the sheer scale by the weight of the package of initial bees, which typically clocks in at around three pounds.

“Last year I had two and a half hives. I lost them because last year’s temperature was so weird. It wasn’t a normal winter. There were days that would get so warm and so the bees would come out because it’s warm, but there’s nothing for them to eat. So they’re coming out and then by the evening time it starts getting so cold so by the time they would come back home they would freeze.”

And it’s not just the bees. Lucia has noticed that her trees are suffering, too. “They have a survival rate of a certain amount of years, so now if they’re confused about the weather and how many years they’re going to survive, it could be 20, 25, [or] 30 years. But now if the weather keeps on changing and they start blooming and then die and start blooming two or three times in the winter, their [life] span is going to get less and less,” she said.

The seasonal changes in temperatures observed by Lucia represent a very real problem: our climate is changing right before our eyes. The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), an independent body that advises the City on climate risks and resiliency, released Building the Knowledge Base for Climate Resiliency, a 2015 report on climate trends and projections for New York City through 2100. According to the report, “mean annual temperature has increased at a rate of 0.3°F per decade (total of 3.4°F) over the 1900 to 2013 period in Central Park.” Projections for the future show a much greater likelihood of warmer temperatures in the New York City metropolitan region. According to global climate models (GCMs), “mean annual temperatures are projected to increase by 4.1 to 5.7°F by the 2050s and by 5.3 to 8.8°F by the 2080s.”

Effects of climate change have already been felt by many New Yorkers, dating back to the 2012 hurricane season when Sandy impacted the region. Climate change, and rising year-round temperatures in particular, will result in further impacts to our energy supply, environment and landscape, infrastructure, and vulnerable populations.

It was here in our conversation where I asked Lucia how people in this City can become involved to make their communities more resilient to a changing climate. Lucia offered community gardening as a solution: “They have to appreciate nature. [And] community gardens are a great asset for the people. It’s getting back to the basics. We’ve been too urbanized. The garden is very therapeutic. Just working the soil itself — just working the garden — it gives you relaxation and it helps you enjoy life a little bit better.”

- Tommy Boston

We want to hear your story! If you are interested in being featured in a Hunts Point Connection Story or have an idea for a story, please email us at huntspointresiliency@edc.nyc.

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