St Mary's Anglican Church, as seen from the Willis Ave Community Garden. Photo: Christian Nazario.

A community garden in Mott Haven and another in Melrose will each receive necessary funding for important upgrades, buoyed by a letter of support from Bronx Community Board 1. 

But some local residents say they wish the gardens were easier for the public to get into before celebrating the gift. At Board 1’s June meeting at Lincoln Hospital, the New York Restoration Project’s Chief Capital Officer, Gary Dearborn, made his organization’s case for the Willis Avenue Community Garden and the Dalia Group Community Garden to get the money they need to install in-ground watering systems.

In total, six Restoration Project gardens citywide will receive $600,000 for upgrades. $480,000 of that will come from the state, while private donors will provide the rest.

The Restoration Project acquired both properties in 2000, after the city attempted to sell off them for redevelopment.

Presently, watering both gardens requires bringing in a contractor to access water from hydrants on the street, with approval from the Department of Environmental Protection. 

“It’s kind of remarkable that both of these gardens for all these years have not had a dedicated in-ground water service,” said Dearborn. 

The current watering system at the Willis Avenue garden consists of tapping into a fire hydrant on the street. Residents use that same hydrant to cool off during the summer, draining it of the water the gardeners need for their raised beds. 

Some in the neighborhood have criticized the gardens as being closed too frequently. The owners and customers of Las Yaris Deli Food on East 143rd St across from the Willis Avenue garden say it is rarely accessible to the public and that the gatekeepers allow only friends and acquaintances inside.  

But the garden coordinator, Yesseide Oppenheimer, said she abides by the Restoration Project’s policy of keeping it open at least 20 hours a week, and sometimes longer. But issues ranging from people sleeping in the garden and stealing fruits and vegetables, to others shooting up and urinating, have caused her to adopt a stricter schedule. 

Oppenheimer hopes that upgrades and additions, such as security cameras, new lighting, and reconfiguration of the front gate, will be enough to keep violators out. 

Jose Ramos juggles oversight of the Dahlia Members Garden on Cortlandt Avenue in Melrose with a job as a security officer. Previously, he worked at Pepe’s Pizza next door to the garden. Ramos would like to see the garden redesigned, and for holes in the walls to be covered to keep out rats that have plagued the garden, as well as nearby restaurants. 

One restaurant owner complained the garden keeps its trash outside for too long. 

“Sometimes a week goes by and his trash is still out there. They are barely ever there and it affects people wanting to come into the restaurant,” said Jose Maldonado, who recently opened Que Rico next door. 

Pepe’s Pizza owner, Sylvester Ramos, is unhappy about the rats, and about loud late-night parties at the garden that sometimes extend into the early mornings, and that generate considerable trash.  

“They drink beer, and in the nighttime when we walking outside of work, all the rats is passing by through the garden. So it gives us problems,” he said. 

After multiple attempts to visit the garden during different times of day, the Herald found it closed.

According to the Restoration Project’s Senior Engagement Manager Jessica North, that organization sets the rules, but it is up to the garden coordinators to enforce them. 

“You need to volunteer for X many hours before you can become a member,” said North. “You have to attend garden meetings and things of that nature. And then the garden group actually is the one who enforce those rules.”

Both garden coordinators agreed that the Restoration Project responds quickly when contacted to request changes or repairs providing tools and supplies. 

The new designs and services are expected to be added during the winter, in time for next spring’s opening. For now, North’s message to the gardens and their chief gardeners is to make a schedule and abide by it. 

“Make sure you’re sticking to your open hours so that the community knows when you’re open and when they can visit,” said North.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Dalia and Willis community gardens alone would receive $600,000 for upgrades, split between them. In fact, the $600,000 amount will be split among six gardens around the city, with specific sums per garden yet to be decided. 

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