September 12, 2017
By Kim Ahrens, Communications Intern
The New York Restoration Project (NYRP) was founded by Bette Midler in 1995 with the conviction that every New Yorker deserves a well-maintained area of open space near their home. To reach this goal, NYRP has planted trees, created community gardens, restored open spaces, and purchased land to create new green spaces. NYRP focuses their work on high density and low-income areas to create a joyous space to escape to.
When NY4P met with Jason and Donte of NYRP at the Family Garden in East Harlem, it didn’t take long to realize the amount of passion they have for their work. To them it is not just a job, it is something that they truly believe in and enjoy. But, before NYRP neither of them imagined themselves making a living with a career in horticulture.
Jason Sheets has been with the organization for 17 years, and over the years, has earned the title of Deputy Director of Community Gardens. Jason started with NYRP in 2000 creating a steady maintenance level within the community gardens. He now focuses his work on the grant programs that NYRP has to build special projects outside of their owned land. He has also been a mentor for many people within the organization, such as Donte, and thoroughly enjoys his position and the work that he does. He says the people at NYRP are so close it’s like another family. Jason sometimes wonders if he should pursue something different or make a career change, but each time he finds himself coming back to the foundation because there is always something new and different going on within NYRP. “These gardens have been part of my life for 17 years and it is really a testament to the organization, the work we do, the partnerships I have with folks in this community, and the community based organizations. It’s really hard to walk away from something you have put so much time into as well as seeing the potential these spaces still have.” Whether it be a new initiative or reaching their goal of planting one million trees around NYC a whole year ahead of schedule, Jason can’t see him leaving this career behind.
Donte Taylor discovered that after about a semester and a half of college that it wasn’t for him. He had no idea what he wanted to do in life and struggled to find the next step. That was until he unintentionally discovered his passion for horticulture after seeing a sign for graffiti removal through NYRP. He checked out the opportunity just looking to make some money and, instead, began his career with NYRP and has earned the position of Director of Garden Horticulture.
“I had no idea I would ever take a liking into horticulture or community gardens. My field interview was supposed to be graffiti removal in Highbridge Park, but there were a whole bunch of broken branches that covered the pathway that made the park inaccessible. [We] had these handsaws and removed the branches. I liked it because it was physical work and I had the chance to work up a sweat, so I was excited to join from that day.” Donte has been with NYRP for 14 years and works out in the field helping his maintenance team and executing plant designs working alongside Jason, while viewing him as his mentor, Donte is extremely grateful for the opportunities he has been given and never takes it for granted. “I had the chance throughout my childhood to live for a few years in the Bronx and Manhattan, and I remember as a young kid seeing all these lots that NYRP now owns. Now today I am able to maintain these spaces and it has been a great thing to me.”
NYRP privately owns 52 community gardens spread throughout the five boroughs. These spaces owned by NYRP are classified as privately owned public space, meaning anyone can access it just like they do a public park. A community garden is a publicly cared for garden cultivating plants and fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of the land before it was bought by NYRP contained old or unkempt community gardens, so it was a challenge to begin bringing people in to maintain them. “When I first came in [to the community gardens], it was to meet the people and not come in as the landowner trying to kick the people out and I wanted to figure out what the use of the space is and how we can build on that. Slowly, but surely we started getting these gardens reopened. We started to get school groups to come in and held public movie nights to get more people in to break down the enigma of what the space is because it really is for the public.”
Although you can plant whatever you want in these spaces, NYRP can offer advice on which plants thrive in different environments. NYRP will also provide you with seeds to plant as well. The foundation holds workshops and projects open to the community to advance their horticulture knowledge and to encourage the neighborhood to participate in their local community garden. These gardens also double as a public meeting space that can be used as a public gathering area or even a classroom.
The spaces owned by NYRP are open different hours based on their use. The agricultural sites are open less frequently to prevent people from picking other residents’ vegetables, while other spaces are open from dawn until dusk. Jason explained NYRP “mandates at least 20 open hours per park each week and those hours are posted on our bulletin board and on our website as well.”
One of the most fulfilling parts of Donte and Jason’s jobs is meeting and maintaining relationships with the gardeners who contribute to the community gardens. Donte and Jason admit that when they first started working in these communities, residents living in the surrounding area were not quickly to accept that there were new, unknown people coming in to transform their public space. However, over time they became more accepting and appreciative of the work completed and that is what has led to such strong relationship between NYRP employees and members of the community. Creating and maintaining these relationships with the public is an extremely important amenity that NYRP has, because it keeps the people coming back to use and care for the open space.
Jason and Donte are both extremely grateful for the opportunities NYRP has given them to create their career. They each credit the incredible people within the organization in helping them reach their highest potential. Behind all of NYRP's great gardens is a great crew of people caring for them.