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Mott Haven’s unity garden

Local 420 member starts garden to beautify her block


Photos courtesy of Wanda Swinney
On early mornings this summer Wanda Swinney, a Local 420 Service Aide at Lincoln Hospital, will trade her scrubs for overalls to harvest first fruits from a community garden she started behind the five-story College Avenue walkup in Mott Haven, where she has lived for 22 years.

“Every day I walked past this empty lot. Nothing was being done with it,” said Swinney, who for 10 years has cleaned Lincoln Hospital’s Adult Asthma and Allergy Clinic that treats thousands of patients with chronic lung disease.

“I envisioned a more beautiful block,” said the mother six who recently became a great-grandmother. To Swinney the neglected lot could easily become a place where neighbors could gather and where children could plant vegetation and grow flowers. So she approached the building super to ask for more access to the eyesore yard: “I told him can we do something with this space.”

At first he dismissed Swinney, but she persisted so he put her in touch with the owner. After a few conversations, Swinney and the landlord shared ideas and eventually worked up a plan to transform the bleak South Bronx plot into the bright and attractive community garden it is today.

This once desolate lot on College Avenue is now a vibrant community garden where neighbors and their children plant flowers, fruits and vegetables.
“Now it’s is a beautiful gathering place. There’s space for children to play, a place for neighbors to sit outside, and we grow nutritious food that we distribute at our little farmer’s market,” Swinney said.

Lincoln Hospital Service Aide Wanda Swinney transformed a neglected lot into a community garden.
But the College Avenue garden didn’t grown overnight. After organizing a block association, Swinney spoke to other building tenants, planting seeds along the way. Gradually more folks got on board. Of the 30 apartments in her building, Swinney said, more than half the residents now participate in the revitalization project.

Through workshops at the Citizens Committee, a nonprofit organization that helps New Yorkers-especially those in low-income areas- beautify their neighborhoods, Swinney and block association members are improving the quality of life in their South Bronx community. The College Avenue Block Association recently won two grants for $1,000 and $3,000 under the “Love Your Block” revitalization program.

All summer Swinney and her neighbors will enjoy the fruits of their labor- strawberries, lettuce, kale, tomatoes and other edibles they grew in raised boxes dotting the once-neglected Bronx plot.

“The price of produce keeps rising. We all need to eat more fruits and veggies to be healthier,” said Swinney, who took a page from former First Lady Michelle Obama’s community gardening and healthy eating initiative.

“We are proud of the initiative our union sister showed to make a change for the better right where she lives,” said Local 420 President Carmen Charles.

“I want to encourage others, to let them know we don’t have become what we see,” Swinney said. “We can make a difference, a beautiful difference, when we connect and work together.”