Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Greening of Harlem

This set of notes, sent to City Farmer by Michael O. Patterson, records a presentation by Bernadette Cozart, of Greening of Harlem, at a formal presentation in Hartford, CT, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as part of its urban community gardening program, in October, 1996

Imagine yourself walking down the streets of a neighborhood, with burnt out, boarded-up housing, and housing in bad repair. Where are you? In most any inner city in the Northeast.

In Harlem, there are 1500 vacant lots and 1800 abandoned buildings. There is a major compelling reason to reclaim this land. If citizens don't take them over, where do you suppose the dumps, incinerators, salt sheds, and bus terminals are going to be built in the city?

She said you have a right to beauty, to view something uplifting. Beauty is food for the soul. One group did a mural on a 4 story building, of a beach scene... they took an illustration from a travel magazine, of a place they'd love to go to but couldn't, to enjoy. People in nearby apartments have rearranged their furniture so they could enjoy the view, either on waking, or in their living rooms.

Starting Out

She says it starts with gathering people together. Community organizing starts with... knocking on doors. Go to the churches, community organizations, block associations, stores, whoever has a stake in improving the community, and ask for help. Start with whoever shows up. Structure is simple: Include everybody. Even the people who don't show up will remember being asked.

Her group took on 1 of 10 vacant lots in one neighborhood, got it scraped by the city, added leaves, cow manure [donated by a farm], peat moss, and bone meal [donated by a nursery], and made it into a garden. Now that's a small step. However, a local church took on another lot, then a school took on another, and then a community center another, and soon all 10 lots were transformed. Then people started putting excess flowers on their stoops, then in their windows, then in the streets... and then the next block decided they wanted in on the action.

The next step was "kitchen gardens" - growing cherry tomatoes on the fire escapes. With that success, residents wanted to "get into the dirt" to do real gardening. The kids got involved. She frequently hears "I couldn't get my kid to eat anything green until (s)he started growing their own..." She chooses "no-fail" plants to begin, like beans, radishes, even grass. Kids she worked with had no idea where sweet potatoes came from, other than the store, or the truck, so she rooted sweet potatoes for them. She includes kids in gardening wherever possible, as they like responsibility, and gardening. Kids grow some plants from seed.

She got a women's canning project together, starting with the grandmothers. They had a taste test for the best salsa and chutney recipes, and canned the best one. They sold out in farmer's markets. They expanded to ethnic "niche" products like watermelon rind jelly, and last year, planted a vineyard so they could start making their own wine. She is involved with 2 urban farms, which produce "niche products", one is a half block in size. In Harlem!


Lot scraping takes 6 months minimum to schedule... unless you can convince the Sanitation people that a lot once scraped for gardening won't be lost, they'll never have to maintain it again, and beautiful thank you letters go out the following day to the crews, supervisor, and city council members, in which case it takes 2 weeks or less. She builds very diverse coalitions of people and organizations, of which at least one has a 501(c)(3) number, which makes it easy to get donations. They need to have some involvement, the IRS takes a dim view of numbers just being lent out. City Council members won't listen to one person, or a small group, but large coalitions get the best attention and service. A hospital lets her group use a truck for transport.

She said organizations are "looking for you", to support such efforts, including Global Green, Green Acres, Leila Wallace foundation, Robin Hood Foundation, American Forest, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the County Extension Service, to help with such projects. Farmers and others will drop off material so long as there's a place the dumptruck can drop the load without trouble. Local businesses are interested in seeing areas improved, and in tax deductions. She's gotten tools donated from Home Depot- her coalitions always include at least one 501(c)(3), to help tax write-offs. A community garden done right becomes a local community gathering point for plays, birthday parties, weddings, and other community events, effortlessly- it is affordable space, and a place of beauty that people go to just to enjoy.

