Category Archives: African American Environmental History

Ruby Bridges Mural by Sharon De la Cruz

A Hunt’s Point Walk: Part 2

You are invited to trace the steps of a few dozen young Americans (ages 16-38) who have walked their neighborhood.  American history expresses itself in stone and paint, plants and asphalt as you will see.  Enjoy these points of interest:

1. Hunt’s Point Riverside Park
2. Bright Temple A.M.E. Church
3. Engine 94, a beautiful fire house
4. Bryant Hill Community Garden & Old NY Townhouses
5. Garrison Park (once envisioned as a sculpture park for the Bronx River)
6. South Bronx Greenway
7. Ruby Bridges Mural by Sharon De La Cruz

This article is dedicated to two active citizens in the Hunt’s Point community: Cybeale Ross has been a Hunt’s Point home owner since 1957.  She has marched with Mothers on the Move for improved schools, traffic-calming street enhancements, and more over the last several decades.  Paul Lipson helped establish The Point community center in the early 1990s after earlier success with Bronx Frontier, a local and popular green business.

Cybeale Ross & Paul Lipson of Hunts Point
Cybeale Ross and Paul Lipson
Hunt’s Point Riverside Park
Hunt’s Point Riverside Park

Bright Temple AME Church DSCN9527 DSCN9422 Hunt's Point Townhouses Garrison Sculpture ParkDSCN9479

Begin at Hunt’s Point Riverside Park now enjoyed in its second and most recent phase.  This waterfront park at the base of Lafayette Avenue was established in the 1990s through many hands after an executive at The Point (a younger Majora Carter) was forced to spend a moment at this former dead end street following her dog’s independent spirit.  The original park had several magical weeping willows and a simple boat launch.  The professionally designed green patch you see today opened around 2006.  It has garnered national attention and won the Rudy Bruner Award for excellence in the urban environment.  Next door is The Point’s Campus for Arts and the Environment as well as Rocking the Boat.

Walk up the hill along Lafayette Avenue to its intersection with Faile Street, named for a wealthy nineteenth century resident according to John McNamara’s History in Asphalt: the origin of Bronx Street and Place Names.  You’ll notice as you go many younger trees planted in the public right-of-way along curbs, on side streets and even with relatively new traffic medians.  Hunt’s Point has had several waves of urban forestry enhancement since the 1980s, especially since the late 1990s.  This short walk takes you past the successful product of three distinct tree planting campaigns!

On your right is Bright Temple AME Church.  This stone neo-Gothic former single-family mansion was built circa 1860 by a family that manufactured printing presses–including for the New York Times in the 1800s.  This building is a great place to consider ethnic succession within Hunt’s Point.  An English-descended family, whose land extended down to the nearby Bronx River, was the first to occupy it.  Some time after the contents of the house were auctioned off following the death of that family’s patriarch, a Jewish Synagogue was established (1919).  In the post-World War II period, Bright Temple AME Church assumed ownership to serve the expanding African-American population.  Skirt Faile Street to see each side of this richly ornamented building.  The church photo you see above was taken around 2005 for Bronx River Sankofa’s founder by the late great photographer and musician Ibrahim Gonzalez.

Without crossing the street, continue along Faile Street until you reach Seneca Avenue.  As you approach this corner, look at the Renaissance-inspired fire department building from the “roaring twenties” on your left.  Engine 94‘s open-air third floor facing Seneca Ave. combined with light-colored terra-cotta decorations contract handsomely with red brick to evoke Old Italy.

Now turn toward the industrial border of Hunt’s Point and walk one block along Seneca Avenue to Bryant Avenue.  John McNamara’s book reports that, “Its proximity to streets dedicated to American poets Longfellow, Whittier, and Drake would seem to be reason enough to honor William Cullen Bryant.”  Once at the corner of Seneca and Bryant, turn left and walk half-way into the block passing the first open lot inhabited by rabbits and chickens.  Several steps ahead, you will see a community garden on your left unusual in its abundance of trees.  You’ve arrived at Bryant Hill Community Garden.  Taino Indian traditions live here under the guidance of local gardener Lucia Hernandez whose circle have succeeded the first generation of gardeners who preserved this oasis at least one generation ago.  Hunt’s Point was largely a walk-to-work district 100 years ago when it was sometimes called “Little Pittsburgh” owing to its abundance of light and heavy industry.  Notice the brightly colored and richly ornamented townhouses across the street from the garden where earlier generations lived.  At that time, German was the Bronx’s second most common language.

Next we’ll see what may yet become Garrison Sculpture ParkContinue along Bryant Avenue to the corner where it meets Garrison Avenue, then cross the street–while walking in the same direction–and look down-hill along Garrison.  Standing at this intersection of Garrison and Bryant avenues, you’ll notice a shabby patch of green with moderately tall trees just a few blocks away where land meets water.  Don’t be fooled by the residential tower in the visible distance; that’s the neighborhood of Soundview across the Bronx River.  While this park-in-progress has long since been declared official city land, no effort to improve it has been completed.  Many times, this waterfront site has been cleaned, composted, planted and re-designed.  Of the formal designs, including one by Pratt for a riverside amphitheater, none have substantially transformed the site and made it a destination for recreation seekers.  Over thirty years of planning and false starts have passed in the process.  Bronx River Restoration Project Incorporated (founded in 1974), predecessor of the Bronx River Alliance (founded in 2001), first envisioned a park here at the end of the 1970s.

In 2003, Alcoa Corp. proposed partial financing for a sculpture park here following on schematic drawings complete with an amphitheater developed by an out of state college.

Turn and walk in the opposite direction along Garrison Avenue to the busy commercial street with shops in the near distance.  That’s Hunt’s Point Avenue.  Find 889 Hunt’s Point Avenue across the street.  It’s a great location from which to appreciate the emerging South Bronx Greenway.  Check it out!  You are surrounded by the following relatively new amenities funded by your federal tax dollars (2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act): uniform tree guards, public benches, many new trees (the ones with small trunk diameters planted off the sidewalk), permeable pavements via Belgian blocked walkways curbside, new stylized lighting fixtures, and richly planted in-street medians.

Sharon De La Cruz and the Urban Art Program of NYC’s Department of Transportation provide us with our final stop, Ruby Walks (Walking Series)Please turn toward the busy Bruckner Expressway whizzing above street level one block away and walk toward it along Hunt’s Point Avenue.  If you’re walking this tour in 2014 or 2015, you’ll see Sharon’s group of paintings depicting a girl in multiples clasped to the wall of the bridge over the train tracks (between Garrison Avenue and Bruckner) here.  Read all about it in DNAinfo, the Hunt’s Point Express and/ or Nilka Martell’s piece in the Bronx Free Press.

EXPLORE Hunt’s Point Walk #1 BY CLICKING HERE.

A Hunt’s Point Walk: Part 1

March 11, 2013 walk with The Point CDCWelcome to our first on-line Hunt’s Point walking tour!

In two parts, you’ll see this New York City neighborhood including the westerly streets that were divided from it by the Bruckner Expressway and now called “Longwood.”  Tour no. 2 is a shorter (1 hour) walk including parks, historic structures, and shout-outs to local civic boosters.  Click here to enjoy that alternate Hunt’s Point journey.

The picture you see above comes from Bronx River Sankofa’s first Hunt’s Point tour.  It was given in March 2013. The final on-street guided tours were conducted in summer 2014.  While most Sankofa tours were attended primarily by those over 25 years in age, it was fun to have a young adult audience for these neighborhood explorations.  Now it’s your turn to make the trip!

Please note that all text in colors other than black are hyperlinks you may click on to explore a site further.  All photos may be seen larger and in greater detail by clicking on them.

WALK 1 (two hour tour) points of Interest:
A. The Point: where community and creativity connect
B. 889 Hunt’s Point Avenue (incubator of big ideas)
C. The South Bronx Greenway
D. Yes She Can Mural
E (5). Hunt’s Point’s Post Office reflects citizens’ ambitions for their neighborhood
F. Corpus Christi Monastery
G. Hunt’s Point Recreation Center
H. P.S. 48 where students and teachers have revived interest in the Joseph Rodman Drake Park Cemetery and Enslaved African Burial Ground
I. Barretto Community Garden
J (10). American Bank Note Company printing complex
K. SEBCO (South East Bronx Community Organization)
L. Hunts Point Library
M. St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church
N. Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education
O (15). Banana Kelly, an iconic Bronx Street made famous in biographies and hip hop lore
P. Mothers on the Move, a center of local activism
Q. Rainey Park, almost one whole block of green space where housing stood 60 years ago
R. PS 39 building once housed Longwood Arts Gallery, Pregones Theater, and Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Bronx office.  It is now the Holcolm L. Rucker School of Community Research, a high school
S. Police Athletic League (Longwood Center)
T (20). Longwood Historic District
U. Prospect Hospital (where Bronx Frontier was born; See Gardening and Garvey article)
V. Dra. Evelina Antonetty Way
W. Casa Amadeo, where Afro-Caribbean music lives!

START: The Point Community Development Corporation is headquartered at 940 Garrison Avenue (3 blocks from the Hunt’s Point station of the no. 6 train line). This indoor/outdoor youth-focused community center was built a century ago as part of the sprawling American Bank Note Company’s printing complex anchored across the street. It later became a bagel factory before falling into cliche illicit uses by the 1980s. This industrial gem was re-purposed as a youth-centered community center in the early 1990s largely by staff from Seneca Center– formerly on Hunt’s Point Avenue– where they did similar work. As the type of funding Seneca sought began to seem unreliable support for non-traditional youth work like theater, key Seneca staff established The Point two blocks away.

The Point CDC
Please walk north along Garrison Avenue in the direction of the nearest visibly busy street with shops just one block away. That’s Hunt’s Point Avenue. Once at the intersection, turn right and walk a few stores deeper into the Hunt’s Point neighborhood. Stop at 889 Hunt’s Point Avenue where the Hunt’s Point Alliance for Children is located.

 

STOP 2. Many social entrepreneurial projects have been based here beginning with an annex to The Point. The Point leased this storefront for community arts programming here around 2000 before sub-leasing the space to the then new Sustainable South Bronx (SSB) in 2001 founded by Majora Carter. SSB moved to the American Bank Note Co. building we will see later.  Then, for two years–still under lease from The Point–the Bronx Museum of the Arts operated an artists-in-residence program there while administering the Hunt’s Point Fish Parade.

