Tag Archive | "community"

Bronx Cricketers Push For More Pitches

The Columbia Cricket Club and the Long Island Kings play a cricket match at Van Cortlandt Park on Sept 22. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Dressed in classic cricket whites, the players waited for their batsman to play the match’s crucial moment in Van Cortlandt Park. The Columbia Cricket Club had only one more chance to beat the Long Island Kings, who had scored 114 runs. As the bowler pitched the ball, the players watched from their place on the cricket pitch. When the batsman struck the winning run, they erupted into cheers. Their teammates on the sidelines stormed the field. Columbia Cricket Club had chased 115 runs with three wickets to spare. The team was going to the league playoffs.

Columbia Cricket Club players cheer on their teammates who are on the field. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Every weekend, the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park becomes a hub for New York City cricket. On a Sunday morning in late September, the 1 train headed to the borough was packed with players lugging their bats and equipment. Family and friends set up beach chairs on the sidelines to watch games. Spectators kept score and retired players served as umpires. South Asian and Caribbean music played from portable speakers.

Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx are among the country’s cricket hotspots. In New York City alone, there are more than 200 teams.

Experts say the sport is one of the fastest-growing in the United States. The Bronx is home to immigrants from some of the world’s most cricket-devout countries, including a Bangladeshi population that has more than tripled since 1990.

The Columbia Cricket Club and the Long Island Kings shake hands after the game finishes. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

“Cricket gives us identity. It’s like a culture to us. It’s like a religion. We can’t stop playing,” said Lokendra Chauhan, President of the Columbia Cricket Club.

Players from the Columbia Cricket Club, one of the largest clubs in New York City, are from India, Australia, Antigua, Pakistan, South Africa, England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. It also has one of the few American-born players in the city, an Irish school teacher with no tradition of the sport. 

For many immigrants, playing is a way to remain close to home and build community as they navigate life in the United States. “You have been living in one country, you leave everyone and everything behind for a better future,” said Chauhan, who is from India.

“Cricket brings us a family life.” 

But the rapidly-growing, cricket-loving immigrant population has put increased pressure on the Bronx’s pitches, with demand for playing time exceeding available fields, according to borough cricket leadership.

The Bronx’s three home leagues—New York Cricket League, Commonwealth Cricket League, and the newer Royal Premier League—share the pitches at Van Cortlandt Park, Soundview Park, and Ferry Point Park. 

“We need to play. We need space. There is a demand for space on the weekends,” said Milford Lewis, who was president of the New York Cricket League for 11 years until 2017. 

A traditional cricket match lasts around five days, but the cab drivers, executives, waiters, doctors, lawyers, and janitors who play cricket in New York City can only play Saturdays and Sundays. In the Bronx, leagues usually play Twenty20, a shortened version of the sport played in three hours. But even the reduced game time hasn’t averted scheduling issues, since the Bronx has lost seven official pitches in the last six years. 

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The Parade Ground at Van Cortlandt Park. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

In 2013, the Department of Parks and Recreation injected $15 million to redesign the Parade Ground, a 66-acre swath of land used for cricket, soccer, baseball, football, cross-country, and Gaelic football at Van Cortlandt Park. The space was closed for three years until the construction was finished. 

Renovations were a significant improvement—the pitches were made regulation size and designated exclusively for the sport with no field overlapping with other sports—but two fields were lost. It left the Bronx with 18, still more than any other borough. Brooklyn and Queens trailed behind with 16 and 13 fields respectively.

But other sports have since cut into cricket real estate. Just last year, the Department of Parks and Recreation took away two more pitches at the Parade Grounds to create three small-sided soccer fields.

The Bronx now has nine fields in Van Cortlandt Park and two in Ferry Point Park, putting the official number of dedicated pitches at 11. There is also a cricket pitch at Soundview Park and a softball field that doubles as a cricket pitch, but NYC Parks doesn’t list the spaces for play on its website as of September 2019, although players said they are still using them.

Our pitches were designated solely for cricket. Now we have to share it with soccer, share it with frisbee, share it with athletics,” said Lewis, who is from Guyana. “If we can at least get one or two other pitches put out for us at any other ground in the Bronx, we will be thrilled. Cricket wants to get bigger, so we need bigger spaces.” 

