On September 18, at a ceremony marking the renovation of the Willis Avenue Community Garden in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) unveiled a prototype of a structure that has the potential to transform the city’s community garden culture.
The new 12-by-36-foot louvered designed by TEN Arquitectos is an interpretation of a casita, the improvised open-air structures that serve as critical social gathering places in overcrowded, open-space deprived communities. Grounded in Hispanic gardening traditions, casitas also are a cultural touchstone for many people of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent.
The new minimalist casita, which cost about $70,000 to build, is constructed out of precut tempered wood bolted together in scalable modular building components. It replaces a leaking structure festooned with framed pictures and a mural of the Puerto Rican flag that was built against two buildings abutting the garden. As opposed to the former structure, the new casita is more of a multi-purpose facility with a large open space that can be used as a stage. It faces out onto a new lawn and has been built as part of a wholesale garden renovation project that includes a new pergola with a corrugated metal roof, a new compost toilet, and new planting beds including several that are wheel chair accessible.
Tailored to fit the parameters of the renovated Willis Avenue garden, the building components that comprise the new casita come from a kit designed by Ten Arquitectos that will be adapted to fit the needs of several dozen other community gardens that NYRP plans to renovate in coming years. “We wanted a lot of parts that we could use for all kinds of structures,” said NYRP Executive Director Deborah Marton, adding that the relatively easy to erect modular structures make it possible for local communities to be more involved in the building and the design process.
However, a group of the longtime gardeners at the ceremony had mixed feelings about the new structure and the garden restoration. “It looks beautiful but we need a casita, not a stage,” said Rosa Colon, adding that before the renovation the garden had an outdoor kitchen, “where we used to cook and feed everybody.”
NYRP officials say that they intend to provide a kitchen in the next phase for the casita, for which they are currently fundraising. Future plans for the new structure also call for it to be outfitted with Wi-Fi and solar panels to provide electricity that can be used for laptop charging stations and for lighting to make the place useable at night. Part of the agenda, said Yvi McEvilly, NYRP Director of Design, is to make the garden more of an intergenerational facility, where “older people can garden and younger people can come and do their homework.”