889 Hunt's Point AvenueThe following five years were guided by local artist Alejandra Delphin (already on-site as a BMA artist in residence) who remade the space into a print-making studio (Studio 889), sharing the space through 2008 with Michael Wiggins’ theater group Mud/Bone Collective who have relocated. The current tenant succeeded Delphin who does print and on-line graphic work and programming at The Point.

The sidewalk, street and view farther into Hunt’s Point Avenue from the place where you stand show most of the key elements in our next attraction.

STOP 3. The South Bronx Greenway  is a long-planned and recently expanded linear park and system of park-connectors between Hunt’s Point and Randall’s Island.  Click on the hyperlink that begins this section for a comprehensive impression of how much greener it’s made and may make these places.  The South Bronx Greenway won about $60,000,000.00 from the 2009 federal stimulus bill.  What you see here is a small part of what that money paid for–far beyond this street are new bike paths at the extreme other end of the greenway and more!  South Bronx GreenwayThe cobble-stone walkways surrounding the street trees, uniform tree guards, younger trees planted off the curb, metal benches, sleek new light posts, and generously planted medians that calm traffic are just part of this new amenity.  Omar Freilla of Green Worker Cooperatives, just over a decade ago, developed a survey for locals to express their hopes and wishes for its design once the original Sustainable South Bronx team won a million dollar grant to study and propose designs for this relatively new expansion of the local tree canopy!

Continue to walk in the same direction–southwest–along Hunt’s Point Avenue on the same block until you approach the last apartment building before the US Post Office.  Stop just beyond 823 Hunt’s Point Avenue and look up at the mural covering the stucco-faced south wall.

STOP 4. Yes She Can mural by Majora Carter Group, LLC
!Si Ella Puede!/ Yes She Can was painted c. 2009 (fence panels added later).  Majora Carter Group, LLC hired Goundswell to execute the design concept, which they jointly solicited from community members.  Don’t move, improve has been a Bronx rallying cry since the 1970s and this woman-focused image is a great update to that concept.  Read more about it by clicking here.
Yes She Can MuralTanya Fields worked on this mural for the Majora Carter Group.  Tanya(b.1980-) is CEO/ Founder/ Executive Director of The Blk Projek. She holds a bachelors degree from Baruch College/CUNY in Political Science with a minor in Black and Hispanic Studies. Fields moved to the Longwood neighborhood of the Bronx from her native Harlem in late 2001 in search of affordability. She has had a long history of local civic participation as a member of Mothers on the Move (MoMs), Sustainable South Bronx and other groups. Tanya sees unity between culture and ecology.  She promotes this vision with events centered on healthful food, yoga and more. She means to empower and link progressive African-American women and Latinas in concrete community building that improves housing, diet, social and career experience in sustainable ways that are self generated.

Tanya’s a powerful public speaker and writer. She is featured in the book The Next Eco Warriors: 22 Young Men and Women Who are Saving the Planet, edited by Emily Hunter with a forward by Farley Mowat, published 2011.

You’ll want to see the front of the post office next door so continue a few more steps to the end of the block and turn right onto Lafayette Avenue. Now walk to the middle of the block so you can see the entrance to this low-rise building where it forms the corner of Lafayette and Manida Street.

STOP 5. Hunt’s Point’s Post Office mirrors citizens’ ambitions for the neighborhood.  Cybeale Ross has lived on this block since 1958 and long been involved in preserving it.  Manida’s Street’s 800 block has long been among the best preserved in the whole district.

Hunt's Point Post OfficeBefore this relatively new branch was constructed, earlier generations knew their closest USPS station as the one that remains on Westchester Avenue between Freeman and Simpson–quite a walk!  Mrs. Ross made a point of attending meetings surrounding the establishment of this branch.  The building reflects that wisdom.  Note that vehicular traffic is oriented onto the commercial streets  and away from Manida’s tree-lined calm.  The low-rise scale and planted courtyard were her ideas too.

Across the street on Lafayette Avenue and just beyond Manida Street towers a stone-clad religious cloister you couldn’t miss if you tried.

STOP 6. Corpus Christi Monastery  is located at 1230 Lafayette Avenue.  It was constructed in 1890.  According to the American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City, “The best time to visit this cloistered community of Dominican nuns is on Sunday afternoon, when they sing their office.”Corpus Christi Monastery  This black and white image was taken around 2005 for Bronx River Sankofa’s founder by the late great photographer and musician Ibrahim Gonzalez.

Locals call the field at the intersection of Lafayette and Manida Street Manida Park—not it’s official name—and have come to enjoy it’s modern recreation center visible from our last two sites. Walk along the broad field of this park until you reach 765 Manida Street.

STOP 7. Hunt’s Point Recreation Center (not shown) is operated by the Department of Parks and Recreation of the City of New York.  It is very active with all kinds of activities for all ages 12 months of the year.  It’s also one of the newest recreation centers anywhere in the city.

Our next destination is the corner ahead of us. We won’t be visiting but simply looking over to it where Manida Street and Spofford Avenue cross. Do you see the imposing red brick schoolhouse one block away to your left?

STOP 8. P.S. 48 where students and teachers have revived interest in the Joseph Rodman Drake Park Cemetery and Enslaved African Burial Ground.  See how they publish their research by clicking here!

P.S. 48Bronx African Burial Ground

Take Spofford Avenue one block farther away from P.S. 48 walking down-hill to Barretto Street–which you’ll walk half-of-one-block into for the first green space you see to your left.  You’ll know you’re approaching it because of its distinctive foundation planting outside the fence in the public right-of-way bordering the sidewalk.

STOP 9. Barretto Community Garden was one of the first community gardens in Hunt’s Point.

Barretto Street Garden DSCN9305
Double back up Barretto Street to Spofford Avenue, turn left so you are continuing down the gentle hill —passing Casanova Street—and join Tiffany Street. Now turn right.  Be mindful that you’re on a heavily trafficked commercial route as you head north. The Bruckner Expressway will be visible in the distance. Where Tiffany reconnects you with Lafayette Avenue, a massive twentieth century red brick industrial building will command your attention on your right (across from Corpus Christi Monastery).

STOP 10. American Bank Note Company printing complex (built 1911) is an official NYC Landmark.  Read all about it in its official designation report by clicking here.  This highly productive facility once employed hundreds who worked in three consecutive shifts.  Among it’s many products were South American currencies and American Express Traveler’s Checks.

American Bank Note BuildingTiffany Street unfolds with great sites as we continue toward, below, and immediately on the other side of the Bruckner Expressway above head. Now, at the intersection of the Bruckner Boulevard (at street level) and Tiffany, a powerful community development group presents buildings visible on both north and south sides of the street.

 

STOP 11. SEBCO (South East Bronx Community Organization) was founded in 1968 and has done a great deal to improve the lives of many in the Hunt’s Point-Longwood neighborhoods.  Much has been written about this group over the years.  To your left is a low-rise health center they initiated over a decade ago.  The tall senior housing facility on the right (although it faces the next block: Southern Boulevard) has the name “Sister Thomas Apartments” facing you.  Housing and health are just two of their areas of action.  Father Louis Gigante of St. Athanasius Church and other locals formed the South East Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO) as a community development non-profit. Many came to know SEBCO for having painted on some of the buildings they rehabilitated the words “Father Louis Gigante Rebuilding the South Bronx.” This large declaration was seen for decades from the Bruckner Expressway.  Learn more by visiting their website here.

Looking just one block ahead on Tiffany Street, let’s head to the Renaissance-inspired building at 877 Southern Boulevard.

STOP 12. Hunts Point Library.  This site indicates a rich man’s literacy revolution. The Andrew Carnegie endowment built libraries throughout North American and Britain. The Hunt’s Point Branch was the final NYC branch built under this endowment; it opened in 1928.  At one time, the New York Public Library houses a substantial Latino literature department here.  Today, you would find a similar specialty collection at the Bronx Library Center a few miles to the north.

Hunt's Point Library on Father Gigante PlazaFather Gigante Plaza
This important public building is situated on Father Gigante Plaza, a pedestrian-oriented public open space framed by a gated park and fountain to the south (maintained by SEBCO), Fox Street on the west and our next attraction.

STOP 13. St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church

Church interiorChurch exterior

Skirt the church building, leaving the plaza, and examine its beautiful westerly windows on Fox Street. Then continue along Fox 1.5 blocks (passing Barretto St.) to 928 Fox Street.

STOP 14. Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education

Casita MariaSouth Bronx Cultural Trail

The Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education has developed their own South Bronx Culture Trail.  Their mission is to empower youth and their families by creating a culture of learning through high quality social, cultural, and educational opportunities.

They welcome kids at the age of six and stay with them until college while providing family learning through the arts.  They distinguish themselves in the plurality of ways in which they attract community members to utilize their services.  Their students introduce their parents to their cultural programs, while their public programs guide parents to wide ranging education programs.  Founded in 1934, they have served many who have gone on to enrich the world through culture, public service, education, and business.  Alumni and program providers have been many.  Some highlights include:

Tina Ramirez, Founder of Ballet Hispanico

Joe Conzo, Jr., Photographer

DJ GrandWizzard Theodore, Hip Hop pioneer

Hon. Annabel Palma, NYC Council Member

David Gonzalez, Journalist and Photographer

Wandee “WanderPop” Candelario, Dancer

Rita Moreno, Singer/Actress/Dancer

Dave Valentin, Latin Jazz Musician and Composer

BG 183, Tats Cru

Lorraine A. Cortes Vazques, 65th Secretary of State of New York

Marta Rivera, Educator

Francisco Molina Reyes II, Photographer

Americo Casiano, Poet

Double back along Fox street to Father Gigante Plaza where the church we visited stands. Now walk away from the plaza along Tiffany Street so that you are seeing low-rise private homes to your left. Join E. 163rd Street two blocks away, then walk along that street to where E. 163rd and Kelly streets cross.  Looking into Kelly Street, take a moment to appreciate the crescent shape of this block as well as it’s early 20th century feel.