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Ravi Etwaroo, owner of Cricket Zone USA, pictured here with cricket bats at his Parkchester-based store. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Ravi Etwaroo, a Guyanese immigrant, has been running Cricket Zone USA, the Bronx’s only cricket store, since 2003. His clientele, which he estimates to be around 3,000 players from across the city, keeps him in the loop. Many of his customers complain about the need for more fields. Some say they have to commute to other boroughs to play. “Some have even stopped playing because it’s too inconvenient to play when you have to spend a whole day commuting and you have a family waiting at home,” Etwaroo said.

Leagues, in particular, are affected by the lack of space, since they are in charge of scheduling matches amongst their club members. They must apply to NYC Parks for a permit to play at public facilities. 

In 2017, twenty-two permits were approved, none were denied, and fourteen were withdrawn. In 2019, twenty-seven were approved, 4 were denied, and four were withdrawn. These statistics don’t include the Soundview pitch. 

 “NYC Parks works hard to accommodate space and scheduling needs for all of our permit applicants,” said Anessa Hodgon, a press officer for the Department of Parks and Recreation. “Denied applications typically stem from lack of availability.”

But permit statistics don’t account for individuals, non-affiliated teams, and smaller leagues who might also want space to play but don’t apply because established teams are often grandfathered into the same time slots year after year. People without permits will often just hop into a field that isn’t in use. 

They also don’t reflect league sizes. Commonwealth Cricket League has around 2,000 players and 162 teams across the city. “It’s the biggest cricket league in North America,” said President Lesley Lowe, who founded the league in 1980 with his father and brothers.

Lowe, the most senior cricket administrator in the country, agreed that there is a need for more fields, but doesn’t where they would go. “I’ve grown up here and played at Van Cortlandt since I was fourteen. I’ve scoped out the Bronx for pitches, inch by inch. A cricket field is twice the size of a baseball diamond. Where can we put that?” 

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The lack of fields doesn’t only affect adult male teams, who dominate New York City’s cricket scene. It’s especially difficult for women to form teams and carry out regular practice meets since men’s teams have established tenure over many of the grounds.

Samantha Ramautar’s official portrait for USA Cricket. © USA Cricket

Samantha Ramautar, a member of the women’s USA national cricket team, said that the lack of field availability impacts New York’s female cricket players, who only get together once or twice to play during the summer. She trains in a New Jersey facility that is one and a half hours away.

“We don’t get as many opportunities as the guys do,” she said, “If there were more facilities, you’d find more women that wouldn’t feel intimidated playing with the guys, and we would have more leagues.” 

New York City is also the only city in the United States with cricket teams at public high schools. Three of the 34 participating schools are in the Bronx.“The public school cricket athletic league is the brainchild of the development of cricket in New York City,” said Milford Lewis, who has been an umpire since 1996 and often runs youth games. 

Lewis says that the youth teams serve as feeders for the cricket scene, but that can be difficult to sustain when they don’t have regular, dedicated space to play. “They have to start playing in April to make sure everyone has time to use the pitches. I’ve done games where the temperature was in the 50s. Their hands are cold, their feet are cold, their faces are cold.” 

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Bronx Community Board 9 Chairman William Rivera is working with NYC Parks to create the first cricket-dedicated pitch in his district at Pugsley and Randall Avenues. Rivera was inspired to pursue this initiative when he attended a cricket award ceremony at Parkchester’s Starling Avenue, which is a predominantly Bangladeshi area.“Children in my district grew up watching this sport in their birth countries, grew up watching their parents, and moved here later learning that this sport they love doesn’t have a real outlet for them to play,” he said. 

USA Cricket, which was re-organized by the International Cricket Council last year, is hoping to rehabilitate New York’s cricket infrastructure as it invests $1 billion in the sport across the country over the next ten years. Its ambitious plans include a cricket stadium for international play in New York City. The Bronx is on the list of potential locations because of its large green spaces and vibrant cricket scene. 

“If Bronx comes and says, we are ready to partner with you and we’ll give you a ten-acre park, we will help. Even if we forget about the stadium, even if they are looking to put a turf pitch, we are ready for that too,” said USA Cricket Club Director Ajith Baskar.  

