Charles Joyner’s guiding principles for reopening the Amboy Neighborhood Garden in Brownsville are simple. “All you need is hands, effort, and a desire to want to help the community,” he says. The work of Joyner, Tammy Hall, and a few dozen other volunteers culminated in the Amboy Neighborhood Garden Festival on Saturday.
“It’s a wonderful gem,” Hall, a local storyteller and gardener, says of the large corner lot at Amboy St. and Blake Ave. “People need to know how to eat. They need a green space for their kids to run and play. They need it for their health.”
The Amboy Neighborhood Garden, the third-largest in Brooklyn by square footage, was dedicated by Mayor Ed Koch in 1982. In recent years, it had become overgrown and mostly inaccessible to residents of the neighborhood. Joyner, who bought a house in Brownsville last year, was excited by the prospect of having a community garden close by. But after talking with neighbors, Hall, and other community garden members in Brooklyn, he became dismayed to learn about its status and a bit worried about its future.
“If we don’t use this garden, then the city’s going to snatch it up and build skyscrapers,” he remembers saying.
Joyner had plans to start working in the garden this spring, but the coronavirus pandemic put everything on hold. Then, over the summer, Joyner met fellow Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity member Ashton Eadie at a protest against the killing of George Floyd, and Joyner asked Eadie to help with revitalizing the garden. Eadie agreed and started recruiting other volunteers from the school where he works in Canarsie and his friend network.
For Eadie, 35, the garden represents one front of a larger battle against what he describes as “food apartheid” in Brownsville and his own neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. According to a 2018 Community Health Profile from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there are 15 bodegas for every supermarket in Brownsville and 57 bodegas for every supermarket in Bed-Stuy. “I saw this as a tangible way to keep active protests going and create a revolutionary mindset in our community,” he says.
“This is just a beginning process that we’re growing here,” Eadie says of the garden’s current state. His plans for future events at the garden center around a holistic approach to health: mental health education classes, yoga sessions, a community library, even beekeeping lessons. One corner of the garden was cleared out to make space for a beehive next spring.
The centerpiece of the festival was the live painting of two murals, one by internationally renowned Brazilian muralist Alexandre Keto and one by native Brownsville artist Precious Kennedy. Kennedy, 21, started helping with the cleanup efforts in the garden over the summer. When she heard Keto was going to be painting a mural during the festival, she mentioned her own background in digital art to the festival organizers, and they ultimately recruited her to paint her first mural to highlight the corner of the garden that will eventually house the beehive.
Kennedy is excited for next year in the garden; she’s already thinking about what she could grow. “It would be nice to have a little plot of herbs to experiment with,” she says.
The early part of the festival mostly drew volunteers who helped to clear weeds and add mulch to the garden over the summer. But a number of neighborhood kids and parents dropped by later on, drawn in by the arts and crafts table, live storytelling by Hall, a yoga session led by local instructor Najee Wilson, and a live jazz band.
“Alignment-wise, there was not a better time for this opportunity to show up,” says Erin Gaskins, a resident of Bed-Stuy who learned about the garden from a friend of a friend. Gaskins says she plans to stay involved by becoming a member and spreading the word to her friends.
With the growing season coming to a close, opportunities to show off the bounty of the garden were limited, but there was still some produce on hand: a few late season cherry tomatoes, some squash, peppers, parsley, and mint. A fig tree in one corner of the lot didn’t have any fruit left on it, but organizers sang its praises anyway, remembering how many figs they ate during warmer months.
For organizers like Eadie, the garden’s potential is what’s most important. “This is not just a garden,” he says. “I look at it as a safe space.” He, Hall, and Joyner hope that other people in Brownsville will view it that way and join them in the dirt next year.