The William A. Harris Garden


My name is Lori Harris, and I’m a community gardener. I'm quite sure I wouldn't have been a gardener if it wasn't for my father. I mean I like to grow plants in the house or whatever. But, I really took an interest in watching him be interested in doing this. He grew up in Virginia, on a farm and had eighty five acres of land. His family were farmers. He came to New York and worked for the sanitation, but when he retired he needed something to do. He just could not stop, you know, to slow down is very hard. Gardening was his favorite thing to do, so you know, every day he be up there most of the day doing his gardening and it kept him going for a very long time. My father lasted 91 years. And when he got his knees replaced and he couldn't do it in anymore, he would still come up the hill and he would teach me and my sister what to do because we really didn't have a clue. But you know, you learn through trying. So here we are many years later. I got roots.

We've been at this for a long time. My father started the garden in 1979. He has since passed. It started, I really believed, because my father needed to get back into his gardening. At the beginning of his adventure into making it a garden, nobody was taking care of it. Half a city block abandoned and there were only flowers in there. He found some teenagers in the neighborhood to help him clean it out and started gardening. At that time, it was the only garden in the neighborhood. I was a rebellious teenager. When he was growing vegetables and I was a teenager, I swore I would never eat anything off of St. Nicholas Avenue in the garden. And as I got older, I had to help take care of the garden with my father because he was getting older and he had knee surgery, and after that my sister and I took over the garden and we've been in charge ever since.

Now there’s a few gardens in the neighborhood. An elderly lady on Convent Avenue liked our garden so much she started her own garden. It used to be a gas station. So that’s how that one started. The garden really brought our neighborhood together. We have a lot of people that come by the garden, just passing in the neighborhood, wanting to know how they can come and join. We belong to New York Cares, they bring volunteers and they come once a month. I've had people volunteer through New York Cares all the way from Australia. But really, it's not that many neighborhood people unless I'm barbecuing. Then they show up (laughs). But the rule of the garden is if you don't work in it, you don't eat out of it. And I'm very serious about that. Help preserve your neighborhood.

I was born in this neighborhood. In the same building, in the apartment next door to where I live now. So I lived here all my life. I'm the mayor lady. It has really changed. A lot of people that used to live on the block are gone now, with the up rising rents, they were pushed out. Aside from that,  I don't see any bad in the neighborhood now. I really am positive about the upgrade and what it has done and the people on the block are much happier now, you know. The garden space for the neighborhood is an area that they can convene and socialize, especially for the seniors to be able to get out of the house. They had a senior center one block from here, they closed it so they don't really have anywhere to go. You know, where they can play Bingo or whatever, and they go have lunch, it would helped them with their housing situation and all of that. So now the seniors kind of come visit my garden and that's fine because I've known these people my whole life and they are still part of the neighborhood and they need to know somebody cares.

A lot of times people come back because of the time they have had in the garden. We're a welcoming garden. If anybody wants to join they are welcome to come. The neighborhood has changed, and now we have a lot of Mexican people, and I know the Mexican people like to grow vegetables and stuff like that. I'm always welcoming them to come up and come join us. We have ten members, but they are not all in the neighborhood. I have some people that come from the Bronx just because. All of them have been members for over 15 years.

We've had many groups that have come. I have had the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts. They have come and worked in the garden and earned their badges. You have to teach kids the future. When they come in and they plant the seed, and they come back and they water it, and they actually see a piece of fruit or a vegetable that grows, that's how you teach the young people. You asked them, where vegetables come from and they tell you the neighborhood grocery, and they have no clue. You got to teach kids. And I found that was very rewarding for me.  Because at least we know that if they take an interest in it, we can keep this up. We have to become sustainable.

I work at St Mary’s Center. It’s a nursing home and outpatient facility for people with HIV. I work in the finance office, but I'm also a social worker and everything else because you gotta do what you gotta do. I bring my patients to the garden every once in a while because they need to get out the nursing home. They need a new atmosphere, they need to see flowers, literally it improves their psyche. It really does. There's no denying. It just makes people feel better to go to a green space and see flowers and butterflies. You know, some people have depression and to get out and see something different is the best thing you could do for that. I have a neighbor that has depression and I'm constantly trying to get her up there and if she comes up there, it changes her day. So, you know, if I can help out in any way, I always try. It brings a smile to their face and it really brings one to mine. I feel like I'm doing something good. We’ve had barbecues in the garden, jazz sessions, we’re planning an art expo for this summer. We've had health days in the garden, where people could come find out about asthma and how the greenery helps the people with asthma. The city needs more trees.

Far as me being a gardener, that's a full time job also. You never realize how much work that is until you are running up there to water the garden or pulling weeds, whatever it is. But community gardening helps people. We've had to go to marches, we've had to go to meetings and we have faced community boards and builders that want to take away gardens and we have become very successful. We don't always win, but we give them a run for their money. We’ve stood in front of bulldozers. You know, you gotta do what you gotta do, for what you believe is right. And I think it has improved my life too. I have met so many people that I cannot tell you that I would have never met in life through gardening. When I walk into the garden and see all the color, that really makes me happy. People come into visit the garden or a group comes from, like I told you, Australia, to meet people that are interested in that is very important, you know.

The William A. Harris Community Garden has been recognized for its many accomplishments, including: 2001 Proclamation from President of Borough of Manhattan, 2005 Award from the  GreenThumb Organization, Article in the Daily News for Earth Day, Article in El Diario Newspaper, Article in the New York Times, Proclamation from Councilman Robert Jackson, First  Community Service Award from the Department of Sanitation, Awarded the Presidential pen from President Obama from community service, Awarded the Prince Hall first community leader award for Christmas season community togetherness.

-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.

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Elizabeth Eggimann, “The William A. Harris Garden,” Community of Gardens, accessed April 17, 2024, https:/​/​communityofgardens.​si.​edu/​items/​show/​12331.​
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