The pitch above is covered with Astroturf, but has clay underneath instead of concrete. When it rains, there is inconsistent ball bounce and pitch variations. Having high-quality grass pitches is a priority for players in New York City.

“That would be heaven,” said Columbia Cricket Club President Lokendra Chauhan. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Rather than creating more playing spaces, some cricket players believe that enhancing the current pitches could make the usage of space more efficient. Implementing floodlights, for example, could double playtime by making nighttime cricket possible. Better upkeep of the facilities, such as keeping grass short and installing natural turf pitches, would help New York teams train to compete at an international level. In turn, raising the sport’s visibility could give clubs and leagues leverage as they advocate for more space. 

“If we have ambitions in New York to be delivering players that can step up at a high club and international level, the facilities here are inadequate at the moment to provide for that,” said Sumantro Das, a Columbia Cricket Club player from New Delhi.

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After winning its match against the Long Island Kings, the Columbia Cricket Club huddled together in a circle to debrief. Team officers gave a rousing speech to their players. They were proud of the work their team had done to secure the win. After the game, the players went for drinks to celebrate their victory.

This is what keeps bringing Das, who has been playing with his club for the last ten years, to the cricket pitches in the Bronx. He played professionally with the Birmingham League in England two summers ago and enjoys the competition and the thrill. But it’s the community aspect of it that he loves.

“This scene is vibrant. It’s exciting. The full breadth of diversity is incredible. It’s economic, it’s national, it’s community-wide, it’s international. It’s a beautiful picture.”

The Columbia Cricket Club storms the field after winning its match against the Long Island Kings on Sept 22. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes
A player from Columbia Cricket Club takes off his legs pad, used by batsmen and wicket keepers to protect their legs from the hard leather balls used in cricket. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes
The Columbia Cricket Club celebrates its victory against the Long Island Kings on Sept 22. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes


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Candlelight Vigil to Fend off Addiction and Stigma

The group walk and sing at sunset.

VIP members and others march in a candlelight vigil to support those fighting addiction. (HAN ZHANG / The Bronx Ink)

Wednesday night, about 75 people in Tremont joined a candlelight vigil organized by a local treatment center to honor people in recovery and those lost to drug addiction.

VIP Community Service, a non-profit organization providing treatment and housing in Tremont to people fighting addiction, invited its clients and their local supporters to join the walk. Most of the participants were men and women from its residential treatment project, a six-to-nine-month intensive recovery program. Some disabled members participated in a van.

About 65 per cent of VIP’s 1,574 clients are engaged in medication-supported recovery and 120 clients are enrolled in the residential recovery program.

Among all five boroughs of New York City, the Bronx has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths. The number grew  from 132 deaths in 2010 to 185 in 2013, according to data released in August by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The same study shows that the Crotona–Tremont neighborhood was one of the top five areas in the city for deaths caused by drug overdose between 2010 and 2013.

Maria Garcia, who lost her sister to HIV six years ago, expressed gratitude that the addiction treatment program helped her sister get her life back in her last days. She brought her seven-year-old grandson to the event.

Maria Garcia brought her seven-year-old grandson to the walk to show family support.

Maria Garcia expressed gratitude that the treatment program helped her sister, who died six years ago. (HAN ZHANG / The Bronx Ink)

“Family shouldn’t feel embarrassed. Instead, we should help, be united, guide them and support them,” said Garcia.

The vigil started at 6:30 p.m.  and lasted about one and a half hours. As participants walked along Arthur Avenue and around Crotona Park, others joined in along the way. The crowd sang “Lean on Me” and other songs.

“It’s such a beautiful scene,” said a neighbor, watching the group walk by the park at sunset.

The event created an opportunity for the clients to socialize and interact with the local community, according to VIP’s assistant vice president Carmen Rivera, the organizer of the vigil.

“We want to take away the stigma on former drug addicts and show that they can pull it together and be a positive influence in the neighborhood,” said Rivera.

In one contribution to the neighborhood, in August, VIP clients unveiled a mural, “Bridging Transformation,” created by 20 VIP clients who worked with local artists for six weeks.  Images of a shadowed man walking on a path that leads to an explosive cluster of bright colors enliven the side of  a five-story building on 176th Street in Tremont.

