New York Restoration Project (NYRP), a citywide parks and nature conservancy championing green space in underserved neighborhoods, is no stranger to random acts of kindness. In fact, we are the outgrowth of two.
First, in a neglected Manhattan park nearly thirty years ago, our founder Bette Midler picked up a single piece of trash – one small piece out of hundreds of tons that had accumulated over the years. Soon, she was joined by family, friends, and other volunteers whose collective selflessness and commitment brought four cherished parks – Fort Tryon, Fort Washington, Highbridge, and Sherman Creek – back to life.
A few short years later, Bette and the newly incorporated NYRP responded to another threat to the city’s green spaces, rallying to save 114 community gardens being auctioned off for development by the Giuliani administration. In this case, it was the spontaneous solidarity of community groups, open space organizations, and individual donors whose generously given time, coordination, and financial support saved these gardens for the thousands of community members who depended on them.
Today, NYRP manages 52 of these community gardens citywide as well as 80 acres of parkland, and our Gardens for the City program transforms outdoor spaces into flourishing gardens for community partners in all five boroughs. In each of these green spaces, we are fortunate to witness random acts of kindness by gardeners and community members on an almost daily basis.
Photo courtesy of NYRP.
At Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Garden, in Brooklyn, long-time garden coordinator Brian harvests vegetables from one of the long, communal raised beds jointly cared for by garden members and local school kids. The heirloom tomatoes, iridescent eggplants, and bundles of fresh herbs are arranged on a small table at the garden’s entrance – free for the taking for any passersby in need of some extra veggies that week.
Across the city at Target Bronx Community Garden in Highbridge, The Bronx, members harvest ingredients from their raised beds and whip up an impromptu, garden-to-table breakfast to be shared in the tranquil green space over coffee and relaxed conversation. Afterwards, gardener Hilda collects the leftover ingredients and distributes them to senior citizen neighbors in her apartment building.
And across the Harlem River, at Riley-Levin Children’s Garden in Inwood, Manhattan, Deputy Director for Urban Agriculture Corey Blant and his team harvest produce from 16 raised beds to be distributed to community fridges in the area, many of which sprang up overnight in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic to help feed hungry neighbors.
The sharing of food with our neighbors is one of the oldest gestures of kindness, breaking down cultural and linguistic barriers. At NYRP community gardens – 83% of which support urban agriculture, providing over 18,000 square feet of growing space – food offers an avenue for meeting new neighbors, strengthening community ties, and helping community members who’ve fallen on hard times.
Photo Credit: Heather Butts
Education & Literacy
In Manhattan’s East Harlem community, a lifelong resident of East 111th Street strolls down the block and deposits a tote bag’s worth of children’s books into the recently installed Little Free Library in front of Herb Garden, a narrow pocket garden nestled between two apartment buildings in the bustling neighborhood. Hours later, garden coordinator Crystal watches as local kids run, ride, and scooter up to the library, eager to snatch up the latest arrivals.
“The library is a diversion from everyday life for some of our community members,” Crystal says. “For our younger members, it’s a bit of a thrill. I love watching them come to the library to see what goodies they can find.”
NYRP began installing Little Free Libraries in front of our parks and community gardens in 2020, and just two years later nearly half of our gardens have one. The initiative joins our other efforts at promoting education and literacy in our gardens, including hosting family story-time events with local branches of the New York Public Library. Initially stocked by NYRP with books for both children and adult readers, the Little Free Libraries are now enthusiastically replenished by local community members, each donated book an anonymous act of kindness passed on to an eager reader.
Photo Credit: Ben Hider
Back north again, at Highbridge Park in Inwood, six local residents stand in a circle at the forested entrance to the park, receiving instructions from NYRP Landscape Manager Chris McArdle. As volunteer members of our monthly Highbridge Forest Crew, they’ve dedicated their Saturday morning to picking up trash, removing invasive species, and planting native trees in the park – one of Manhattan’s largest forests and home to hundreds of species of plants and animals.
Today, the volunteers will be reforesting a steep slope overlooking the Harlem River, planting dozens of white oaks, hackberries, and sugar maples. The trees will help stabilize the slope, preventing erosion during the heavy rainstorms that have become more frequent as the climate changes. Once mature, they’ll also help cool the surrounding neighborhood and filter air pollution.
Downslope, the newly planted trees will protect a delicate stream ecosystem – home to the rare dusky salamander. Thought to be extinct in Manhattan for at least 6 decades, the salamander was rediscovered by NYC Parks Department ecologists in 2006, and Highbridge Park is its only known home in the borough. Our volunteers’ act of kindness – a Saturday morning donated to their local park – helps give this unique Manhattan resident a fighting chance.
Why are parks and gardens so conducive to random acts of kindness? In a city as large, crowded, and sometimes impersonal as NYC, these public yet intimate spaces invite New Yorkers from all walks of life to share and appreciate nature’s gifts together, and inspire us to be kind and generous with each other.
Learn more about NYRP’s work – generously supported by The Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation – here.