At the Elysian Fields Community Garden near the historic district of Paterson, beacons of hope and empowerment are visible everywhere in this former vacant lot. Little by little, this space has been transformed from an area overgrown with weeds, decaying debris and garbage to a beautiful community garden.
|Mural at Elysian Fields|
In the summer and early fall, the garden glowed in its full splendor. Noticeable from anywhere in the garden were the colorful murals painted on the perimeters, along with the cheerful sunflower patch that offered a welcoming atmosphere to visitors, volunteers and the local families who came to harvest vegetables from the raised beds.
|Volunteers in front of the murals and sunflower patch at Elysian Fields|
Elysian Fields is spearheaded by Gilman Choudhury, the young parent coordinator at Paterson Full Service Community School # 5 who has a passion for community organizing and sustainable community development. By assembling a coalition of committed professionals, a broad spectrum of community members and recruiting his students from John F. Kennedy High School’s robotics team, Choudhury has brought the community together to build and support the garden as it achieves its many milestones. People have volunteered their time to do everything from mass garden clean-ups to mural painting to garden installations. In total, 23 local organizations, private businesses, city and county agencies, student groups and other volunteer groups have served in the development or maintenance of the garden over the course of 2014, which began with a grant from City Green’s Dig In! program.
|Gilman Choudhury pictured with team member, Anjali Alumkal|
According to Choudhury, the garden was initially conceived as a means of providing more nutritious food for local families. As the garden quickly gained support from different groups, Choudhury and his team saw the potential to expand the vision of the garden into a symbol of positive change and community development for the City of Paterson. Choudhury knows the challenges faced by postindustrial cities such as Paterson - blighted spaces, crime, and substance abuse – but says that underneath it all, there are people actively working towards positive change.
|Reading Garden at Elysian Fields|
One way to achieve that, he says, is by focusing on the assets, strengths and potential of the community. He believes Elysian Fields is part of the “rebirth of a city” where people grow food and get to know each other, enjoy open green public space with some respite from the fast paced environment and a place where youth can learn important life lessons.
Mr. Ahmed, a community gardener who is retired, says that the garden provided him with an activity to pass the time, have a constant supply of fresh food and most importantly, help his family save money. For the many other Bengali families who maintain plots at Elysian Fields, the garden has permitted them the opportunity to grow food in their adopted community for the first time and exercise the agricultural skills they learned in their native home of Bangladesh.
|Gardeners participating in Garden Planning workshop taught by City Green|
As 2015 approaches, Choudhury plans to move forward with phase 2 of the garden - the installation of a rainwater harvesting system. For the 37 families who currently garden at Elysian Fields, the water system will be a much needed amenity to improve their crop production and ease the time and effort spent on transporting water in buckets and containers. There are also long-term plans to develop a potato patch, pumpkin patch, a wildflower garden, an art space and other projects. By 2016, Choudhury and his team hope to complete the three year plan for the garden.
|Raised beds at Elysian Fields. Pictured here are Gilman Choudhury and fellow community gardener.|
The success of this urban garden exemplifies a progressive vision coupled with community solidarity, perseverance and civic engagement. People came together and made things happen to build positive change for their community. Much can be learned from Elysian Fields and it will be wonderful to track the garden’s progress through the upcoming seasons.
Elysian Fields Community Garden received funding from the “Dig In! City Green and Passaic County Community Garden and Neighborhood Farming Program.”
by Claudia Urdanivia