Kelly Street

 

 

STOP 15. Kelly Street (aka Banana Kelly) is an iconic Bronx Street.

It’s been made famous around the world by memoirs of locals including General Colin Powell who recall living and playing here.

Walk slowly down this crescent-shaped street toward the park one block ahead.  Next, turn right and find 928 Intervale Avenue.

Mothers on the Move

 

STOP 16. Mothers on the Move (MoMs) is a community organizing group. There has been good power sharing between Latinos and African-Americans here.  Joyce Culler, a long-standing Bronx Community Board 2 member, is a MOMs board member. MoMs works on education, transportation and other issues.  It has been led for over a decade by Wanda Salaman, a modest and highly effective Latina of African descent.

Next door is a convenience shop where you may want to grab a drink and a snack so you can enjoy a break in the park across the street.

STOP 17 (SHADE/REST/BATHROOM BREAK). Rainey Park has athletic fields rimmed with shaded strolling paths and benches and a comfort station.  It symbolizes the Bronx rebuilt.  Similar to most community gardens, it occupies land where housing stood 60 years ago.  Today, it’s a park named for a major local African-American civic leader–William F. Rainey (1920-1985)–who once ran the local Police Athletic League.  Once you’ve enjoyed the charms of this relatively recently renovated park, proceed to the school anchored at its southern end.

DSCN9569

STOP 18. The PS 39 building once housed Longwood Arts Gallery, Pregones Theater, and Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension Bronx office. It is now the Holcolm L. Rucker School of Community Research, a high school.  This is where a young and blessed Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) attended school too.  Carmichael’s legacy deserves to be remembered as we celebrate so many anniversaries of the Civil Rights Movement.

Public SchoolDSCN9559

Across the street at 991 Longwood Avenue (at Beck Street) is the most recent incarnation of a longstanding children’s play/learning/health institution.

Police Athletic LeagueSTOP 19. Police Athletic League (Longwood Center).  The building you see here dates to 1996.  Since 1914 PAL has been serving New York City’s youth with safe, structured programming designed to engage boys and girls in positive activities that improve their quality of life, present developmental opportunities, and offer the prospect of a brighter future. What started out as the closing of streets by the New York City Police Department to enable the city’s unsupervised youth to play became a city-wide Cops & Kids movement and later national model that brought communities and police together in ways that prevail to this day.

Cross Longwood Avenue into Beck Street. Explore the length of this block until Beck Street meets E. 156th Street.

STOP 20. Longwood Historic District  According to the Lehman College Art Gallery website, “Built at the turn of the 20th century, the Longwood Historic District is an enclave of primarily two and three story row houses constructed in anticipation of the population surge expected into the area.  Real estate developer George B. Johnson purchased the old S. B. White estate on speculation and hired architect Warren C. Dickerson (also known for his work on Mott Haven Historic District structures) to design and construct houses.  By the time that the IRT subway line (today’s no. 6 train) from Manhattan reached the neighborhood in 1904, Dickerson’s houses were completed and clustered nearby.”  Read the complete entry by clicking here.  See a simulation of the old White mansion on the SE corner of Beck Street and E. 156th Street.

Longwood Historic District
Make a right on E. 156th Street. One block away is a white glazed brick building at the corner of Kelly Street.

STOP 21. Prospect Hospital (not shown) is where Irma Fleck hatched a late 1970s green business with help from a veteran of the federal War on Poverty scene.  Bronx Frontier was born here.  See the earlier Gardening and Garvey article to learn more about that Bronx success story.
Continue along E. 156th Street for three blocks until you arrive at Prospect Avenue. Please look up at the street signs on this corner by Public School 130.

STOP 22. Dra. Evelina Antonetty Way was unveiled in 2011.  The street sign is located at the intersection of Prospect Avenue and E. 156th Street.

Dra. Evelina Antonetty WayTake time to reflect and be empowered by the legacy of Dr. Evelina Lopez Antonetty (1922-1984).  “Titi” or “Auntie,” as she was often called, created United Bronx Parents and was a force for establishing bi-lingual education locally and nationally.  Among her hundreds of accomplishments, she protested, periodically shut down filming for, and got twenty jobs for local people-of-color in the filming of Fort Apache, a fictional film set in the Bronx.  Her mural across the street (below) reads her words from 1980: “We will never stop struggling here in the Bronx, even though they’ve destroyed it around us.  We would pitch tents if we have to rather than move from here.  We would fight back, there is nothing we would not do.  They will never take us away from here.  I feel very much a part of this and I’m never going to leave.  And, after me, my children will be here to carry on…I have very strong children…and very strong grandchildren.”

Evelina Antonetty MuralTiti’s daughter Anita Antonetty once provided career counseling services to the youths of Rocking the Boat in Hunt’s Point.  Many were pleasantly surprised to encounter a mature Latina deeply aware of Bronx ecology issues and trends.  Anita continues to make her mark on the Bronx sustainability front through community boards and beyond.

Our final destination for today’s tour is across from the nearest train station. Please make a right on Prospect Avenue and walk toward the very visible train tracks above Westchester Avenue in the near distance. Just before you reach this refurbished and remodeled Victorian Revival-styled train station, you’ll see 786 Prospect Avenue. You have arrived!

Casa Amadeo

CONCLUSION: Casa Amadeo is regarded as a national landmark.  It’s a music store specializing in Afro-caribbean sounds.  You can even buy musical instruments there.  If you’re lucky, you may visit when a spontaneous jam session is happening live in the back room.  The owner, Mike Amadeo, is a musician and composer who is well known in traditional Latin music circles.   The elegant Old Bronx building they occupy once houses both Tito Puente and Celia Cruz.
DSCN9568 DSCN9565

Thank you for walking with us! Bronx River Sankofa invites you to always move forward strengthened by the wisdom of reflecting periodically!

Gardening and Garvey: a reminiscence of 1980’s sustainability in Hunt’s Point

McLymont w Zoo Doo posterAnchored in God and family, Fritz-Earle McLymont, business consultant par excellence, conducted this interview with us on Monday, July 21 at a midtown Manhattan office building. We were fortunate to be granted two hours between his many projects including waste-to-energy initiatives in East Africa. He shared memories of his time directing a once alive and thriving Bronx Frontier Development Corporation–a paragon of social, economic, and environmental sustainability in the late 1970s through 1991 or so. Background information came from an interview with another former Bronx Frontier employee (who still works in Hunt’s Point), the Bronx Museum of the Art’s catalog “Devastation/Resurrection: the South Bronx” dated November 9 [1979] – January 13,1980, and Jill Jonnes’ book South Bronx Rising: the rise, fall, and resurrection of an American City published in 2002 by Fordham University Press. Finally and potently, a contemporaneous account of Bronx Frontier dated 1978 lives on-line at Mother Earth News which proved invaluable. What follows is a summary of the McLymont interview with relevant notes for context.
Barretto Street Garden
Bronx River Sankofa followers may remember our summer 2012 photographer’s tour of three neighborhoods including Woodlawn Cemetery, West Farms, and Hunt’s Point. The last stop in that tour was the public art scene of found objects and folkloric carpentry, a fruit tree orchard, and traditional Afro-Caribbean music also known as Barretto Street Garden (shown above). At that time, our narrative focused on the way the Trust for Public Land under Andy Stone’s direction had orchestrated the legal transfer of that green patch into public park land with Henry Font (deceased) acting as coordinator. Font lived directly across the street in a brick apartment building where relatives remain. During that tour, we hadn’t talked about how all that rich soil—supporting herbs, flowers, veggies, and fruit—got there. This article seeks to address that omission…and more!
Fritz-Earle McLymont became a consequential upstairs neighbor to Mr. Font for almost three years in the 80’s after returning to his adoptive United States following groundbreaking economic work within the Michael Manley government of Jamaica. Once back in the USA, a friend’s call compelled him to revisit a project of Bronx preservationist Irma Fleck he had consulted to before leaving America in the late 70’s. On-leave police officer (Bronx 41st precinct) and Bronx businessman Jack Flanagan convinced him he should take over leadership as Flanagan made his exit from an enterprise much more than a start-up by then with a substantial staff and annual operating revenues worth several million dollars. Fritz related this story that shows yet one more way the green movement is nothing new in the Bronx and that people of African ancestry have made important inputs even environmental insiders often no little about. Because the more popular published accounts of the life and times of Bronx Frontier make no mention of him, it’s the perfect Sankofa moment to reclaim a fuller American history!

Zoo Do poster
Barretto Street Garden remains a monument to the work of many hands over four plus decades. When Font and McLymont were neighbors, along with Freddy Ruffin (a local civic pillar originally from Louisiana living a few blocks away), they gardened heartily. Each man hailed from different parts of the African diaspora and shared a passion for growing his own food and sharing with others. Freddy and Fritz shared a keen respect for the writings of Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) and enjoyed a powerful friendship. McLymont’s Bronx Frontier was making vast quantities of compost a few blocks away on the waterfront and was able to steer more than a little to this vest pocket park between Spofford and Randall avenues, very near the later-built Hunt’s Point Recreation Center operated by NYC’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Jill Jonnes’s book relates that Bronx Frontier went into partnership with the People’s Development Corporation (defunct housing group), the Green Guerillas (co-founded by Hattie Carthan of Magnolia Tree Earth Center), the New York Botanical Garden, and others to form the South Bronx Open Space Task Force. The Task Force was based at 1080 Leggett Avenue  on the same street as the Frontier very much on the industrial perimeter of the Hunt’s Point peninsula.  Bronx Frontier also had a teen-centered waterfront community garden a few blocks away within its composting complex where they processed the popular Zoo Doo organic fertilizer. It was no discreet success. Many papers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal promoted their visionary product and staff. On pages 321 and 322 of South Bronx Rising, we read:
“Bronx Frontier had an exciting summer in 1978. The Chuck Wagon program, a mobile kitchen in a former bookmobile [mobile library], roved the streets teaching cooking and nutrition. It was extremely well received and was incorporated as a regular feature at a few local schools [and places frequented by seniors in the memory of McLymont]. Over on the “ranch” on the Hunt’s Point peninsula, the giant compost turner was in its test period [shown in the second to last photo below]. Mountainous piles of vegetable waist were being carted over from the nearby Hunt’s Point Produce Market [as arranged early on by Irma Fleck according to McLymont], then laboriously culled of unacceptable debris, then churned and shredded with leaves [from Westchester] and zoo manure. Eventually, this mixture came to be marketed as Zoo Doo, although the veggie component was abandoned as too much trouble. To everyone’s vast relief, it worked. By the end of the first summer, two thousand cubic yards of compost worth twenty-eight thousand dollars had been created. Some was stored, and the rest was distributed to seven new gardens and three that were in their second season.
Bronx Frontier was now inundated by officials eager to see the notorious South Bronx—visitors from Africa, Japan, Switzerland, England, and France. The interruptions became so hard to handle that a weekly show-and-tell was put together, including a bus tour through the rubble to the gardens, those little oases of love and pride.
Bronx Frontier decided to purchase a windmill to generate its own power for use in its composting operation. This elegant machine, tall and slender, was to whirl majestically above the ranch, catching the winds whipping across the small promontory [above the waters of the East River adjacent to the Hunt’s Point Water Pollution Control plant according to McLymont].”

