• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Rose is Red in Harlem

Air Date: Week of

Harlem residents of all ages and backgrounds are making vacant spaces green, and rebuilding a sense of community. The gardeners are cultivating more than vegetables, trees, and flowers in this famous urban setting. Evelyn Tully-Costa reports.


CURWOOD: Harlem, New York City. Fifth Avenue, Uptown. Where jazz and literature fueled the great African American cultural renaissance after World War I. Where Fidel Castro held court during his famous visit to the United Nations. And where gardens are starting what some call a green revolution. African American neighborhoods from Boston to Philadelphia to Berkeley are embracing a back-to-the-land movement which is transforming trash-filled lots into neighborhood gardens and parks. But perhaps nowhere are the people more determined to make this happen than in Harlem. Evelyn Tully Costa has our story.

(Jackhammers and traffic)

TULLY COSTA: When Bernadette Cozart looks around the asphalt, cement, brick and steel of her Harlem neighborhood, she sees green.

COZART: It is the most known black community in the world. And it should look like it. We have all these lots; we can transform all these lots like this. And not just the lots, I mean the rooftops. Put some gardens on the roof tops. Why not? We're going to do the street tree pits when we get finished. The whole place. And we don't need a lot of money to do it.

TULLY COSTA: Cozart's fearless vision to take back the land 6 years ago sparked the Greening of Harlem Coalition. Now, 29 gardens, parks, and open spaces have sprung up in Harlem's diverse neighborhoods. Cosart, a Parks Department employee, oversees all of them. Today she's watering magnificent arrays of white Queen Anne's Lace, red roses, and yellow coriopsis. They've replaced garbage, rubble, and drug dealers in a school yard on 125th street near Harlem Hospital. Cozart says each project is a unique outgrowth of the people who create them, from recovering drug addicts, pregnant teens, inmates on work release, to kindergarten classes.

COZART: To me this stuff represents the power of transformation through gardening. It gives people a hope that is desperately missing in this community. When they can see, you know, how you can make things better with a little blood, a little sweat, and practically no money. People are so disenfranchised in this community from everything, but particularly nature.

TULLY COSTA: The Five Star Block Association located at 121st Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard was begun 5 years ago by Cassy Parker with a handful of neighbors. The group reclaimed 2 empty lots using dozens of school children, over 30 adults, teachers, local ministers and artists. Now there's even a gospel play about this spot. Two gardens filled with peach trees, grapes, peanuts, collard greens, tomatoes, and roses.

PARKER: I love seeing people happy. I mean, we've had such remarkable results from the senior citizens, from the young adults. People are starting to plant around trees. I see flower boxes in the window. We have some people, they don't want to plant, they just want to be here with us. And the community is coming together to talk to one another again, to work with one another again. To make something beautiful.

WOMAN: Gosh, you know it's hot out here!

TULLY COSTA: Another work in progress is the Goddess Garden at 143rd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, created by women from all over the city. Kathleen Capila, who's new to gardening, has come to help water one of the schoolside gardens. She says many older women now living in Harlem grew up on farms in the south and the Caribbean. They're passing their knowledge on to younger people.

CAPILA: You know, there's wonderful resources up here in this community, particularly among the older people who many of them come from rural areas and have tremendous wisdom and knowledge and experience not only with plants but with the old arts of canning and preserves and making herbs, using herbs for a variety of purposes.

TULLY COSTA: One plan is to sell these canned delicacies at a local farmer's market to help support the project. The garden will also include a holistic health center. Women carpenters, masons, and plumbers will pitch in to create this Goddess Garden.

(Children yelling and playing)

TULLY COSTA: Another transformed lot is the playground at Public School 133. Bernadette Cozart and some kindergarten classes have created a tranquil spot complete with trees, lawn, roses, and a vegetable patch. Cozart says this oasis gives the children alternatives to damaging media images. She says TV and videos fill them with violent, sexist, anti-life imagery. Gardens do something else.

COZART: I find that when they're out here and they're working, for a lot of the kids this brings a very gentle side to them. Now there's something that depends on them. They must feed this and they must water this and they must clean it, and they must, you know, tend to its needs , pretty much like their parents tend to theirs. I think this makes children much more appreciative and understanding. Thank you. How are you?...

TULLY COSTA: But all these 6-year-olds understand is that they're having fun. One class of boisterous kindergarten students gathers in their green sanctuary. As this energetic kindergarten class plays around the zucchinis, tomatoes, and broccoli, one 6-year-old named Precious tells us about her pepper plant.

PRECIOUS: It's - it's growing. And it's green peppers grown from the leaves, and my name is on there. And there are flowers. And I feel nice. Oh, butterfly! Butterfly.

TULLY COSTA: And Precious runs off to chase her butterfly in the garden at Public School 133 in Harlem. For Living on Earth, I'm Evelyn Tully Costa.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth