A small green space in Queens helps court-involved youths turn their lives around.
The first time Tatiana visited the Curtis “50 Cent” Community Garden in Jamaica, Queens, she didn’t want to touch the dirt.
“It was scary,” she says. “I just had to stick my hand in real quick and get it over with.”
That was around two years ago. Tatiana, then in 10th grade, had racked up around 200 absences at her nearby high school. She was failing all of her classes, and a handful of petty crimes had landed her in juvenile court. Through the Queens Youth Justice Center, an alternative-to-detention program, Tatiana was placed in an all-girls group. Every Thursday, Shernette Pink, who runs the program, led the teenagers in conversations about self-esteem and motivation—discussions they rarely had at home or school.
But it wasn’t all talk. Pink had recently been contacted by Heather Butts, a coordinator with H.E.A.LT.H. For Youths, a leadership and development nonprofit that established a presence in the 50 Cent Garden, one of the few green spaces in a neighborhood where public parks make up only 3 percent of the total acreage. Butts suggested bringing some of the teens from the Queens Youth Justice Center to volunteer at the garden.
Tatiana was one of the first from the program to work in the garden, a 10,983 square-foot, well-manicured corner lot at the edge of a sleepy residential neighborhood. Just overhead, the Long Island Railroad occasionally rumbles by. The New York Restoration Project (NYRP), a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up public spaces across the five boroughs, bought up the land along with 51 other plots in the late ‘90s. In 2008, a donation from the rapper 50 Cent (who grew up in the area) funded a rainwater harvesting system and overhauled planting areas.
Elderly neighborhood residents oversee most of the beds, where they tend to rotating crops of runner beans, kale, tomatoes, and the occasional pumpkin. Before Tatiana started working alongside them, she’d never gardened before. “I am not a nature person,” she says. “I won’t even go camping.” But something about the garden kept her coming back. With the help of the elderly locals, many of whom came to Queens from the West Indies, Tatiana planted a bed of marigolds and tomatoes; this year, she’s growing eggplant. “I feel like I’ve helped to make something,” Tatiana says.
After she started coming to the garden every week, Tatiana, now 17, transferred schools. She started attending classes; her average jumped from a 55 percent to a 94. From her new school, it takes her an hour and a half and two bus transfers to reach the garden, but every Tuesday afternoon, she’s there.
“For kids like Tatiana, it’s a calming place,” says Butts, who also lectures in law and public health policy at Columbia University. “It’s a way for her to get away from the other turmoil in her life. I don’t know where else she would go for that. The garden is far away for her, but she gets here because it’s important to her; it’s her responsibility.”
H.E.A.L.T.H. For Youths brings kids in to work at two other NYRP gardens throughout the city: the Riley-Levin Children’s Garden in Manhattan, and the Westervelt Garden in Staten Island. Butts, working across all of them, says she’s been surprised at “how into it these kids get.” Behind her in the 50 Cent Garden, three 16-year-old boys from the Queens Youth Justice Center pump water and cart it over to their respective beds. They’re working on their own; the elders, done for the day, watch them from their seats at the picnic tables under the shade created by the rainwater collection towers.
A community garden connects people to one another, says Deborah Marton, the executive director of NYRP. “There are not many activities in our culture where young people, old people, people of different races will all agree and find it easy to work together,” she says. “There’s a transfer of knowledge here, about gardening specifically, but also a transfer of wisdom and values: of what’s important in life in general.”
For the kids who come to the garden from the alternative-to-detention programs, it’s an introduction to a different speed of life. “You wouldn’t know from seeing them here,” says Butts, gesturing to the teens tending their tomatoes behind her, “but in the past they’ve had some impulse control issues: thought goes to action very quickly. With gardening, you can’t do that. You have to think very carefully about where to plant things, and when to water them.”
Tatiana and the boys from the Queens Youth Justice Center wax poetic about how much better the tomatoes they’ve grown in the garden taste than the ones from the supermarket; when they harvest the crops in September, they’ll bring whatever they’ve grown home with them. But other takeaways are less tangible.
“What does gardening do?” Butts says. “It gets you active, it teaches you about responsibility, it teaches you about caring for something outside of yourself. If you become a good gardener, you’ve learned all of that.”