Reference material

The passage you just read filled my mind as Fritz and I began our interview. He had come to the United States after spending formative years in Jamaica and gotten his start in economic development during the federal War on Poverty wherein he helped preserve the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn and beyond. The Bronx was known to him from visits with family in the northern borough although he was living in a Tudor City penthouse at that time above Ralph Bunche Park with views of the river and United Nations. Professional contacts connected him to Bronx Frontier founder Irma Fleck who he remembers as a passionate visionary for the whole Bronx. He remembers successfully interviewing with her just several months shy of his fortieth birthday at her Prospect Hospital office (See building in final picture below) within the Longwood neighborhood. During the interview, she queried him on his knowledge of compost—he’d been composting since teen years. It was lights, cameras, action back then in 1976. This seed was so early in sprouting, Jack Flanagan had not yet been brought on by Mrs. Fleck who was a doctor’s wife, her life spanning the Bronx’s transition from Jewish to Latino dominance. Let’s contextualize this moment in Bronx history: President Jimmy Carter had not yet arrived for his world-famous visit (1977) and GreenThumb was not yet established as a city-wide technical assistance resource for community gardeners (1978).
Stewarding economic development and agricultural innovation was familiar to Fritz. He arrived at Bronx Frontier with credentials in the business of agriculture beyond American shores. He recalls spending a lot of time with Fleck who saw real world connections between the beauty of our cityscapes and the health of urban dwellers. For about one year, he developed a business plan, a list of funding options (some awarded during and following his term), and helped groom Flanagan in urban agriculture as a means of community economic development. He arranged and brought Flanagan on a field trip to Canada and another to upstate New York to observe established models. Upstate, a less efficient dairy cow waste composting model provided an important example. Bronx Frontier would go with the Scarab compost turning system captured on page 96 of a Bronx Museum of the Arts catalog shown below in the upper right corner.  Click on the image to enlarge it!
Bronx Frontier scarab machine in upper right corner
Beyond its better known Zoo Doo business, Bronx Frontier also sponsored nine parks (including Barretto Street Garden), ran nutrition programs (initiated by Irma Fleck), operated teen-age pregnancy prevention classes in public schools and community centers (T.A.P.P.), and operated a farmers market at the junction of Bruckner Boulevard and Longwood Avenue. Locals came to enjoy produce sold there sourced both from local community gardens and upstate farmers who would bring their product to the people. Fritz has long been interested in using fresh produce in the service of addressing health issues in the Latino and African-American communities.

Fritz-Earle S. McLymont
The ambition of the group may have been easier to manage because Fritz was deeply rooted in the community. He was one of the few staff members aside from first-line workers who lived in Hunt’s Point. What was his philosophy? “I can’t cook from the living room. I have to cook in the kitchen. If I’m going to work here, I’ve got to live here!” Spoken like a true Garveyite. When I asked what some of the highlights of his tenure (approximately three years) as Executive Director were, he said Zoo Doo and completing a fellowship at Pratt Institute in Community Economic Development offered to leaders like him. Always in good company, Fritz handed over power to his successor with a very stable national model of socially-responsible green business in partnership with major forces for good like Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Prospect Hospital
Prospect Hospital where Irma Fleck hatched Bronx Frontier.

Note: The author-interviewer, Morgan Powell, first learned of Zoo Doo as a teen summer participant in the Family Gardening program at the New York Botanical Garden around 1986.  His mother paid his tuition inspired by a neighbor’s child already in the program.

 

Two Young Farmers from NYC: Suga Ray and Raphael Aponte

Just Food hosted another well attended conference from April fifth to sixth. This year, it was held at Teachers College of Columbia University. I had the honor of brief interviews with one featured speaker and a farming student who attended. Suga Ray and Raphael Aponte are both attached to Just Food’s Farm School as current student and alumnus respectively. Here’s what they had to say!

Rafael Aponte

Rafael Aponte (Just Food Farm School class of 2012)
Rafael Aponte (age 30) of the Bronx, founded Rocky Acres Community Farm in May 2013 where he’s raising goats, peppers, onions, carrots, potatoes, basil, Mexican herbs, and cilantro varieties perfect for making sofrito. Other offerings like mushrooms are in development for future seasons—stay tuned! The interview below was conducted on Monday, April 7, 2014 at Giovanni’s Restaurant (579 Grand Concourse, Bronx).
Morgan Powell: How did you select your farm’s name?
Rafael Aponte: “Rocky Acres” was already a sign on site. We kept it. I would rather have a more revolutionary name but the neighbors wouldn’t be able to pronounce it. It’s pretty benign but we added the “community” part.
MP: What exposure to plants and farming did you have before Farm School?
RA: My mother maintained a “jungle” of houseplants which I played G.I. Joe in as a kid. We lived together near the Brook Avenue stop of the no. 6 train. At that time, my dad gardened in the Bruckner right-of-way before his garden got bull dozed, but I was not interested in his garden at all. When I got older and got my own apartment near Yankee Stadium, my mom gave me clippings or her plants. I got bitten by the gardening bug and I maintained those plants. Eventually, I was growing chili peppers and basil plants hydroponically. [laughter]

MP: Where did you attend high school and other schools?
RA: LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. I focused on visual arts: printmaking, illustration, graphic arts, and photography.

Illness informs my commitment to farming. My class was the last at the elementary school on the Grand Concourse at 148th Street; it was closed because of asbestos. I attended college before cancer made it impossible to sustain my academics. I’m fine now but it’s not normal to be diagnosed with cancer at eighteen year old. I’ve had asthma since elementary school. I grew up in a polluted environment with highways ringing the neighborhood, an active commercial incinerator, and other things in Mott Haven. Sometimes I have to pace myself to get through farming chores but I’ve learned to expand my lung capacity. It’s getting easier.

MP: How do you identify ethnically?
RA: Ethnically, I’m Puerto Rican. Racially, I self-identify as Black. My father is darker than me. Upstate, there are many places where people never see people of color. I think some people think I’m Pakistani. [laughter]

MP: What motivated you to attend Farm School?
RA: It happened by accident. I was working in after-school education in Washington Heights, helping the youth to prepare for and gain admission to college.  I took them to schools all around the region. Somehow, I developed an interest in beekeeping as it was becoming legal within city limits. I attended a conference at Hostos Community College (probably GreenThumb GrowTogether) where many groups were tabling on gardening. There was information about beekeeping there. I subsequently met someone through the Socialism Conference who connected me with Farm School NYC. I don’t think I’d be on a farm now if it had not been for Farm School. That’s where I met Jalal Sabur [seen to the far right in a panel picture that opens this article]. We went on to farm together with my partner Nandi Cohen, a Cornell U. professor, at Wassaic Community Farm.

MP: What is your food sovereignty vision?
RA: I want people to think about producing their own food. I think once you see what goes into your food, it’s paradigm shifting. I also want low income communities to choose where their food comes from. If I can meet them at the right price point to make it sustainable for Rocky Acres Farm, and their getting value for the volume of food they need to consume, I think it’s a win-win.

MP: What’s your strategy to produce and deliver veggies, herbs, and meat to low income communities?
RA: My market is low income residents of Ithaca, NY. New York City is too far away. Ithaca’s a small town and it’s different from the Bronx. It’s more people driven rather than institutionally-oriented. I’ve been talking to my barber about distributing out of the barber shop. In Ithaca, the farmer’s market is very well attended, but not by local people of color. I think it’s not inclusive.

MP: What has been your biggest surprise in farming?
RA: I almost feel my life has separated into before and after farming. I’ve had more than one friend visit me and be scared by the quiet of rural life. Also, there’s a grading system for livestock. It’s made me imagine how enslaved people were graded at slave markets in the past. The experience has grounded me.

MP: You’re seeing things a city person would not typically see. What are some things you wish were common knowledge in the Bronxes of America?
RA: I’ve become a steward of life. Everyone should be a part of that process: seeing seeds develop to maturity. I would like to see a student-centered approach to teaching. My exposure to other learning environments tells me a participatory approach is better than rote learning.

Suga Ray (Just Food Farm School class of 2015)
Suga Ray is passionate about community gardening as a vehicle to grow the best seeds of his beloved Queensbridge Houses on New York City’s East River. Originally from south Jamaica, Queens, his family moved to the iconic Long Island City public housing development when he was two years old. It’s been tradition there, like many neighborhoods throughout the city, to memorialize those who pass away before their natural time with bottles of alcohol and candles. But things are about to change in this corner of New York if Suga Ray has anything to do with it. In concert with a vocal local senior citizen, a more enduring ritual of remembrance is coming into view in the form of new community gardens at one of the largest public housing developments in all five boroughs. What became shabby with time will renew itself with constant love and care in the best traditions of community horticulture—that’s the power of living green that all the money spent on ghetto liquor can’t buy.

Suga Ray

These new spaces will serve many needs of a wider cross-section of local residents in all the color and joy of nature. Suga Ray sees these new spaces as therapy for the mentally ill, perpetual job training for an emerging workforce, seasonal work for the formerly enprisoned who need low barriers to career entry and a welcome environment, respite for the bereaved, and enhanced beauty for all to see! He’s dedicated to a multi-generational and multi-ethnic approach that’s already got precedent at Queensbridge Houses. A few modest green patches tended by residents exist. Now it is time to turn up the volume and expand the scale.