She was at one such birthday party; nothing at all was trampled, people were very careful about the plants, and the kids themselves picked up every piece of trash without being asked at the end. City Departments generally tell her that her projects won't be taken care of, and will be vandalized. This is not the case. There is no better security than a vigilant community, and the kids themselves make great enforcers. In neighborhoods where graffiti is everywhere, the gardens she's started are untouched, even inviting murals and signs are untouched. City park flowers vanish on Mother's day... in one of her tulip gardens, not one flower had been touched at 5 PM last Mother's day. She always works with all interested persons in the local community on any project, to ensure continued support of gardens.

She noted the Agricultural Extension service has listings of hardy plants, perennials, and how to do your own seeding. She strongly recommends no-fail plants, the kind that will tolerate severe abuse.


One of her projects was the conversion of a galvanized iron pipe and concrete playground, with chain link fence, and not one square inch of soil, at P.S. 197 on 134th St., into something much more pleasant. She had 3 foot high raised beds made, with wood support, 6 x 6's, with 2 layers of gravel over the concrete, and then topsoil. Instead of sterile swings on concrete, they had a model of Harlem, with a 10' long Triboro bridge, a Harlem hospital about 6' x 6', and an Apollo Theatre about 12' x 12' in which children perform plays. They used a product made of recycled tires as a surface where anyone would fall, much better than concrete. The kids painted it. She does other gardens at schools; she always has an interested teacher for support, such gardening can't be done without enthusiastic support from inside. She thinks "synergy"; carpentry for gardens is done by carpenter apprentices under a master carpenter, all from the neighborhood, and contracts out for as little as possible.

In another school, [P.S. 92(?)] she talked the Japanese Chamber of Commerce into paying for a garden- an "African-American Friendship Garden". The board of education said there was no money for science classrooms. They took up concrete hexagonal block, for reuse in another garden, and got 25 cubic yards of topsoil delivered. It is planted with trees, and is really nice. There is an Oriental veranda, called the "Pagoda", big enough for teachers to have classes in. They got books, software, enough microscopes so each individual student had one, hydroponics kits and other equipment donated.

One school garden is for a school in NY city for teenage mothers; there are places for toddlers, and even a small wading pool.

She stated that the "cracks" in the system are more like the Grand Canyon, and began work on involving the deaf, prisoners, abuse victims, and HIV positive personnel in her programs.

She started a garden for Bishop House residents, who are victims of abuse- they requested a garden of peace and beauty. Plants were obtained by getting excess from the Botanical Garden, and from the NY Times, which throws out its decorative plants every week. 7 gardens were done in one neighborhood for $52,000; compare to the "vest pocket park" Bo Jangles park, done by the city using the regular cash-intensive methods, which has a bench and a dead tree under a mural of Bo Jangles, which cost $350,000 to rehab.

She noted that North Carolina and Mississippi let wildflowers grow in the Right of Way around highways, and that it looks beautiful.


No endorsement of any product, or "sole source" status for obtaining any resource, is implied by anything in this guide. This and other projects were described in "A Patch of Eden", by H. Patricia Hynes, [ISBN 0-930031-80-6, Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 10 Water St, Rm 310 Lebanon, NH 03766, 800 639 4099]. This book documents also efforts in North Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco, among others. Gardens were associated with public housing, horticultural projects for youth, sitting gardens for seniors, and others. All gardens "re-enchant" our cities as habitats for birds, insects, and heirloom plants, and sources of food for the body and beauty for the soul." "People build gardens, and Gardens build communities." "Patches of Eden are not urban amenities; they are necessities."

Jack Hale, who supports community gardening in Hartford as his job, paid for by the Knox Foundation, once did a slide show for a Hispanic group. Jack speaks no Spanish, and the group spoke little English. He just showed his color slides, of gorgeous community gardens. At the end of the show, the entire group spontaneously went to their site, and scraped it down before they left. Beauty speaks across the barriers of culture, time, and generation.

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Revised Tuesday, February 24, 1999

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture