growing pains

Youth-led Brooklyn Garden Plan Tangled in Years of Confusion

Brownsville youth have been trying to turn this abandoned lot at 45 Somers Street into a garden of “EDEN” for the past three years.
Brownsville youth have been trying to turn this abandoned lot at 45 Somers Street into a garden of “EDEN” for the past three years. Photo: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Nearly three years after a group of enterprising Brooklyn teens’ seed of an idea to transform a city-owned dumping ground into youth-led community garden, the plan has yet to blossom.

Despite initial support from local nonprofits and elected officials, the sprawling 6,800-square-foot city-owned lot at 45 Somers St. in Brownsville remains strewn with needles, scrap metal and other garbage, a recent visit by THE CITY found.

“The kids really wanted a space for their own,” said Aaron Hinton, the executive director at D.U.E.C.E.S., a community-based youth-advocacy organization that championed the garden. “We wanted a place we could be proud of, a place we could say, ‘We did this, we started this, we built this.’”

At the root of the delay is a city game of bureaucratic hot-potato over what agency oversees the long-vacant property.

Until last month, the lot was jointly controlled by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the Administration of Children’s Services (ACS). The site needed to be turned over to the Parks Department before it could become a community garden.

But the lot and the daycare center next to it were transferred to the Department of Education (DOE) effective July 1, as part of a city-wide overhaul to transition early childcare programs from the management of ACS to the DOE, according to a spokesperson for ACS.

Aaron Hinton in front of the abandoned lot on Somers Street in Brownsville. Photo: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Hinton found out about the deal following THE CITY’s inquiries to the various agencies. “This is news to me,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the Department of Education has any plans to develop the vacant lot, which abuts the Shirley Chisholm Daycare Center. Spokespeople for the DOE and ACS referred questions to City Hall.

“At this time, we determining next steps for the lot,” said Jane Meyer, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office.

A Plan Grows in Brownsville

The garden was initially conceived by Cyanne Edwards, a teen and urban farmer who connected D.E.U.C.E.S. and 596 Acres, a now-defunct nonprofit that identified vacant lots for community reuse.

The plan was to turn the property into a community garden led by young people, who wanted a space where kids could learn to harvest food, eat healthy and hang out after school. They also hoped to incorporate an agribusiness, so they could sell their harvest.

They picked the name E.D.E.N. — “Empowered, Developed and Enlightened Neighborhood” — Garden.

“It just felt like it’s right to grow some stuff that we need in our lives, cause all we eat is junk food — my school taught me that,” said Zyshonne Smith, 19, who was one of the teens involved in the plan three years ago. “That’s why we need our own food.”

Brownsville is what public health scholars label a “food swamp,” an area where unhealthy fare, like high-calorie fast food, is more readily available than well-rounded meals.

Studies have shown that diabetes is more prevalent in food swamps than in areas with access to healthful fare. According to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Brownsville had the sixth-highest diabetes rate in the city in 2015, at 15% of the population. It has dropped slightly since then, to 13%. 

‘We Need to Support Healthy Communities’

The food access problem is tackled by many grassroots organizations, like Teens for Food Justice, which runs a hydroponic crop at Brownsville Collaborative Middle School.

The E.D.E.N. Garden, was unanimously approved by the Community Board 16 in late 2016. Support from locals pols, like Assemblymember Latrice Walker and then-candidate Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who now represents the neighborhood in City Council, soon followed.

When Hinton hit a wall trying to get the property transfer rolling, he reached out to Ampry-Samuel for help. According to Hinton, Ampry-Samuel insisted her hands were tied, and at one point allegedly suggested the group should stage a protest in front of her office.

Ampry-Samuel did not respond to THE CITY’s repeated requests for comment.

By now, many of the teens who worked on the early concept for the site have gone on to college or have otherwise left the neighborhood.

Mark Leger, who is on the steering committee at the Phoenix Community Garden just across the street from 45 Somers, isn’t surprised by the delays. The Phoenix garden, he said, was seven years in the making.

“We need to support healthy communities, and getting kids involved is a big part of that,” he said.

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