Tanesha Green, a mother of four who marched on Wednesday night, said that the treatment program helped her focus on recovery.

“The program is within you, if you are ready to do it,” Green said after the vigil.

 

 

 

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Art of Memory

In memory of their friend who was fatally stabbed five years ago, the House of Spoof Art Collective opened a new show in Hunts Point’s Brick House Gallery on August 23, celebrating young talent from the Bronx and beyond, and expanding the gallery’s role in the burgeoning Bronx arts scene.

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The Brick House Gallery in Hunts Point is used by the House of Spoof art collective as both a studio and a gallery space. It currently houses the collective’s Annual Summer Show (Benjamin Bergmann/ The Bronx Ink)

This year’s Annual Summer Show, the fourth, is its largest exhibit to-date and combines a wide selection of photos, videos and paintings from 32 different artists that fill the gallery walls top to bottom. While shows there typically confront social and political issues, this exhibit is not bound by any thematic, aesthetic or geographic constraints. The all-embracing organizing rubric, intended to draw a diverse range of submissions, was “Community and Culture.”

“It’s a celebration of art,” said Misra Walker, art student at Cooper Union and co-founder of the Spoof Collective. She said one of her goals is to facilitate rather than curate: all artists who submitted work in response to a call through social media were accepted. Misra said she wanted to help kickstart some careers with this event rather than be a gatekeeper.

This is also the group’s first effort to reach out to likeminded artists beyond the South Bronx. Participating artists came from California, France, and the Netherlands, as well as from New York. Danish photographer Petrine Clausen flew in from her new hometown of Amsterdam to see her five color prints on display. “This is my first time in the Bronx and it’s very different from what I know,” she said with a wink, sipping wine from college-style plastic cups and sampling homemade fried chicken outside the gallery.

Capturing unposed moments in artsy party scenes in Europe, her photos of white young people in shiny outfits may seem out of sync in the midst of Hunts Point, but fit the exhibit’s underlying theme by opening a window on a particular community.

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Danish artist Petrine Clausen’s photograph of a European party scene is shown at the House of Spoof art collective’s Annual Summer Show (Benjamin Bergmann/ The Bronx Ink)

Randy Clinton’s photographs, in contrast, are stark cityscapes expressing the beauty of the borough. The former Marine Corps photographer, who spent a year in Afghanistan in 2008, shoots with a camera phone and prints the digitally enhanced pictures on square metal sheets that give the images a bright sheen. “I just want to try to capture everything around me as it happens,” he said, explaining the freedom he feels without lugging around the cameras and lenses he used as a Marine. “My iPhone makes that process easier.”

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Former US Marine photographer Randy Clinton standing in front of his collection of submitted photographs. (Benjamin Bergmann / The Bronx Ink)

Most of the contributing artists applied by submitting five samples through JotForm, a social media platform. The number of submissions surprised the gallery collective, who cut their own work from the show to accommodate all 32 applicants. “We don’t agree on everything,” said Richard Palacios, co-founder and multimedia artist, describing how members of the collective held different views of the work they received, but supported the principle of the open call. “I guess there was some kind of democratic process behind it,” he said.

The House of Spoof Collective (THOSC) was officially founded in 2011, when four friends working summer jobs at The Point CDC, the renown community art and activist center in Hunts Point, sought to honor the passing of their close friend Glenn ‘Spoof’ Wright.

Wright, who would have turned 26 on the day of the show’s opening, was a flourishing South Bronx photographer who was brutally killed 2009. Mistaken for a rival gang member by a group out for revenge, Wright was stabbed to death outside his grandmother’s Lower East Side apartment.

“After Spoof’s death we were in group therapy sessions and decided to channel our grief and his spirit by creating this project,” said Palacios, 24, one of the co-founding quartet including fellow art students Misra Walker, 22, Ryan Smith, 24, and Alberto Inamagua, 27. Only a couple of months later they had already curated their first show in a space provided by The Point.

