‘If you wait for the city to do it for you, you’re going to be waiting forever,’ Mike Young, founder of the Padre Plaza Community Success Garden. ‘Why are we waiting for someone else to be resourceful for us?’

Griffin Kelly

The garden hosted a block party and resource giveaway Saturday, June 12. The garden gave out fresh produce.

The Padre Plaza Community Success Garden on 139th Street is a pleasant sanctuary amid apartments, convenient stores and busy streets. There’s a gazebo where people can play checkers or read the paper. A little bridge crosses over a man-made pond. And of course, there’s the actual garden area, where residents grow peppers, tomatoes, strawberries and plenty of other produce

Mike Young, who founded the garden in 2006, sees Padre Plaza as more than just a space to relax and get some fresh air. His vision is to have the garden and its volunteers spearhead or at least influence other projects like feeding needy residents, pointing people in the direction of good health care plans and finding jobs for neighbors.

“That’s what a community garden should imply. It’s more than just a title. Sure, open the gates and let the community in, but also, you can be resourceful in so many other ways,” he said in a phone interview.

Young’s philosophy is reminiscent of that espoused by the many mutual aid groups that emerged last year in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, looking to fill the gaps in resources that governments failed to meet. While this type of grassroots organizing has been happening in communities for decades, the pandemic made such work even more vital. 

Griffin Kelly

Laquane “King” Barnes grills hotdogs during the Padre Plaza Community Success Garden resource giveaway.

“If you wait for the city to do it for you, you’re going to be waiting forever. If you wait for the police to bring you help and assistance, you’re going to be waiting forever,” Young said. “The city doesn’t live here. The police don’t live here. Why are we waiting for someone else to be resourceful for us?”

The garden hosted a block party and resource giveaway Saturday, giving out fresh produce. Guns Down, Life Up, an anti-violence group, handed out facemasks. Representatives from United Health Care, Fidelis Care, Team Care and Affinity showed residents how to sign up for their Medicaid options. According to the city Department of Health’s 2018 community health profile for Mott Haven and Melrose, 14 percent of adults are uninsured.

“We did a survey in the community, asking what the needs are, and we found out a lot of our community members didn’t have health insurance,” Young said. “They didn’t have proper resources about where to get food, clothing or housing. That’s when the team and I got together, and we strategized about what we could possibly do to reach out to our community and help them.”

The Padre Plaza garden is technically owned by the city Department of Parks & Recreation, but it’s entirely stewarded and funded by Mott Haven residents, Young said. It’s located in a part of the city that lacks ample green space. The waterfront in Port Morris is home to industrial sites and new market-rate housing that’s mostly inaccessible to residents. St. Mary’s Park is a few blocks north, but that’s been going through major renovations for the past three years.

Young also sees the garden and its influence as a way to alleviate the negative reputation often attributed to the South Bronx.

“All we hear about lately is the shootings, and the stabbings, the negativity, the raping, the kidnapping,” he said. “Whatever happened to everyone getting together and doing something productive? We lost the value of being resourceful with and to each other.”