"Back in 1984 when we started, perhaps only 8 houses were inhabitable in this neighborhood and many vacant lots were just trash dumps," says Cindy. "Inspired by my memories of growing up in the Midwest, where we always had a garden, and by my downstairs Guyanese neighbor, Joseph Daniel Wilson, who believed every plant is sacred, we started reclaiming some of the vacant lots to grow a community garden."
Soon after the Joseph Daniel Wilson Community Garden was established Cindy and Haja formed the non-profit organization Project Harmony to help revitalize their community. In the 7 vacant lots that made up the community garden they made plans for woodlands, habitats for birds and animals, flower gardens, and vegetables gardens. Soon neighbors began to donate plants and seeds and a true "community" garden sprung up where flowers and vegetables were contributed and shared by all.
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Gardening for the Children
As the garden bloomed, so did the neighborhood. "Almost all the houses are inhabited and fixed up now. There's a sense of pride in the garden as exhibited by young kids bringing their parents down to show them their garden and where they work," says Cindy.
"Haja and I always try to instill in the children a sense of sustainability when we're teaching about how to garden and care for the Earth," says Cindy. These inner city kids integrate the knowledge their own way making up rap songs about sustainable living and designing a garden bed into a peace sign made of salvia and marigolds.
"After 18 years I've seen the positive effect these gardens have had on our children," says Cindy. "When we started, Haja would direct street kids (often without functioning parents) to help clean up and plant," say Cindy. "Two boys in particular worked real hard and stayed involved in the garden until they were adults. They both are married now with families and businesses of their own, but they still come around to help out and speak fondly of all that they learned about life in the community garden."
Saving the Garden
The garden has had its share of challenges as well. A few years ago the future of their community garden was threatened when the city government began selling off vacant lots for development. Through negotiations with the developers and the city, Cindy, Haja, and their neighbors have been able to save most of Joseph Daniel Wilson's Community Garden and are raising money to buy the land to preserve it forever. "We even had Pete Seeger come out and give a benefit concert to save this green space," says Cindy.
With the commitment of dedicated gardeners such as Cindy and Haja, the gardens and neighborhoods of Harlem are sure to continue to prosper.
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