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The House of Spoof co-founder Misra Walker stans under a portrait of her murdered friend Glenn ‘Spoof’ Wright that hangs permanently in the gallery (Benjamin Bergmann / The Bronx Ink)

Though they continue to present a rotating selection of Wright’s black-and-white photos at every show, the group has since moved beyond the original premise of keeping Spoof’s legacy alive.

Walker admitted that the group is still very young — “We often have no idea what we are doing,” she said — and that their current work is only a stepping stone to bigger goals. They plan to create an art incubator for young artists and “bring back that Andy Warhol, factory-feel to art in New York City.”

In many ways their work space reflects their own transformation. Set on a remote stretch along Hunts Point’s industrial waterfront, the stocky Brick House Gallery is the only remnant of a burnt down fur-tanning factory that was converted into an experimental art spot for the community in 2007.

Working out of the South Bronx in an impoverished area with scarce public resources, the group has always seen location and context as a central element of their work. They see themselves as activist artists, tackling local issues related to violence, neglect, and the environment. They are currently building a greenhouse out of discarded soda bottles. The group conducts free art workshops for Hunts Point’s residents throughout the year.

“We want to make the art accessible to the Hunts Point community,” explained Walker, who gave an emotional TED TALK on activism through art back in 2009. “Art has always been really important in this community and we want to keep that going. That’s what Glenn would have done – given back to the community.”

The Bronx has historically been a hotbed for the arts — it is the birthplace of both hip-hop and modern street art — and is currently seeing a resurgence, with a host of galleries and shows opening across the borough.

Among the work in the Summer Show, photographs by Tiffany Williams stand out: prints showing colorful smoke wisping against a black background. Williams, one of the group’s mentors and the co-creator of The Point’s after-school photography program, has been active in the Bronx arts community for more than a decade. “The Bronx has been involved with the arts way before Brooklyn ever got cool for its art scene,” she said, basking in the late afternoon sun in Hunts Point. “It might take time, but we’re bringing the conversation back.”

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Local garden reignites long-lost community spirit

A child draws on the pavement with colored chalk outside Block 921. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

A child draws on the pavement with colored chalk outside Block 924. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

On Saturday morning in Hunts Point, children on Kelly Street had free rein of the pavement, which some of them brightened with colored chalk. Some kids played catch while others were engrossed in arts and crafts. With the help of adult volunteers, children cut out bananas from cardboard and painted them, some coloring them yellow, others maroon and sky blue. Residents from neighboring blocks looked on. They had gathered at the newly renovated Kelly Street Garden at block 924 of the famously banana-shaped street to celebrate the second annual Field Day organized by the non-profit outfit, The Laundromat Project.

The star of the event was the Kelly Street Garden, which has become a symbol of revival to a community that had lost its vibrancy through time and neglect. It was unveiled in the first week of June this year. On Saturday, the garden opened its gates to residents in neighboring buildings, some of whom help to tend its 1,541 square feet of harvest area that grows cucumbers, tomatoes, salad greens, kale, and eggplant, among other produce that helps sustain the community.

Field Day at Hunts Point aimed to encourage community involvement through art and yoga workshops, cooking demonstrations, a photo exhibition, storytelling sessions, a barbecue, and walking tours led by local artists Misra Walker and Joseph “Donjai” Gilmore. Walker and Gilmore’s walking tours explored the rich cultural history of the neighborhood by focusing on creative practices of local artists throughout the community.

This arts-led initiative took place concurrently in three neighborhoods — Hunts Point, Harlem, and Bedford-Stuyvesant on September 20 and 21. “We wanted to highlight  the assets that are already in these neighborhoods, and to amplify them as much as possible,” said Kemi Ilesanmi, the executive director of the Laundromat Project.

Kelly Street Garden

On the itinerary was a Kelly Street Garden tour. The garden grows approximately 20 types of produce, including cucumbers, tomatoes, salad greens, kale and eggplant. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

Long-time Kelly Street resident Robert Foster, 63, said the garden was a “‘great way to bring the community back together.” He lamented how closed off neighbors have become, preferring to stay indoors instead of interacting.

