In 1981, when Derek Pollitt first got the idea for a community garden in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the plot was nothing more than a wasteland. After two buildings had caught fire and were subsequently knocked down, the land quickly became a dumping ground. In addition to the mountains of bricks, the lot had bottles, animal carcasses, syringes, and other drug paraphernalia. For Pollitt, building a garden on the corner of Clifton Place and Bedford Avenue represented an opportunity for neighborhood residents to seize control of land and turn it into something positive.
This summer, as Pollitt stands just outside the opening to the Clifton Place Memorial Garden and Park, he marvels at the change that has taken place. There are more than 15 active plots filled with leafy green plants, benches packed with neighbors, and a patio for summer parties; in 1981 all of it was rubble. As the garden approaches its 30th anniversary, it has become the community cornerstone that Pollitt once imagined it would be.
When Pollitt, a retired army veteran, moved into Bedford Stuyvesant in 1981, he was well aware of the conditions. At the time, the neighborhood was so destitute he was unable to get homeowner’s insurance. “The entire area was redlined,” he said. The crack epidemic of the early 1980’s had ravaged the area. Numerous buildings were severely damaged and many were completely boarded up. Apartment complexes were overrun with unsavory characters, drugs, and crime. Drug addicts hung out on the corners and left trash on residents’ porches.
Pollitt himself was robbed just a few houses down from the garden and shot in the leg. He describes being shot as one of the few times he doubted his decision to move into the neighborhood.
It took a few years for the garden to take form. The idea of the garden wasn’t well received by some community members. “It wasn’t a mean-spirited disbelief, but fear and worry about who would do the work to maintain it,” he said. But there were some acts of intimidation. According to Pollitt, drug dealers would sometimes remove the wooden panels, dismantling the garden plots. But once members of the community started to take interest, and actually plant things, support for the garden grew.
Frank Sass, 70, a transplant from South Carolina, moved to Brooklyn in the 60s to work as a bricklayer. He has been planting crops in the garden for 20 years and has witnessed the garden go from a small plot of ignored land to a place with so much produce it would stock the local bodega. There are greens, strawberries, cherries, potatoes, tomatoes, and herbs such as lavender and broadleaf thyme. Sass travels from Vinegar Hill, where he lives in the Farragut Houses, to the garden to tend to his plants each day. His wife, Cheryl Penny, believes his southern roots drive him to spend so much time in the garden. “I’m a city girl,” she said. “I don’t know nothin’ about no plants but I can’t keep him out of this place.”
Sass isn’t the only gardener spending his days away on Clifton Place. Nathaniel Thomas, 72, sits under the garden’s cherry tree most days. He divides his time between the garden and driving charter buses on the weekends. A former emergency medical technician, Thomas, like Sass, is also from South Carolina but has lived just around the block from the garden for 35 years. His plot has mustard greens, lettuce, and cabbage. His vegetables have grown quickly and are already overlapping one another, so he will thin the rows out so new things can sprout. He sees the garden as more his territory and suggests the constant push of new people isn’t always positive. “Some people walk around here like they have more right to be here than I do,” said Thomas.
Like Thomas, Pollitt yearns for more ownership in the black community. He is proud the land became a permanent park under the City Parks Department in 2000, but regrets not taking advantage of earlier opportunities to own it outright. “We could have owned it for $500 because the city didn’t want it,” said Pollitt. He believes the purchase would have been possible if there was greater support on Clifton. Instead, he signed a lease each year and paid a paltry $2 to keep the garden open.
Today, many of the community members who didn’t believe the garden would make a difference have died, but Pollitt insists they already had changed hearts. Debra DeAbreau, who grew up around the block, didn’t mind the garden idea but thought turning it into a parking lot and charging to use the space would have been more profitable for the community. She didn’t participate in the garden for years but was eventually forced by the other gardeners to get a plot after she kept eating their produce.
“I used to get okra here and stir-fry it with shrimp,” she said. Now that she has her own plot, she doesn’t even grow okra. “She’s an herb freak,” says Thomas. DeAbreau’s plot is filled with lavender, basil, thyme, and other herbs. “We all like to grow different things,” said Thomas.
Melvin Foster, a Mississippi transplant who doesn’t have a plot of his own, isn’t shy about the challenges. “Yeah, it’s hard work to manage a garden and people,” said Foster. This year he decided to forgo planting so he could take care of the flowerbed and handle more of the garden logistics. The tasks are divided between member gardeners who have to agree to the bi-laws to participate, but Foster says sometimes things fall to him. “It’s not a perfect system,” he said.
But something seems to be working. Besides new buildings and the increase in local business, the garden represents the strongest sign of change in the neighborhood. The hours of operation are limited to 6-8 p.m. on weekdays but the gates are often unlocked and the garden filled with community members and curious pedestrians. Others stop and take pictures of the flowers and the rows of fresh basil. Those who don’t enter often speak as they walk by, going out of their way to talk to both friends and strangers alike.
There is little opposition now as people actively seek plots. Still, some are skeptical of the gentrification and many wonder out loud when the push of new people will end. “I wonder why we can’t ever have our own,” says Sass’ wife, Cheryl Penny. She’s disappointed that the improvement of poor neighborhoods after coincides with the displacement of black folks. But measured against the influx of new cultures, buildings, and businesses, there is also pride. “I knew this could be something,” said Pollitt. Sass agreed. “This was good land back then,” he said.
Meanwhile, all four corners at Clifton and Bedford are now used. There is an unfinished condo, a liquor store, an auto parts lot, and the Clifton Memorial Garden and Park. Of the garden, Pollitt says, “You got to have some balance; it can’t all be concrete and condos.”