How a revitalized Bushwick green space built a community

August 21, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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A group of Bushwick neighbors who banded together to rebuild a neglected park are looking to spruce up some more green spaces through a growing project they’ve dubbed the “Good Life Garden.”

The collaborative effort — which shares its name with its first restoration, a once run-down, 13,000-square-foot green space at 50 Goodwin Place — is made up of local residents and volunteers from across the borough. Its executive director, Greene Avenue resident Kofi Thomas, serves on the board of the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust.

Thomas, who launched a fundraising effort earlier this year to help foster the group’s continued efforts, reflected on how far the Good Life Garden — both the collaboration and the space itself — have come in just under two years.

“I was volunteering at the People’s Garden right in my neighborhood when an elder there told me about this green space,” he said of 50 Goodwin Place, which was eventually reclaimed and cleaned up by his group in October 2017. “It was once a green space for the neighborhood that had since turned into an outdoor trap house. People were selling drugs out of there and using it as a dump site.”

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Thomas rolled up his sleeves and made a few phone calls — first to the agency that owned the lot (built by the Parks Department in the 1990s to serve residents of a nearby senior center), and then to local community groups. With the help of Hernan Pagan, Julio Moreno and a cohort of volunteers, the Good Life Garden was born, and a once vibrant community space got a second life.

Today, the revitalized green space — open from April through December — is home to community gardens, educational programming and exciting events, like its now-annual community cookout, happening this Saturday.

“The garden space is open to all people,” Thomas said. “We have a stage where we put on shows and host festivals — anything that brings people together. If you want to come see, or even if you want to learn how to grow your own food, we are open to all of that. We are here to build community and to make it a healthier and better place to live.”

This weekend, Thomas said, is one of the group’s biggest of the year.

“It’s a giant cookout for the community,” he said. “A full-out, free-for-anybody-that-wants-to-stop-by cookout.”

Thomas says the now-annual event and the group’s main green space are both direct reflections of the identity the Good Life Garden has developed. “We are across the street from a senior home and around the corner from a women’s shelter,” he explained. “We cook a ton of food, and they all come out. We all sit down together, eat, play music and it becomes like a block party.”

The event — which will take place from 12-2 p.m. on Aug. 24 — spans generations and backgrounds, Thomas said. “We get inter-generations and cross-cultures all sitting down and eating together. It’s a pretty magical thing.”

The group’s GoFundMe page, which has raised almost $7,000 this year, hopes to finance future programming at the Goodwin Place green space, art supplies, musical equipment and workshops as well as everyday supplies like fertilizer and and paint.

The Good Life Garden isn’t the only revitalized park space Thomas and his volunteers have lent his green thumbs to — and it won’t be the last.

Through BQLT and GrowNYC — both of which have partnered with Thomas’ group — the Bushwick resident says he’s gotten to work with other green spaces throughout the borough, in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights and Flatbush.

The Good Life Garden is now organized and maintained by a group of neighbors who, Thomas said, taught him the real meaning of the word “community.”

“It was a beautiful but long and arduous process,” he said of the initial revamping, “but it really showed me the power of a community coming together — and it showed me just how many neighbors on that street were so eager for so long to brighten a dark spot in their neighborhood.”

While people are welcome to donate to the group’s GoFundMe, Thomas said, they can also pay it forward in other ways. “We know that not everybody always has money,” he said, “but some people have a skill — maybe they paint, or maybe they sing. We encourage them to stop by.”

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