Suga Ray’s getting ready to lead this new era in local greening and he’s putting his time and other resources to work. He’s in his first year of training at Farm School with his eyes on the graduation prize for 2015. He’s also looking to share the message of health through life-affirming diet. Food related health and illness are foremost in his mind. A bell went off when an uncle and other cherished elders passed away from diet-related illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure. That bell had rung even earlier when he endured may months not able to walk from a pinched nerve that only improved when vegetables replaced meats in his own diet. Nearly four years later, he’s feeling his young age without back pain! Success in such an ambitious venture must mean collaboration so he’s linking up with others.
He’s been appointed International Director to Sacrit Kingz by Nyeesha Williams who earlier founded a national network dedicated to young girls called Sacrit Devahood, Inc. Kingz will be a hub of culinary arts, etiquette, arts and crafts based in New York City. These groups will assemble the resources to raise a greenhouse at Queensbridge and pay the locals who do the work. They’re not looking to re-invent the wheel.  Colleagues in Newark (New Jersey), Atlanta (Georgia), Los Angeles (California), and Uganda will be providing technical support where applicable. Stay tuned as this man builds his dream through his entertainment company and his blog.

 

 

5 Garden Tour of East New York, Brooklyn!

The old towns of Brooklyn DSCN8495

This article is about a free public tour of 5 diverse community gardens.  Each one thrives with activity and showcases traditional and non-traditional techniques and plants!
Date/Time: Saturday, June 28, 2014 from 10 a.m. – Noon.
Location: Tour will assemble inside UCC Youth Farm (600 Schenck Avenue, 11207) between Livonia and New Lots Avenues.
Tour leader: Morgan Powell – aabgamp@hotmail.com

Visitors congregate within UCC Youth Farm (established in 1998) located at Schenck Avenue between Livonia & New Lots avenues by the tracks of the no.3 train line.

Hello Neighbors and Friends:

My name is Morgan Powell.  Local gardeners and I will be your host for the next two magical hours as we survey five community gardens here in East New York. I came to know this urban village as a journalist with Our Time Press newspaper covering  African Burial Ground Square across the street last fall.  Perhaps you read that story in the Amsterdam News? First time visitors to East New York may have recently seen or read about the street dance film Flex is Kings.  East New York is making the news: today we will hear much more good news.

You’re about to tour a united nations of food production for every taste and style. This is a diverse community consisting of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Caribbean-Americans (Aruba, St. Vincent, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc.), Dominicans, Mexicans, Central and South Americans (Guatemala, Peru, etc.), people from the Indian Subcontinent of Asia (Bangladesh, etc.), and beyond. We’ll visit 5 to celebrate traditions from the past and ones emerging now. Honey, fruit, chickens, vegetables, and more await!

East New York Farms

We are overjoyed to have you on this Jane Jacobs Walk!
Jane Jacobs Walks are a program of the Center for the Living City, a nonprofit organization created by people who knew the urban planning reformer Jane Jacobs. They celebrate her life and legacy by helping people organize walks in their communities like this one.  These walks honor Jacobs by helping people find community in shared experience on foot. Their mission is to help people walk, observe, and connect with their community and environment. Jacobs Walks inspire people to make a difference because these public programs help community members discover and respond to the complexities of their city and environment through personal and shared observation.

East NY Farms

 

This walk is a collaboration among UCC Youth Farm; GreenThumb of the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation; New York Restoration Project; and Cypress Hills LDC.

DSCNEast New York Farms Mural8960

 

 

Has everyone had a chance to walk around and look at the marvels surrounding us here at UCC Youth Farm?  It’s the perfect place to meditate on the infrastructure of plant cultivation and consumption!  Check out the greenhouse, storm water harvesting system, rich soil, tool storage facility, beehive, and planting beds.  This is a complete urban farming environment!  There’s even on-site carpentry; behold the colorful arbor in the middle of the farm supporting two walls of vines!

Bees at UCC Youth Farm!

Those key capacities make the farm run.  Have you seen the beehive?

Lenape Indians

Where does your mind go as you look around?  As I look at the composting operation, I imagine four centuries of Brooklyn farming.  Growing food is nothing new in this land.  The Lenape Indians were masters of sustainable agriculture for more than 1,500 years prior to the first European visit.  Tribes with names like Rockaway and Canarsie brilliantly inter-planted beans, squash, and corn in harmony with the soil and nourishing to their bodies.  You can get a glimpse at their sacred lives at the Eastern Woodland Indians exhibit of the American Museum of Natural History just a subway ride away!

 

Duth Reformed Church since 1824

Let’s look across the street.  Consider this old fashioned church building  (now New Lots Community Church) on New Lots Avenue off Schenck Avenue covered in wooden boards painted white.  The Dutch Reformed Church was the state religion of colonial Holland.  Their descendents built this building in 1824.  Its cemetery contains clearly visible monuments from Dutch and Anglo farming families–dependent on African labor and crafts–whose names grace many local streets like: Van Siclen (Avenue), Barbey (St.), Hegeman (Avenue), Blake (Avenue), and Snediker (Avenue).  The Schenck family–one of the largest slave holders of old Brooklyn from the 1600s to  the 1800s– is dually preserved in time.  Aside from their commemorative street name, two of their family’s homes stand within the Brooklyn Museum complete with furniture, textiles and cooking implements to be visited by you year round.  Historic local African families’ identities are not as well known.  Their remains lie beneath Schenck Park and library across the street.  See an 1890 photo of an African-American farm worker in Brooklyn below.  Signage is just beginning to emerge as plans advance for a completely renovated commemorative park there led by City Councilwoman Inez Barron.  Learn more about Brooklyn street names in the pages of Brooklyn by Name!

19th century African-American Farmer

The book Cabbages and Kings also helps us see that Brooklyn was a major farming society as late as 1890.  See the diagram below.  It shows a 19th century East New York farm when the land was still called the Town of New Lots and not yet incorporated into New York City.  It’s declared on page two that, “In 1880, Brooklyn was the second largest producer of vegetables, after Queens county.”  If you ask why most people living today would not image Brooklyn that way, the same page reads, “By 1939, Brooklyn was America’s fifth largest manufacturing center.”  The borough we see today was so completely transformed by industrialization and all that followed that its easy not to see what preceded that revolution.

Nineteenth century farm in East NY

Before we visit our next site, let’s contemplate similarities between this urban farm beneath our feet and a local nineteenth century one depicted to the right (from Cabbages and Kings).  Notice New Lots Road (now New Lots Avenue) in the bottom of the page.  Many families built their homes on this main street and had their farms extend behind.  On close inspection, we see a variety of farm structures but the plants listed offer a surprise.  It’s either an arboretum or an ornamental tree nursery growing apples, pears, cherries, mulberries, black walnuts, maples, spruces, tulip trees, locusts and what became a notorious weed–ailanthus!  The white-flowered tree, a native cherry, pictured below is among the thousands of local food sources for the birds of East New York along America’s Atlantic migration route.  East New York is feeding more than humans.  We will see many ornamental and fruit trees along this walk.  Some are street trees, others are in gardens!

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Walking instructions: cross Livonia Avenue and stop at gate to New Vision Garden, also on Schenck Avenue.

New Visions Community GardenStop 2: New Vision Garden (Schenck Avenue and Livonia Avenue)
This place is the showcase of garden coordinators Eliza Butler and Natasha Hescott!  It was founded in 1992.  Like many gardens, this is a civic commons—see the stage!  The birdhouse and semi-mature trees make this as a welcome local nature habitat for birds and pollinators.  New Vision is emblematic of many NYC community gardens in that it was established during the early 1990s when many similar urban communities across America rebuilt themselves after decades of building social capital and political strength.

Walking instructions: Continue along Schenck Avenue one block to Dumont Avenue, then turn right. Note the unsigned community garden of Barbey Street Block Association where gardener Don likes to say they grow “southern vegetables: cucumbers, tomatoes, and collard greens.”  Continue two more blocks along Dumont Avenue, then make a left onto Warwick Street. The walk to Pitkin Avenue will pass Warwick Green Glow garden which is in need of new gardeners.  There are demographic shifts happening in our city– a few other once vital garden spaces need new energy too.  We’ll soon pass Gregory’s Garden (off Belmont Avenue) where many bird feeders abound. Make a right on Pitkin Avenue.  Halfway down the block stands the tour’s newest garden (founded in 2012):

The People's Garden
Stop 3: El Jardin del Pueblo/The People’s Garden (2358-2362 Pitkin Avenue just between Warwick and Ashford streets)
This is the newest site we’re touring together.  It was founded in 2012.  The power of teenagers is on display here.  They are the primary chicken coup minders.  Adult garden members feed chickens and supply them fresh water on weekends making a complete system.  The People’s Garden is following a centuries-old local tradition of keeping livestock.  The book A History of New Lots Brooklyn by Landesman tells us local farms included dairy cows, chickens, horses, swine, and oxen.  We also learn they grew corn, wheat, potatoes, and a wide range of market vegetables aside from hay for on-site use.

Aida and the chickens

One can see the advantages of strong institutional support.  Like UCC Youth Farm, there is running water and an exceptional level of maintenance and capital investment.  Both sites have greenhouses and substantial storm water collection and distribution systems.  Climate, soil, water, and sunlight determine garden character.  This one can be very windy.

Large colorful murals are a big part of the community garden tradition (as at Triple R depicted below near our route).  Here, you’ll find a big and beautiful one.  This is a great space to acknowledge an important partner to local gardens.  They’re ARTs East New York.

Triple R Community Garden

Walking instructions: cross to the other side of Pitkin Avenue at the next light walking in the same direction as before.  Beyond Ashford Street and at the corner of Cleveland Street stands Floral Vineyard Garden.

