How One South Bronx Community Garden Seeks to Nurture More Than Plants

Many mornings, Maxy Rivera makes his way to the community garden to pull weeds, tend plants and greet neighbors who pass by the lush spread situated among the bustling streets and brick buildings of the South Bronx.

When he retired as a postal worker, Mr. Rivera had his entire retirement planned out: relaxing, traveling and spending time with family. His plans did not include running a garden. Yet there he is, spending much of his time at the Rainbow Garden of Life and Health, where he now works. As the name suggests, the garden aims to cultivate access to healthful homegrown vegetables and nature in the neighborhood.

The garden is open to the community as a place to gather and teach residents unfamiliar with gardening about raising their own fruits and vegetables.

“I have many students coming in during the springtime,” Mr. Rivera, who took over from a sick friend, said. “I enjoy teaching them. I enjoy what I do.”

Mr. Rivera is one of many gardeners in the South Bronx who have helped transform vacant and abandoned lots into bursts of green. His hope is that the effort has a deeper influence on the neighborhood, going beyond just sprucing up an unsightly space. As various efforts in the Bronx aim to improve the quality of life, reduce crime and increase community engagement, he and others believe the garden is a key ingredient.

Research has shown that crime decreases in neighborhoods as the amount of green space grows. One study from researchers at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that vegetation can help alleviate mental fatigue, one of the factors that can lead to violent behavior. Community gardens can also deter crime, as they draw residents in and put more “eyes on the street,” according to the study.

Even as crime has fallen to historic lows across New York City, the garden is located in the Melrose neighborhood, near the 40th Precinct — one area where violence persists. Still, neighbors have noticed improvements and the garden has been welcomed.

“There is no other open space in our urban community that is open, that a person can enter and have some piece of agriculture in their own neighborhood,” said Argelia Ortiz, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. “These community gardens are positively impacting the community economically and environmentally.”

Ms. Ortiz vividly recalls an era when the neighborhood was substantially worse off. She was a teenager when she witnessed a fire at an abandoned school a mile from Yankee Stadium, while the team was playing Game Two of the 1977 World Series. The fire gained notoriety from the references the sportscaster Howard Cosell made during the game broadcast, including saying at one point, “The Bronx is burning.”

New York, New York. Mirja Jahan waters the plants in her lot in the Rainbow Garden of Life and Health as her mother, Sufia Jahan,73, watches. Mirja has lived in the South Bronx for the last eight years and comes to the garden nearly daily to tend to her plants. Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech for the New York Times Institute.

Ms. Ortiz remembers the neighborhood after the fire. The remaining ash and rubble was left to sit, and the smell of smoke and scorched wood lingered.

“The burned buildings weren’t cleared up until after about five to six years later,” she recalled. “After they were cleared up, the South Bronx was full of vacant lots.”

Many of the lots were largely untouched, by their owners, for years, and they were filled with trash and choked with weeds. Ms. Ortiz became frustrated by the abundance of blight and she became involved in Nos Quedamos, a community organization focused on affordable housing and building in the South Bronx.

“I’m happy to see that the South Bronx has become an agricultural fortress,” Ms. Ortiz said. “Back in the day, when nobody knew what to do with the land, many of us got together and said let’s do something positive.”

And so the Rainbow Garden blossomed, not far from the site of what represented one of the most turbulent points in the Bronx’s history.

A recent event to discuss veterans’ mental health was an example of how the garden’s role in the neighborhood extends beyond tending to plants. Stories were shared of South Bronx residents’ service in the Vietnam War, and Jose Candelario, a health care advocate, reviewed mental health resources available to veterans and other residents who needed help.

“These gardens are a product of social justice,” Mr. Candelario said. “We have to teach one another and use these gardens as a safe space to learn and gather.”

The garden is also working with the middle school next door. As a part of their science classes, students will learn how to plant and will receive their own plot to grow fruits and vegetables.

There is hope that their involvement will benefit the garden as well as the students.

“These connections with schools can often strengthen the community garden because they tend to bring more people and activity,” said Steve Frillmann, the executive director of Green Guerillas, a New York organization that supports community gardens.

Mr. Rivera is welcoming, but maintains a strict list of rules: no smoking, no drinking and no hanging around. He has worked hard to build the garden and fears that, without those rules, the garden could return to a forgotten patch.

“I invite anyone into my garden as long as they are respectful and follow the rules,” Mr. Rivera said. “This is not a hangout spot. I want people to learn and grow here.”