Above the vacant lots located at 491-495 Myrtle Avenue in Clinton Hill is a massive and somewhat controversial graffiti mural. The words “stop and frisk” are spray painted in red, gray and blue block letters. Police officers are depicted as robots. The mural reminds long-time residents of the life of conflict that existed in the neighborhood not long ago. Myrtle Avenue was one of the most dangerous streets in New York City, until, among other things, the residents demanded a safer neighborhood in the mid 1990s. City officials eventually listened and also sought change in the community.
In 2004, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) into law. Myrtle Avenue is undergoing a massive revitalization project funded by the BID and “Main Street Program,” a state-funded project to revamp neglected communities.
Myrtle Avenue is also becoming more beautiful thanks to the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership and Myrtle Avenue Restoration Projects. Trees are planted, custom tree guards and benches are installed and existing street furniture is painted. Additionally, storefronts are revamped with interior gates as a product of BID Storefront Improvement Grants.
The owner of Corkscrew Wines Brooklyn, Karin Torres, is a recipient of such a grant. Her artisanal wine shop is located right next to the vacant lots. And even the vacant lot, long an eyesore, is improving, thanks to neighborhood volunteers.
While Myrtle Avenue is a beacon of rejuvenation sponsored by the City of New York and New York State, the lot underneath the graffiti remains vacant. In 2009, the Vesper building on 493 Myrtle Avenue collapsed due to shoddy infrastructure, but no one was seriously injured in the incident, The New York Times reported.
The vacant lot had been littered with trash that accumulated over five years until members of the Iglesia Pentecostal Unida Hispana, a church located at 618 Myrtle Avenue, unofficially adopted the property in June. One Sunday in July, a group of people dressed in church clothes were spotted cleaning up 493 Myrtle Avenue and planting crops. Pink rope and makeshift sticks now line the bountiful rows of produce. Tomatoes, corn, and sweet peppers grow fruitfully along Myrtle Avenue.
The gardeners want to paint over all of the graffiti that surrounds the vacant lots.
“It’s bad for the community,” one says.
The gardeners’ goal is to make Myrtle Avenue more beautiful. Residents of Clinton Hill are largely in support of the guerrilla garden.
While the garden is a vast improvement to the trash and piles of litter that once existed, there is still some trash strewn about. Denise Biardi, a resident and the president of the Hall Street Block Association says, “I think the garden is nice, they should just clean it up a little more.”
Karin Torres thinks the lot is great. Her store, Corkscrew Wines Brooklyn, opened in November 2013, and she said the garden is a recent development on Myrtle Avenue.
Torres was able to apply for and secure capital from the Myrtle Avenue Partnership to improve the appearance of her storefront. On the other hand, the gardeners did not have any help. The gardeners outlined rows of crops and planted the seeds by hand and without public funding. Corkscrew Wines Brooklyn and the garden on the vacant lot are results of the same end goal: to improve and beautify Myrtle Avenue
Corkscrew Wines replaced a nail salon in 489 Myrtle Avenue. In Spring 2013, Torres was searching for the location for her newest wine shop. She considered the foot traffic, price, and neighborhood potential for growth when selecting her location. Eventually Torres stumbled upon her store adjacent to the lot.
“It was this nasty, nasty big rusty gate covering this storefront,” says Torres. “And I could only see in this tiny slot, and I looked in and there was this hideous nail salon. It looked like where fungus went to die.”
She saw the potential and beauty despite the debris and cobwebs.Torres called the Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) and they put her in touch with the landlord. The landlord had stipulations about the type of business she wanted in her storefront. Ultimately, the she gave Karin her blessing to open Corkscrew Wines Brooklyn. Karin signed the lease in May 2013.
“When I contacted the BID they also told me that this address was eligible for storefront improvement because it has it been an eyesore for four and a half years,” says Torres.
Although the building next door collapsed and Corkscrew’s building withstood the damage, steel beams were installed to ensure that it was structurally sound. Torres gutted the space to create the ideal atmosphere.
She is still in shock and grateful for the BID because they earmarked money against 489 Myrtle Avenue to improve the storefront.
The rusty gate no longer exists on 489 Myrtle Avenue. When Karin Torres closes her shop for the night, the security gate pulls down on the inside of her quaint wine shop. Passersby can peak in and see all she has to offer instead of hiding it away in fear outside of store hours.
Corkscrew Wine Brooklyn’s location next to the guerrilla garden is serendipitous. A midst the ruins of an abandoned nail salon, Karin was able to envision her picturesque wine store. The gardeners also sought opportunity in a nearly impossible situation; they were able to plant a garden that is thriving. Both Karin Torres and the gardeners are both icons for the changes along Myrtle Avenue. All were inspired by destruction and were able to create something beautiful and unique for the Clinton Hill community.
One Clinton Hill resident says, “It’s beautiful to look at. Out of no where, here’s Mother Nature in all her glory.”