DescriptionHaja: My name is Haja Worley. I am the husband of Cindy Nibbelink Worley. I’m from Patterson, New Jersey by way of North Carolina. Growing up, my parents had a garden in the backyard. I'm sure the garden was not as big as it seemed to be when I was little. We grew collard greens and grapes, and had a peach tree and stuff like that. It stuck with me, you know: I’m a child of the soil. I moved to New York in the 1970s. We have been doing gardening for quite a while now, almost 38 years. I think that those of us who have an affinity for nature or for natural things, you know, gravitate towards something like gardening, but there was nothing like that here when we started. So, we developed something—the most basic thing you can do is put seeds in the ground.
Cindy: And my name is Cindy Nibbelink Worley. I was born in Iowa, actually. When I first moved to New York people in bodegas, and wherever else, would say, “so you're not from New York, are you? Where are you from?” And I’d say, ‘Iowa originally’, and they go, ‘oh, Idaho potatoes’. One time, I was in this little shop in midtown and the man said Hawaii, he must have thought I said Hawaii, and I said, “No, New Yorkers just don't know the difference between Idaho, Ohio, Hawaii, or Iowa.” So yeah, it is officially the corn state.
I always grew up with big gardens. My cousin says that her father always said Uncle Bill, my father, had the best garden. I mean, I didn't realize that, I thought everybody had a nice garden. We had an apple orchard. In the summer when I was a teenager I'd sell sweet corn, crab apples and other apples and rhubarb. A lot of rhubarb. We moved several times, but wherever we went my mom always had a big kitchen garden.
I lived in many different places: Michigan, England, Boston. And then I moved to New York in 1979, well about 1979, I don’t remember exactly. My first sublet was in Soho on Spring Street—it was a very different Soho then. Afterwards, I moved around a bit throughout the city, you know how it is. I was in between places when my friends, Bill and Marilyn, spoke to a man named Mr. Wilson and asked if he would be interested in having me as a tenant. And we met, you know, and it turned out he was. So, I moved to Harlem in 1982. Mr. Wilson became a good friend, he was like a grandfather to me.
I went back to cooking and baking in health food restaurants within a short time of moving here. I would walk down the street to get the bus to go to work every morning and would see this vacant lot. I said to Mr. Wilson, you know, we ought to make that into a garden. He was from Guyana originally and he grew up gardening. Before Mr. Wilson came to New York he worked in the interior of Guyana doing logging. He came here with a history from Guyana of horticulture and everything. He loved horticulture, he had a big peach tree in his backyard.
So, I talked to different people but nobody really knew much about the lot. There were just a few guerilla gardens around then. Finally, I went to someone in the Harlem State Office Building and they told me there was an organization in the city that could help, and through that I found out about GreenThumb and found out about an organization called the City Volunteer Corps. City Volunteer Corps was sponsored by the Department of Youth and it was made up of young people who were high school dropouts. The Corps would send them upstate, or something, to do some very rigorous training for a couple of weeks and then they would be sent out in teams to help community organizations. It was sort of like a youth employment thing. They would get a weekly stipend and would have to work toward getting their GED.
It was 1984 when I first started with the garden with Mr. Wilson. And then of course we realized that, you know, there was a lot of weeding to be done and we had to call sanitation to get some big objects out. We worked with the young people from the volunteer corps to get the garden started. That was the very, very beginning. The garden was originally eight lots, which were each about 12 feet wide. We’ve lost half of them to development since. The garden was renamed in the memory of Mr. Wilson after he passed in 1993. He shoved the first shovel in the ground.
Haja: We hadn’t met yet then. I came along in what was it, late 1986 or 1987? So, she was doing it all mostly with Mr. Wilson and the CVC. And you had a peace symbol in the garden?
Cindy: Oh yeah. The young people decided to make the center of the garden into like a peace sign with the rocks that we had dug up. They made a big peace sign and we painted the rocks white. Mr. Wilson was very worried. He'd say, “oh, Cindy, you know, that people are just going to destroy it.” At the time, there was a lot of garbage dumping on any open space, so he was worried. But we never had that issue. I mean, it seems like after we began to clear the land and stuff people became more interested in it, you know? It wasn’t an interest to the community when it was a garbage strewn lot, but once it was cleared, I guess people began to see the possibilities
I was also teaching part time at Malcolm King College located in the Old Theresa Hotel which still exists. And I just went there and said, you know, I'm an English teacher. Everybody who taught there just worked for a small volunteer stipend. And at one point I decided to join the gospel chorus and Haja was the lead singer of the Gospel Chorus, and the rest is history. We just became good friends and saw eye to eye on so many things.
Haja: You know, one of the things that connected us was Cindy always talking about community gardens and stuff like that. And I had worked in, you know, trying to reclaim buildings and stuff in Brooklyn, so it interested me. I had also worked in New Jersey on some similar community-based projects. I really liked what I was hearing from her and I decided to come on board so to speak. The first year we had a cherry tree, and the children used to love the cherry tree before it ended up getting bulldozed. They’d climb up it like they were down south or something. Aside from the CVC, we also had a group of young boys from the neighborhood who would come in and do work in the garden. They worked harder than the adults did, and I would give them a little stipend, you know. The thing was to encourage them, and they would come to work almost every day. They would come to the door and say, you know, like, “are we going to the garden today?” Or they see me in the street, “are we going to the garden today?”
At the time, there were dealers in the community and we wanted them to know they didn’t have to idolize these drug dealers, you know, because that is what a lot of street children did back then. That's what they identified with, you know. They didn't know any better and they identified with drug dealers and the traffic and stuff. The guys coming in their fresh gear every day and clothes. And so they would identify with that and wanted to emulate that without knowing the consequences. They were always willing to come and work. One of the most remarkable things, I guess is that in all the time that we were working in the garden, we never had any fights between the young people, you know, the little ones or the old ones. We never had any conflict. There's a different type of energy in the garden than you witness on the concrete. They were an example of the possibilities when you expose people to different things, there is no telling what they will rise up to do.
Cindy: The garden just feels safe. One night I was walking home from a meeting and I walked into the garden and I just felt like I was almost being embraced. There's a young woman who works as a social worker, she works with troubled young people, which is emotionally draining. And she had called me a few times and then I met her and I told her about the situation with the garden and she was almost in tears. She said, “oh, please, nothing can happen with the garden; that’s my refuge.” It has drawn people in. And all the people who were out sitting on the stoops would come to the garden. Like Robin from down the street. Haja do you remember her?
Haja: Uh-huh, the woman who made the pigs’ feets. (Laughs)
Cindy: She was really into having a garden. The first year we planted a cherry tree and an apple tree. Then we had some donations and we did that more in the summer. It gets blurry. The first day of planting, or the last day of planting whatever, after everything was as cleaned up, I said to the children, you know, we really need everybody's help. And they went to the stoops and they said, ‘come on, everybody has to plant one plant’. And they all came and they did. I mean, even the guys who drank a lot and stuff, they left their beer and they came down and they really loved it.
The garden was really cultivated by the neighborhood. Even the people who did not get directly involved watched the progress. Our mission has always been to revitalize a great community, you know? So it had to do a lot with neighborhood revitalization. We’ve always had a ton of community gatherings. So we've been around for a long time and we're hoping to be around as long as green thumb supports us and as long as we can maintain a community interests.
-This story contributes to a larger project, Garden Memories: An Oral History of Urban Community Gardens, conducted by Elizabeth Eggimann. Elizabeth is an environmentalist and student researcher at Pace University.