Walking into the 138th Street Community Garden in the South Bronx, one finds a landscape full of planting beds, trees, and wood chips. Local gardeners cultivate everything from tomatoes, cucumbers, and kale, to flowers, grapevines, and even peach and cherry trees.
But, this is not only a second home for those with green thumbs. “This is a garden, but it’s also a gathering place for the community, “ explains Luis “Murphy” Pellot-Rodriguez, Jr., a local resident and one of the garden’s volunteer organizers, as he points to brightly colored tables and benches, performance stages, artworks, and other ornaments. Among other things, there’s a train set constructed from pieces of wood and found objects, a mural painted by neighborhood teens, and pinwheels all over the place. This place has a cheery, welcoming vibe.
Venture further in and you’ll discover that there are actually two separate, though connected community gardens here. The 138th Street Community Garden extends from its namesake street to the midpoint of the block where it meets the United We Stand Community Garden, which covers the southern half of the property and stretches down to 137th Street. Although each garden is administered by separate groups of local residents, they are connected by an open pathway.
There are subtle differences between the two sides. The garden to the north has a higher proportion of common areas and a vibrant mix of colors, while on the south there is a greater concentration of planting beds and a gazebo with muted tones.
Located in Mott Haven near the Cypress Avenue subway station, together the two gardens cover over half an acre and have about 80 planting beds. The fruits and vegetables grown here help feed not only the gardeners and their families, but “when we pick fruit from our trees,” Pellot-Rodriguez told me, “we put them in baskets and share them with our neighbors, including folks from a nearby homeless shelter.”
There’s much to see when visiting these gardens, but what will probably first capture your attention is The Watcher, a larger-than-life statue of a man peering into a pair of binoculars. He sits on a platform along 138th Street.
Who is he and and what’s he looking at? While his origins remain uncertain, there’s an interesting story of how this piece of public art found its way here.
Like many South Bronx properties, this site was abandoned and became City-owned in the 1970s and remained vacant for years. The neighborhood faced a host of problems, including crime, poverty, and disinvestment and sites like this reflected those stresses.
About twenty years ago, with the help of Monsignor Gerald Ryan from St. Luke’s Church, located across the street, the property was converted into four community gardens, fenced off from each other. While a few stalwart gardeners remained through thick and thin, over the years the condition of the gardens declined and the site became a dumping ground for garbage. Things got even worse when it was heavily damaged by a fire in 2015.
However, one survivor of the fire was The Watcher. He had been placed there a few years earlier by Isaac Morales, a colorful neighborhood character, who reportedly rescued the statue from a junkyard. For reasons unknown, Morales, at his own initiative, placed The Watcher on his perch just inside what was then known as St. Luke’s Garden. Some think the statue resembles “Mr. Six,” a character featured in commercials for Great Adventure and other amusement parks. Perhaps Morales wanted to inspire a sense of fun among his neighbors.
Instead of signaling the end of the story, the fire in 2015 sparked efforts to revitalize the site with new and improved community gardens. Local residents teamed up with the Parks Department’s Green Thumb program, GrowNYC, and volunteers from various organizations. Garbage was removed, new topsoil added, and planting beds rebuilt during 2016 and 2017. Even The Watcher got a revamp, with his suit repainted from a somber gray to a brighter blue and a new pair of shoes crafted by a volunteer.
The old arrangement of four walled-off gardens was replaced with the current open layout. Now, there is a waiting list for garden plots and public events are held throughout the gardening season, such as pumpkin painting in October. Both gardens attract a cross section of the community, including senior citizens and families with kids.
Besides the gardeners, volunteers, and The Watcher, there may be others keeping an eye on things. Isaac Morales died a few years ago after failing health and The Watcher has been dedicated to his memory. Monsignor Ryan, who served as parish priest at St. Luke’s until age 93, passed away in 2013. Pellot-Rodriguez is preparing to install a tribute to him in the garden. Perhaps, both of them are guardian angels, watching over this reborn slice of heaven on earth.