Floral Vinyard Garden
Stop 4: Floral Vineyard Community Garden (2381 Pitkin Avenue @ Cleveland Street)
You’ve arrived at the newest showcase of Isabahlia Ladies of Elegance Foundation who are the main care-takers here beginning 2013. Previously, neighbors knew this garden as the beauty patch of Mother Oliver who worships at the Baptist church next door. Other gardeners worked with her to green this multi-generational space on a busy commercial street. This garden’s struggles and triumphs exemplify many of the same maturity. Ms. Oliver began gardening here in 1992 as “something to do after work.” Shade trees, benches, a sun shelter, a shed, built-in oven and pergola for vines reflect the many ways this garden is enjoyed! What is the traditional harvest here? She loves growing flowers and edibles like cucumbers, bitter melons, lima beans, black-eyed peas, and much more. She grew up with horticulture in her native Georgia where she grew cotton, corn, peanuts, tomatoes, peas, beans, and turnips until her early twenties.

Walking instructions: Our final destination shares Cleveland Street just yards away one-third into Cleveland on the opposite side of the street and away from busy Pitkin Avenue.

 

Cleveland Vegetable GardenConclude: Cleveland Vegetable Garden (433 Cleveland Street off Pitkin Avenue)
Cleveland Vegetable Garden is the domain of Ms. Sampson and friends!  Garden fresh cooking follows the relaxed activity of this bountiful lot.  Gardening is all about collaboration.

This and many sites, benefit from periodic support from Brooklyn GreenBridge, the NYC Compost Project, the Citizen’s Committee for New York City, Grow NYC, and  Build it Green (has become a reliable source of wood to neighboring gardens in recent years too).  The NYC Community Garden Coalition is an advocacy group gardeners can join and leverage political power through as well.
Transportation Options

B15 bus @ intersection of New Lots Ave. and Schenck Avenue

No.3 train to Van Siclen to arrive/ C train at Shepherd Avenue to get home after tour

Cabs Services of East New York: 810 (718-235-5000) and New Lots (718-272-2222)

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There are many more community gardens within East New York.  We encourage you to explore!  Morgan Powell dedicates this tour to Wangari Maathai!

 

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New Stories of Exceptional Women: the Bronx River as oracle

Bronx River Map courtesy Bronx River AllianceEvery day—both during and beyond Women’s History Month—let’s consider our women’s lives.  This article will take you on a journey of New York City’s only freshwater river to the places where many diverse notables have worked.  Sometimes they are sites where national figures have been kept in sacred memory.  This pantheon of Great Americans can enrich our lives today if we have the courage to hear their voices.

Portraits like Diane Sargent’s (shown below text) will illustrate the lands coursed by the Bronx River (map at left courtesy Bronx River Alliance) in New York City as a network of beauty and conscience.

Sargent is known as a force for good at the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality in the 90s and early 2000s.  She served as project director of the Bronx Greenway Plan (1993) consolidating ambitious goals for the expansion of the Bronx’s many large criss-crossing linear parks. This plan represents three years of collaboration with borough-wide community boards.  It set standards for many subsequent improvements.  Diane owns a real estate consulting business in the Kingsbridge district, is a history buff and environmental justice pioneer. She says, “You can get a lot done if you don’t need to get credit…that’s the kind of person I am…I’m a doer.”

  Madam C.J. Walker

Welcome back to Bronx River Sankofa!  We were born from The BAAHP (Bronx African-American History Project).

The BAAHP is dedicated to uncovering the cultural, political, economic, and religious histories of the more than 500,000 people of African descent in the Bronx.  The BAAHP encourages, promotes, and builds partnerships between Fordham University, the Bronx County Historical Society, and diverse African-descended community leaders, citizens, organizations, and elected officials from around the city and especially in the Bronx.

 

MOUNT VERNON has been home to many prominent citizens of New York State including Phylicia Rashad (actress), Adam Clayton Powell (statesman), Ossie Davis (socially conscious actor), Ruby Dee (socially conscious actress), Robin Givens (actress), Denzel Washington (actor), Sidney Poitier (actor) and New York State Senator Ruth Hassel Thompson.  Ms. Thompson follows in the tradition of her predecessor William White Niles in consistently supporting the Bronx Zoo’s free public programs.  This riverside Westchester County’s heritage includes Malcom X’s wife and children who moved there after his martyrdom.  Dr. Betty Shabazz moved her girls from Queens to a leafy private home where they played outside regularly and were expected to do yard work.  Ilyasah Shabazz (born 1962) is the third daughter.  She has published a coming of age tale entitled Growing Up XIlyasah was once Director of Public Relations for the City of Mount Vernon and has been an executive of CUNY’s Black Male Initiative. Mount Vernon is a great place to study the last century of conditions for the African-American middle class in America as written about in books like Black on the Block.

 

WOODLAWN CEMETERY offers us dozens of African-American twentieth century icons including an international businesswoman, an industrialist, one who lived through Victorian-era America, an international performing artist, and a key patron of the Harlem Renaissance, among others!

Bricktop (a businesswoman)“Bricktop” (Ada Duconge) (1895-1984) Zinnia section

Bricktop was a Harlem Renaissance patron like A’Lelia Walker (daughter to America’s first self-made woman millionaire Madam C.J. Walker).  They both helped finance Harlem Renaissance writers, plays, singers, and visual artists.  She was a legendary singer and nightclub owner known for entertaining the rich, famous and talented in her Paris, Rome and Mexico City jazz clubs. Cole Porter wrote “Miss Otis Regrets” especially for her.  Noel Coward, the Duke of Windsor, Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington were among her patrons.  Did you see her homage scene in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris?

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) Butternut section

Through her hair and cosmetics business, Ms. Walker amassed the largest self-made fortune of any American woman of any race in her day.  She began selling her products door-to-door, eventually establishing a major corporation in Indianapolis, and moving to New York where she built her beautiful Irvington estate, “Villa Lewaro.” Madam Walker was generous to many charities, donating funds to preserve the Frederick Douglass home as a museum, funding scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute and supporting the NAACP. 

Alina C. Martin (?-1882) is buried in the di Zerega family plot near the Webster Avenue gate to Woodlawn Cemetery.  Martin may have worked the east Bronx DiZerega estate (built after emancipation in New York State) in what is now Ferry Point Park.  Many Caribbean and native-born domestic trades professionals worked the homes and gardens of early industrialists before mass transit transformed places like Hunt’s Point and Throggs Neck into densely settled neighborhoods.

Florence Mills (1895-1927) Arbutus section

Known as the “Queen of Happiness”, she was among the 1920’s most popular entertainers. Mills was a singer, dancer, and vaudevillian who starred in several productions in New York and London. Duke Ellington wrote “Black Beauty” as a tribute to Mills.  Six carloads of flowers were brought to her grave; Ethel Waters was an honorary pall bearer and James Weldon Johnson attended the service.  Over 10,000 people paid tribute to her at the funeral chapel and when she was laid to rest a plane flew over Woodlawn dropping rose petals on her grave.

A’Lelia Walker Robinson (1885-1931) Butternut section

The only daughter of Madam C.J. Walker, A’Lelia used her inherited wealth to promote art and culture during the Harlem Renaissance. Among A’Lelia Robinson’s circle of friends were Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten, and Langston Hughes who is reported to have thought that the renaissance died with her.

 

WAKEFIELD and WILLIAMSBRIDGE are important neighborhoods in all of the Bronx for many reasons.  Here, you will find some of the very few public buildings and a park named for African-Americans including a Willie Bowman (Civic leader) school, Albert Tuitt, Sr. (publisher of the Bronx’s last Black newspaper) school, and Agnes Haywood Playground named for a major civic leader of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.  She helped found the Williamsbridge branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People aka The NAACP and attended to wide-ranging social services needs through the local branch of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).

Jessie Collins, BXRR Board MemberOur green profile in this section of the Bronx River corridor is Jessie W. Collins, a Baychester resident and educator who grew up in Alabama.  She settled in the Bronx by her 20s. She was a Bronx River Restoration Project, Inc. (BXRR) board member from 1983 – 2003 making many important decisions about budget and group direction among a board she respected highly.  Ms. Collins is a former Edenwald Houses Community Center administrator who then taught Special Education at J. P. Sousa Junior High School in Baychester through summer 2011.  Her son, now a civil servant, worked for a summer on the Bronx River in the 1980s.  Many youth from Edenwald Houses have worked on the Bronx River over many years partly due to her collaboration with the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program.  Collins remains dedicated to community development via parks.  Today, she leads the Friends of Haffen Park near the New England Thruway in a part of Baychester often called the Valley.  Teaching youth to identify tree and bird species is a focus of this group.

 

NORWOOD/ BEDFORD PARK/ FORDHAM

Having Our Say bookSarah “Sadie” Delany’s (1989-1999) life graced the Broadway stage when her biography Having Our Say: the DeLany Sisters’ First 100 Years captured the American imagination in the 1990s.  That book and play provides us with a rare published account of race in the NYC public school system.  In chapter eighteen, we learn in hilarious detail, that Ms. Delany integrated the teaching staff at Theodore Roosevelt High School on Fordham Road during the Great Depression when the demographics of that neighborhood were very different.  It reads, “I became the first colored school teacher in the New York City system to teach [home economics] at the high school level.”  Her final Board of Education position was at Evander Childs High School–also a Bronx River watershed neighborhood–where she retired in 1960.

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, was published in September of 1993, and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over six months.

 

NEW YORK BOTANICAL GARDEN

Therese Lemelle is the former Art Director (1997-2000) at NYBG.  She wrote the graphic standards for NYBG publications and branding including grounds signage.  She believs in sourcing materials and professional services locally.  To that end, she redirected large printing contracts to a Morris Park (Bronx) vendor among many initiatives while saving the institution money.  Among her many projects in print from that period are illustrated color books including The Conifer Arboretum and A Visit to the Garden.  This adoptive Bronxite has taught graphic design at a mid-Manhattan college among her many distinguished projects.  Originally from Westchester, Therese holds a BA in interior design and Masters in visual communication.  She continues to work in the Bronx, having had a distinguished career including work at the Hostos Art Gallery and with the Bronx Council on the Arts.

