APRIL 20, 2011
Maggie Burnett’s Remarkable Garden
In a cab at around Broadway and 130th Street, a neighborhood I’m not that familiar with, I glanced up from my BlackBerry and told myself, “You ought to look around.” Harlem used to be terra incognita to many New Yorkers, no less frightening, with its crime and drugs, than the edge of the world was to ancient mariners.
Fortunately, much of that has changed in recent years with better policing and the waning of the crack epidemic. But just as important in Harlem’s recovery has been the role of its citizens, such as Maggie Burnett, who last week received the Presidential Volunteer Service Award for the thousands of hours she’s spent over several decades transforming a vacant lot on 149th Street into a jewel-like community garden. Since the late ’90s her efforts have been aided by the New York Restoration Project, Bette Midler‘s nonprofit dedicated to the city’s open spaces.
When the cab pulled over to the curb and the driver pointed up the block, telling me the address I gave him was between Broadway and Amsterdam, I felt some of the apprehensions from the old daysâ€”that is, until I appreciated how welcoming the block looked. And in the middle of it stood the wrought-iron-gated garden, now called Maggie’s Garden, and the gardener who deserves much of the credit for transforming her street, and the surrounding neighborhood, from a shooting gallery into a model of what can happen when local citizens have the courage to take a stand.
“They threatened me,” Ms. Burnett, the superintendent of a building just up the street, said of the drug dealers who wanted to take over the vacant lot where, in the ’80s, she spent her days cleaning up garbage and planting a vegetable garden. “But that didn’t stop me, because I was determined. I’ve got a lot of faith. It gave me strength to go on.”
Ms. Burnett pointed at several handsome brownstones directly across the street. “These three buildings were infested with drug dealers. Every week it was somebody getting killed. I had seen homicides there twice in two days.
“I had a part of a fence at the front gate,” she went on, crediting both the Sanitation Department for removing the debris she gathered and the 30th Precinct for cracking down on crime. “I got a chain and some locks were donated to me. The drug dealers did their best to take over. I didn’t give up and they didn’t give up. My sister, a lot of people, told me I was crazy. I guess I inherited that from my motherâ€”she was a fighter her whole life.”
Ms. Burnett, who when asked her age said, “I’ll say about 67,” moved to New York from South Carolina when she was a teenager and has lived in the neighborhood ever since. She planted a vegetable patch that produced cabbages, tomatoes and cucumbers, but much of the space apparently remained a weed lot. In fact, a rooster and hen moved in; where they came from she doesn’t know.
“I woke up one morning and the rooster started crowing,” she said. “The hen laid the eggs and hatched the chickens. I was so proud of the chickens I wouldn’t take the eggs.”
The birds were hardly her most remarkable visitors. She remembers receiving a phone call from a gentleman one day in the late ’90s. “He said, ‘You may not know me, but I know you. I’m at your garden spot. I’ve got somebody who wants to meet you.’
“I said, ‘Who is it?'” Ms. Burnett remembered of that chilly morning.
“He said, ‘Put on a jacket and come on.’ There was a van parked out front. That’s when he introduced me to Bette Midler. We shook hands and she said, ‘Maggie, we’ve come to give you a helping hand for your garden.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ I’ll never forget that.
“She said, ‘No. Tomorrow morning at 6 o’clock you will hear tractors and trucks coming in here.’ I said, ‘Oh, thank god!’ I couldn’t sleep that night; I was wondering whether it was true. Sure enough, six o’clock that morning, I heard these Caterpillar trucks, because I was already up.”
Mayor Giuliani had decided to sell more than 100 community gardens, including Ms. Burnett’s, to developers. But a consortium of groups, including Ms. Midler’s, stepped in and over the next few weeks, with the help of garden designer Billie Cohen and AmeriCorps volunteers, transformed the 35- by 100-foot lot into an urban oasis with paths, seating areas, an arbor and a water source. “They put all the shrubs,” Ms. Burnett said, motioning around the now full, lush garden where the magnolias were starting to bloom. “They were very small.”
The space was officially dedicated in 2002, with both Ms. Midler and former President Bill Clinton in attendance. “At the ceremony President Clinton was shaking hands through the fence,” Ms. Burnett said proudly. “People were standing on the fire escapes.”
The garden felt inviting even on an overcast and unseasonably cool spring day, with stone benches bearing the names of New York Restoration Project donors. But it nonetheless remains a steadfastly neighborhood cause. “I get help,” Ms. Burnett said of NYRP, “but I like to do a lot of things myself. I don’t look to them for everything.”
There’s a religious statue in memory of a neighbor who worked side by side with Ms. Burnett on the garden (“I let it stay there in remembrance of him”); a grill hidden behind a hedge at the back of the garden where people barbeque in summer; a rose bush that preceded the garden’s transformation and was replanted alongside the front gate (“When it blooms you can see the roses to the topâ€”everybody calls it a rose tree,” the Presidential medal recipient explained); and raised boxes for growing vegetables. “Last year we had squash, okra, pepper, cucumber and beefsteak tomatoes,” Ms. Burnett boasted.
“It made the entire community better,” she reflected, “because before the garden people were flopping all over the sidewalk, they’d urinate everywhere. The drugs were just that bad. We have decent people in this neighborhood now. They want a clean neighborhood and work to keep it clean. They come into the garden and feel very comfortable.”