Foster was around in the late 1970s when the first garden was inaugurated in block 924, where he helped plant the first batch of seeds. “It ain’t as luxurious,” he said of the old garden, but the spirit of community thrived due to the large presence of children. “You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a kid,” he said, smiling. Over the years, the conditions of the houses deteriorated, the streets became unsafe as murders and drug activities rose, and the children disappeared behind closed doors. “I can’t fault people for not wanting to have their kids out there,” Foster said, hoping the newly renovated buildings will signal a safer environment for children to come out and play.

The kids were out in full force on Saturday, running around the raised beds on the pebbled pathway, only to be told repeatedly by Rosalba Lopez Ramirez, the garden caretaker, not to stomp on the plants. Ramirez moved to the neighborhood last December and as caretaker she holds regular office hours tending the the garden. Since its opening, the garden “picked up a lot of momentum,” she said, as a new wave of residents followed in Foster’s footsteps and helped out with maintenance.

Until three years ago, Ramirez said many of the buildings on Kelly Street suffered from dire neglect, and the garden lay forgotten. Then Workforce Housing Group intervened. The group, in partnership with Banana Kelly Community Improvement Organization, another non-profit outfit, rehabilitated apartments in five buildings on Kelly Street. With a grant from the Department of Environmental Protection, the two organizations were able to fund the purchase of plants, seeds, and fertilizer for the new garden.

Another long-time resident, who gave only her first name, Maria, 45, spoke in Spanish about the dire living conditions prior to the intervention by the Workforce Housing Group. Speaking through a translator, Maria said her building lacked hot water every winter between 2001 and 2011; many of the buildings did not have a superintendent to look after maintenance. There were severe hygiene issues, she added, rat infestations, and lack of security. All complaints by residents fell on deaf ears. Today, Maria is satisfied with her renovated apartment. It now has a constant supply of hot water, the staircase landings are clean, the building is regularly maintained, and the security is much better.

Ramirez said the garden provides valuable community bonding time as residents now work together to water the plants, harvest the produce, and distribute it through the neighborhood. Residents who volunteer their time to look after the garden get first pick of the produce. Some of it is used in cooking classes taught by “community chefs” at the garden to encourage an exchange of healthy recipes. Ramirez also sets up a table on the pavement in the evening and gives away the remaining produce to passersby for free.

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The community gathered outside 924 Kelly Street to celebrate Field Day. Activities included arts and crafts for children, yoga workshops for children and adults, and a barbecue. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

Field Day was organized by five artists who were recipients of a fellowship at The Laundromat Project and wanted to give back to the community. Through the fellowship, they took a number of professional development classes in community engagement and were assigned to a neighborhood in which to execute an outreach program.

One of the fellows, Ro Garrido, 25, said the experience helped overcome the discomfort of working in a community in a different borough. “I don’t have roots here,” Garrido, who hails from Queens, said about the experience in negotiating the differences between Hunts Point and Jackson Heights. “It’s about respecting the people at the garden and how they worked.”

The fellows received $500 from the Laundromat Project, as well as donations from Green Mountain Energy, Workforce Housing Group, and others to purchase art supplies, arrange for food, and other logistics. Though Field Day organizers did not have a final headcount by press time, they said they expected the number of participants among the three neighborhood events in Hunts Point, Harlem, and Bed-Stuy, to exceed last year’s 500.

As the overcast afternoon gradually faded into evening, the echoes of children’s laughter reverberated along Kelly Street. Residents stayed out longer than usual, embracing a new-found communal spirit.

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Mott Haven garden offers tranquility and community spirit

Carlos Mendez marinades beef and cactus for a barbecue at Wanaqua Garden. (CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN/Bronx Ink)

“There was nothing here — nothing,” said Luis Rosario, 74, gesturing around his Mott Haven plot of land. The verdant vegetable patches of what is now Wanaqua  Garden are dotted with cheerful sunflowers.

Ten years ago the empty lot was teeming with trash. Residents used it as a fee-free garbage dump. Then the Department of Parks put up a sign by the plot on East 136th Street, welcoming neighbors to use it for gardening. Rosario gathered a group of friends and set to excavating it.

“It took us more than a year,” said Rosario, one of a handful of gardeners that has stuck with Wanaqua from the start. In the decade since, gardeners have come and gone — some who just wanted to try their hand at gardening, and others who stayed longer.