Jessye Norman‘s (1945 – ) NYBG projects are summarized in “Were Pollen and Allergies a Problem in Eden, Too?” by Christopher Mason in the pages of the New York Times.  Mason wrote, “Ms. Norman, one of the world’s best known sopranos…[is] a trustee of the garden…[and a] Phalaenopsis…known as the Jessye Norman orchid.”  The story continues “Referring to the concert that Ms. Norman has agreed to give at Avery Fisher Hall a year from now to benefit the New York Botanical Garden, [Gregory Long, garden president] said that her contributions as a board member are highly prized.  ‘When she’s not traveling, she attends board meetings, and we don’t find her to be diva-like in the least…She understands the value of her celebrity to us as an institution, and she’s very generous with it.  There’s no ego about it.  The truth is that no one is more congenial or ready to capitalize on their acclaim in the community than Mrs. Astor and Jessye Norman.'”   NYBG’s Winter 2011 newsletter listeded Ms. Norman among the Distinguished Counsellors to the Board.

 Karen Washington, BUGs

Karen Young-Washington, is a co-founder of the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners (BUGs), and active on the boards of Just Food, the NYC Community Garden Coalition, and the New York Botanical Garden.  Sister Washington has lived in the Bronx since 1985 and saw Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer’s legacy project Bronx Green-Up (BGU) begin.  BGU helped her establish the Garden of Happiness (with forty 6′ X 8′ plots) in 1989 on her home block as one of its first efforts.  She also partners with BGU on BX Community Board 6′s community multi-cultural gardener’s association La Familia Verde Garden Coalition The Coalition is associated with a health fair, fire safety instruction, a food pantry, and a Cornell Extension program to teach young scientists about gardening and nutrition.  This native New Yorker has been a physical therapist for over thirty-seven years.  In Greening the Bronx (Bronx Times June 8, 2006; Ciafardini, Bobby), Washington declared “Bronx Green-Up turned me into an activist…my involvement has expanded my horizons.” 

           
ALLERTON – BRONXDALE

At Home in Utopia documentary

Madrue Chavers-Wright (1916?-1989?) was the daughter of a major African-American Chicago journalist, industrialist, and banker who established a rural summer camp for children.  She wrote a family biography called The Guarantee centered on her father, P.W. Chavers.  He was an early advocate for protecting all of our bank deposits through what became the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  She made her career in social services and was a charter member of the National Association of Social Workers, active with the Social Workers for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, and a Representative to the United Nations.  She was also a Corporate Member of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  This paragon of twentieth-century African-American mobility and civic virtue lived simply in the tan brick cooperative residential tower located at 2410 Barker Avenue between Allerton Avenue and Pelham Parkway.  Her life forces all to consider the complexity of the whole Bronx African-American community because she was NOT unusual.

 

WEST FARMS/ FORDHAM/ TREMONT

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (1930 – 1965) was an African-American playwright and political activist from Chicago for whom biographies have been written.  She is memorialized in the Lorraine Hansberry Academy (originally IS 167, later IS 200, and finally PS 214 and Emolier Academy).  This landmark commands one the busiest intersections anywhere in the Bronx at 1970 West Farms Road, Bronx NY 10460.  She came from a proud family who demanded full access to American society; her father fought residential discrimination and two other relatives were charter members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). 

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry

She lived in Greenwich Village (Manhattan) and Croton on Hudson nearby.  Her husband attended a commemorative service for her shortly after the school opened very much as Paul Robeson visited a junior high school in Mott Haven (Bronx) named for him shortly after it opened.  Distinguished graduates include Princess Jenkins (owner of the Brownstone boutique on 125th st. near 5th Ave.), Vronzella Ross (of Teacher’s Paradise store across the street), Raheim of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Richard Alomar (landscape architect).  This school, originally appointed with wall to wall carpeting, was endowed with excellent music and art programs and an active wood shop during it’s first decade. An alumnus says it was very similar to today’s Calhoun School in Manhattan where they use a progressive approach to education that attends to the intellectual, emotional and social growth of its students as individuals and as members of a larger society.  

 

CROTONA PARK EAST – BRONX RIVER

Genevieve Brooks (later married as Genevieve S. Brooks – Brown) is credited with helping to bring the central Bronx back from the ashes.  She is standing to the far right in the picture below wearing black in front of a Charlotte Gardens home.  Together with an openly gay African-American owner of several Crotona Park East buildings named Eae J. Mitchell, and others, she formed MBD Community Housing Corporation (originally Mid-Bronx Desperadoes) before taking office as the Bronx’s first female Deputy Borough President in 1990.

 Genevieve Brooks

While MBD operates several apartment buildings and has initiated new public parks, and more, their signature project is the Charlotte Gardens housing development.  Charlotte Gardens boasts several blocks of 1.5 – 2 story private houses bordering Crotona Park where mass media recorded urban decay surrounding President Carter’s 1977 visit.  Ms. Brooks helped found Saebury Child Care which is still going strong, however she began her housing activism at the building where she lived around 1960, 1335 Seabury Place on Boston Road.

Her community development work is written about in books like South Bronx Rising.

 

The Chiffons (Doo Wop singers) were one of the top girl groups of the early 1960s. With their trademark tight harmonies, high-stepping confidence and the hit machine of Goffin and King writing songs such as “One Fine Day,” the Chiffons made music that helped define their era.  These ladies began singing together at James Monroe High School in 1960 and lived in the Bronx River Houses.  See their Wikipedia bio for more information!

 Cerita Parker (MOMS)

LONGWOOD/ HUNT’S POINT/ SOUNDVIEW

We humans are intrinsic to nature though modern culture creates undue separations.  Locally-focused progressive groups like Mothers on the Move (MOMs) help moderate that distance.

MOMs member, Rita Veras, works to transform public school inequalities and other social injustices by organizing within a democratic model. She says, when the organization found out that members’ children were not doing well, the organization began to ask parents what they could do to make change.

Today, corrupt Dept. of Education administrators from an earlier period of protracted unaccountability are gone. New leadership administers local schools.  There’s better commitment to distributing resources more equitably. Reading and math scores have risen.

Decent housing, traffic safety and environmental justice campaigns have led to other changes in the neighborhood such as renovated buildings, several redeveloped and new parks, and safer streets. These changes were the result of organizing by MOM – a determined group of parents and community residents who refused to let their community’s children be victims of neglect.

Celia Cruz (1926-2003) The “Queen of Salsa”  from Cuba, once lived at 786 Prospect Avenue above Casa Amadeo, a Latin music store that has retained a sense of heritage since that neighborhood was a crucible of Afro-Caribbean music.  For over fifty years, she performed with highly celebrated bands. Her most enduring performances were with “El Maestro,” the legendary Tito Puente. This Grammy winning artist was known for her flashy stage costumes, colorful wigs and her signature cry, “Azucaar!”  Proud of her African heritage, a large Coptic cross adorns her tomb at Woodlawn Cemetery.

 Tanya Fields - The Blk Projek

Who’s up for good food?  Tanya Fields, 33 years old, is bringing the South Bronx Mobile Market to her community in glorious yummy color!  Her forty foot blue bus covered in fun-loving plant paintings sells fresh locally harvested veggies to points in the southeast Bronx.  The New York Times chronicled this venture of her company, the Blk Projek, in its first several weeks of operation, however Tanya’s not new on the scene.  She wrote about earlier efforts to establish an urban farm in the Longwood neighborhood in The Next Eco Warriors: 22 Young Men and Women Who are Saving the Planet published in 2011.  Yes, she was eventually granted land for her dream in 2013 very near the Simpson Street station of the numbers 2 and 5 trains…urban farmers are invited to join her!

What’s it all about?  The Blk Projek seeks to create economic opportunities that address food justice, environmental justice and public and mental health needs. This  empowers under-served women of color by creating businesses in the forms of small food enterprises, urban agriculture, political education, community beautification and holistic health programs.  By creating wealth and equal access to these enriching experiences, they strengthen and empower society as a whole.

You can see there’s a lot going on down by the riverside…and we only scratched the surface!  The poster immediately below was prepared for a 2013 event at the Langston Hughes Library in Corona Queens where this blog’s focus was first presented to the public in greater details.  Thanks for visiting.

Exceptional Women poster

 

Diane Sargent helped assemble the BX Greenway Plan. Photo taken 2013.
Diane Sargent helped write the Bronx Greenway Plan. Photo taken 2013.
Bronx Greenway Plan
Bronx Greenway Plan of 1993

Bronx Greenway Plan

Plants and People, remembering the Bronx River’s African-American Heritage

All known records for Bronx walking tour attendance were shattered on March 12, 2011.  Over one-hundred and ten people joined the first tour to outline eras of importance in the history of African-Americans along the Bronx River.  From Soundview north to the Westchester border, many people of African descent have called these landscapes home.  Kicking off at historic Boston Road in the Allerton neighborhood and concluding where the famous New York Draft Riots blew up far from Manhattan, walkers made their own soundtrack.  What sound?  Old time instrument sounds! 

          Plant materials turned instruments carried the beat.  Let’s get in tune with those processed vegetables simple and grand.  Tambourines’ wooden frames and hollow-gourded maracas blended with cracking acorns beneath so many feet along the way.  This place-based tour and related research are known as Bronx River Sankofa*.  Sankofa includes many stories of people’s plant life: ones harnessed to make necessities, medicines, and more.  We will explore and imagine what these plants may have meant beyond pure economics, and how we came to conserve them.

          This blog you are reading is a remembrance.  It will feature both community sketches and personal profiles…as they unfolded in time.  Hear the sounds of times past by clicking on the period headings (i.e. Colonial New York; Revolution, Emancipation, and Civil War, etc.) for each section.  This essay is a combination of Bronx County Historical Society published works and a decade of independent research by a Bronx African-American History Project Community Researcher.      