For greenhorns and gardeners alike, though, this 10,000 square-foot lot is a place to gather, make friends, and feel part of a community. Neighbors pop in to pick up fresh vegetables free of charge, and dozens of children troop in a few days a week to care for the vegetable patches their elementary schools have adopted.

But the long-time gardeners of Wanaqua are the heart of the community. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Rosario, who is Puerto Rican, combed through the tomato bushes looking for ingredients for a salad, while his friend Carlos Mendez, who has also gardened here for years, marinaded beef in herbs and beer for a barbeque. Soon, Mendez’s nephew would arrive for lunch. In the meantime, Rosario invited two passersby to join them — a father and daughter whom he had never met.

Even after a decade, Rosario said the garden, with its rows of beans, yams, pumpkins, and herbs like cilantro and papalo, still attracts new faces. And for Rosario and Mendez, it is a second home. The two old friends visit the garden seven days a week and say even the winter doesn’t put them off.

“It’s a beautiful garden,” said Mendez, 70, who hails from Mexico and has lived in the US for 37 years. “It feels like being in my country in the mountains.”

“It’s perfect,” he said. “Like today, we’ll grill some meat and enjoy a calm afternoon.”

The garden may offer respite on some days, but just as often, it’s alive with dozens of schoolchildren from neighboring Public School 43 and Mott Haven Academy Charter School, harvesting swiss chard and squealing at the sight of bumblebees.

Each school cares for a sizable section of the garden, where the elevated flowerbeds are living, breathing science labs, and the children can follow food from the seeds they plant to the salads on their lunch table.

Candace Williams, a science teacher at Mott Haven Academy, said announcing that it’s time to go the garden is a surefire way to liven the classroom. “The students are super excited. So excited that sometimes it’s a challenge to get them outside,” she said.

Fourth-grade teacher Peter Kalkau’s students at P.S. 43 have learned to test the pH of soil and replenish the nutrients in it with compost, and students at both schools have harvested vegetables for salads and other dishes.

That’s a good recipe for getting kids to try new things.

“Those are the vegetables they planted, so they want to know how they taste,” Kalkau said.

Starting this year, some students at P.S. 43 will have reading classes in the garden, too, following the addition of a garden house this month where the kids can sit outdoors in the shade. The garden house, courtesy of the nonprofit GrowNYC and corporate donors, replaced a dilapidated shed and gives the gardeners much needed storage space.

Even better, it gives them water. Palette Architects, the Brooklyn-based architecture firm that designed the garden house pro bono, created a roof that feeds rainwater into a 1,000-gallon barrel that should fill up in just a few weeks’ time.

For the gardeners, it’s a huge convenience: They had previously been fetching water from a pump on the street.

“It’s great,” Rosario said, admiring the garden house that seems to reward years of hard work on the garden.

He continued searching for tomatoes and soon had a bagful. The garden produces more than the gardeners and their families can eat, but nothing goes to waste.

“I give it away,” Rosario said. “If someone needs it, I give it.”

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Skulls and Rosaries

Audio slideshow by Elettra Fiumi and David Patrick Alexander.

A local Soundview botanica owner counts on days like Saint Michael’s Day on September 29th to boost his flagging business.

“People aren’t going to the saints as much as before,” said John Santiago, owner of the Botanica store, which manages to maintain a steady revenue of approximately $53,000 per year. His is one of the last standing local botanicas. Three others closed down in the last year.

In a city still trying to recover from high jobless rates and a global economic collapse, this Botanica maintains a faithful clientele by offering religious tidbits of advice and a little generosity alongside wooden crucifixes, or bath soap that wards off evil. When someone in need can’t afford to buy something, he might give them a candle for free.

Santiago said sales of merchandise that includes skulls, rosaries and candles have gone down since the 1980s except for a brief surge around 9/11.

“People were getting scared and thinking they were going to die so they should clean their souls,” he said. “People only believe when something tragic happens.”

Sales increase drastically mostly around religious days like the day after Halloween, Christmas day and New Year’s Eve. Most clients don’t remember other saint days throughout the year, but when Santiago reminds them, he recalls them thanking him by giving him “muchos blessings.”

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