 Lenape Indian home

1613-1783 Colonial New York

African-Americans have helped shape the society we now call the Bronx since 1670 when the first of them arrived as involuntary laborers from the island of Barbados to work the 1,920 acre Manor of Morrisania under sugar merchants Lewis Morris and family, who brought them.  To imagine that homestead, visit the Valentine-Varian House in Norwood.  That two and a half story Georgian-styled farmhouse with characteristic symmetrical design was established in 1758.  The original owner’s (Isaac Valentine) land extended east to the Bronx River just like the Morris holdings.  Valentine was a blacksmith.  Furnaces were dependent on large quantities of wood to support the fires that melted metal for horse shoes, tools, cooking implements, carriage axles, etc..   According to Prof. Lloyd Ultan, the eight slaves he held were far fewer in number than the Morris family held.  Farming was important at both sites.  Crops of the period included beans, wheat, corn, tobacco, rye, barley, apples, and pears.  In this pre-industrial period, most materials used for all purposes were simple.  Even the component parts of a common boat could be discerned largely by sight and simple inspection.  Here’s another instance in which locally harvested trees were important.  Native pine, hickory and oak species were plentiful.  Some enslaved Africans were boatmen, navigating sloops filled with produce and dry goods up and down the Hudson River.  They worked sawmills and gristmills beginning at today’s 182nd Street.  They cut lumber into logs and ground rye into flour and corn into meal.  There, large grinding stones were powered by the Bronx River.  In an age of simple transport and semi-locally-oriented economies, these early industries were crucial to the lives of all settlers.  The mills of West Farms are one reason it became an early population center amid virgin forests and wetlands elsewhere in what would become the Bronx.  Do you know the Bronx Zoo (Wildlife Conservation Society) on the Bronx River Parkway at Fordham Road?  These 265 acres include much of the former slave-estate of James DeLancey and extended family.  One indicator of the centrality of bound labor to that early economic system comes to us in a run-away notice published by John P. Delancey in the 1813 pages of the West-Chester Patriot (Source: Annotated Primary Source Documents by Anthony C. Greene).   

Natural wealth

1784-1865 Revolution, Emancipation and Civil War

Isaac Varian was the second owner of what we enjoy today as the old stone Museum of Bronx History at 3266 Bainbridge Ave, Bronx, NY 10467.  Holding three involuntary African laborers, he re-established this vast holding, stretching north to Yonkers, as a source of meat for markets along the original Boston Road route, and possibly Manhattan.  Varian was a butcher.  Some portion of the livestock feed—including the crops mentioned earlier—would have been produced on site.  Natural springs and the Bronx River itself would have supplied water. 

Historic Black New York

1866-1916 Raising the Roof: establishing independent churches

A quantity of fireplace timber would have heated the Bronx’s first known independent African-American church during the Victorian era.  Later, carpentry adapted early homes to three more Black churches we can visit today!  Woodlawn Cemetery’s 1882 burial of Alina C. Martin in the DiZerega plot provides a great opportunity to consider Centreville African Methodist Episcopal Church, probably established in the 1850s, which appears on maps by 1868.  That A.M.E. church was sited to the NE of today’s Parkchester development at a provincial commercial center convenient to a good number of African-American service professionals (coach-drivers, horse-tenders, butlers, maids, others) working on the estates of the east Bronx then.  It was a time when newly established commuter trains, ferries, and private ships made many waterfront Bronx communities convenient and desirable to Manhattan’s executive classes on par with Oyster Bay, Long Island.  Martin may have worked the DiZerega estate, Island Hall, in what became Ferry Point Park in the twentieth century.

           The “three more black churches” cited are now over one-hundred years old including: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Butler Memorial Church, and Trinity Baptist Church.

Old school learning

1917-1938 War, Renaissance, and Depression

This too was a heyday of carpentry as ambitious African-Americans began to move to the central Bronx from Harlem, the American south and the Caribbean.  Artist Jacob Lawrence dramatized this period in his Great Migration series.  A privileged minority bought existing wood-frame houses where they exhibited their class identity and aspirations. Between 1920 and 1921, they landmarked their arrival when St. David’s Episcopal Church (founded 1895) erected a building for those too dark for Harlem’s elite St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.  This Mediterranean-derived brick and timber one-level house of worship was designed by New York State’s first registered Black architect Vertner Tandy.  Wooden beams both acquired and custom-built came to hold up community pride as much as weight.   

Carver bust at the Hall of Fame

1939-1965 Getting organized, expanding opportunity

This was the heyday of domestic horticulture for all social classes.  In this period, municipal housing projects had their own tree care crew and larger maintenance staffs.  An expanding middle class of African descendant New Yorkers from various points in the diaspora bought large numbers of private houses in the north and east Bronx and Mount Vernon.  Lawns were neat and flowers were abundant.

1980 poster @ W. Farms Rapids Park

1966-1985 Movement Years

Afro-Caribbean music—largely played with the kinds of instruments that opened this article—was preserved when Casa Amadeo was established in 1969.  Mike Amadeo, music writer and guitar player bought and renamed this existing Latin music shop where one can still find the best of the old and new.  Standing outside after-hours, you can often hear live sessions in the same building once occupied by Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. 

          Earth Day was established in 1970.  Burgeoning eco-awareness was highly visible in a wide array of new or expanded permanent initiatives from the Bronx Council on Environmental Quality to Pelham Bay Park.  Many groups began to focus on restoring the Bronx River.  In 1974, the Bronx River Restoration Project (BXRR) was established by Ruth Anderberg.  BXRR was as committed to documenting and stewarding the plants along the banks as the water flowing between them.  Fred Singleton, Project Dir. assembled summer youth employment program members and Boy Scouts to rehabilitate an original Bronx River Parkway path from 1925.  Their riverside work between Gun Hill Road & Allerton Avenue was captured in a 1983 (August 18 Metro section) NY Daily News article entitled “60 Bronx youths are on right path.”

Historic Charlotte Gardens

1986-1997 Civic Renewal

Let’s talk science and ornamental horticulture!  Jamaican-born Vietnam War veteran Keith Lloyd was the founding curator of the orchid collection at New York Botanical Garden (N.Y.B.G.). He vested four and a half years in the American Air Force, seventeen at Lenox Hill Hospital as a medical technician and twenty years at N.Y.B.G. including studies at its School of Horticulture through 2000.

           Keith’s been a community gardener on the Upper East side in the 90s and loves poetry and literature which he often recited as he worked.  Brother Keith (he prefers being addressed less formally) was aided in his efforts by African-American soprano opera singer Jessye Norman (NYBG distinguished adviser) who donated several orchid specimens and even gave a fundraiser concert for the Garden in1998 at Lincoln Center. Keith’s legacy is large. Today, his work and the projects he initiated helps N.Y.B.G. raise large sum$.  The orchid cases at the Library Building rotunda around which numerous earned income activities are held and a second live display within the Conservatory were begun during his tenure.  Orchids (Orchidacea) are the largest family of flowering plants, with approximately 30,000 species found on every continent except Antarctica. Orchids come in many different sizes, shapes and colors. The Sarah Davis Smith Orchid Collection he cultivated remains vast, featuring representative examples of the orchid flora of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Americas.

Dr. Kobe Abdul-Salim, is an ivy league-trained botanist (graduated circa 2003) who taught a few classes at N.Y.B.G..  A field botanist, part of his research is concerned with associations between plant communities in Africa and South America including St. John’s Wort and Symphomia.  Dr. Abdul-Salim taught classes in the continuing education dept., roughly, between 2004 and 2011.  He is from Harlem and also briefly taught at a mid-western university.

Karen Young-Washington, is a co-founder of the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners (BUGs), and active on the boards of Just Food, the NYC Community Garden Coalition, and the New York Botanical Garden.  Sister Washington has lived in the Bronx since 1985 and saw Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer’s legacy project Bronx Green-Up (BGU) begin.  BGU helped her establish the Garden of Happiness (with forty 6′ X 8′ plots) in 1989 (transferred to Parks in 1998) on her home block as one of its first efforts.  She also partners with BGU on BX Community Board 6’s community multi-cultural—her neighborhood is increasingly Latino/a—gardener’s association La Familia Verde Garden Coalition.  The Coalition is associated with a health fair, fire safety instruction, a food pantry, and a Cornell Extension program to teach young scientists about gardening and nutrition.  This native New Yorker has been a physical therapist for over thirty-seven years.  In Greening the Bronx (Bronx Times June 8, 2006; Ciafardini, Bobby), Washington declared “Bronx Green-Up turned me into an activist…my involvement has expanded my horizons.” 

Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference

1998-Present  Fast Changes: steps forward and back

The foods of an exploding immigrant population from continental Africa is bringing the Bronx new spices sold in specialty grocers and restaurants run by these New Yorkers.  Meanwhile, neo-conservative policy at the national and state level reveals its truths in greater dependence on food stamps for more locals. 

          The career of Charles Vasser and the Butterfly Project are emblematic of the Bronx since 1998.  Chuck is the former Director of Community Affairs (promoted from Human Resources Director) at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo.  He was an Executive Committee member and Vice-Chairman to the Bronx River Working Group and a charter board member to the Bronx River Alliance whose articles of Incorporation he signed.

          Chuck worked at the Zoo for twenty years.  He started his career at the South Bronx Development Organization near his native Morrisania.  Growing up, he often visited Crotona Park where he grew vegetables in the community garden which still exists there.  Vasser was a tenant organizer in the 1970s and 1980s and has coached basketball for decades.  This Bronx Community College alumnus was instrumental in founding the Butterfly Project with a student researcher at Fordham University and many others.  The project has seen many plantings of butterfly friendly plants and habitats in community gardens throughout the Bronx as well as a substantial and extensive indoor and outdoor Butterfly exhibit at the zoo (rebuilt in 2004).  Vasser’s impact on regional pollinator-friendly gardening exceeds beyond the Bronx thanks to his leadership role in the Butterfly Project Pollinator Curriculum Guide, published by the Open Space.  

          Chuck lives in the Soundview neighborhood where he raised his daughter and son.  Read his Community Green blog to step into his wonderful green world. 

          This essay was inspired by the Zulu Nation’s fortieth anniversary (1973-2013).  Its founder Afrika Bambaataa developed and continues to promote a theory of Hip Hop in which the fifth of five elements is knowledge.  Knowledge, says Bambaataa, is as important as the better known Bboying, MCing, Graffit, and DJing.

*The word Sankofa comes from the Akan language of Ghana that translates in English to “go back and get it.”  Many groups of African descent use this word and symbol to describe the journey of drawing strength and wisdom from the past in order to move forward.

James Baldwin, dedicated Citizen and Novelist/Playwright/Cultural Critic provides the guiding philosophy of Bronx River Sankofa:
“History does not refer merely or even principally to the past.
On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, that we are unconsciously controlled by it,
and that history is literally present in everything we do.”