If you happen to walk by the community garden on 138th Street and Riverside Park, you might hear a woman’s voice call out to you, “Do you want some tomatoes, peppers, basil?” That’s Jenny Benitez, who has transformed a former garbage dump and drug haven into an urban oasis of flowers, vegetables and fruit.
At 78, Benitez, who was born in Puerto Rico, has the feisty spirit and physical vigor of a young soul. “Nature gives me energy,” she says while getting her hands dirty in the garden. “I watch life grow in here and it gives me years of life in return.” For 30 years now, April through November, Benitez has planted and harvested vegetables, trimmed plants and raked the two blocks of the Riverside Valley community garden.
“It all started with my children wanting to come down here to play,” she says, looking through her circular spectacles, “but it was dirty, full of homeless people and drugs.”
Benitez’s friend Steve Gallagher started cleaning the area and planting shrubs in the once-abandoned soil. Riverside Park did not allow plants around the park, “so they gave us this spot as a parcel of land for a garden,” she says. Benitez and Gallagher cleaned, planted and harvested through the years what has become a thriving community garden.
“I saved the garden,” she says proudly. “I talked the homeless people out,” pointing to a spot where shacks once rested. “Drug users like their privacy, they bring garbage with them, they like to keep it here,” she adds. “So when they see that you clean it up, you are displacing them and they never come back.”
Benitez says the community garden has also helped changed the neighborhood. “There are people that were in jail for drugs and remember this area and come back after all these years, and they don’t stay, because it has changed so much.”
Today, Benitez’s flowers, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli and potatoes have replaced the drugs and trash. “I love planting vegetables because I know I’m going to be harvesting them, giving them away for people to eat them.”
Vincent Stanley, a resident of the area, is among the passers-by that have benefited from Benitez’s gardening, even after he has visited a local produce market. “On our way back from Fairway she often calls to ask us if we’d like some vegetables,” he says. “She’s a wealth of gardening knowledge and is always eager to give advice or share some seedlings.”
But the garden is also Benitez’s daily sanctuary from pain and grief. “Gardening for Jenny is a blessing,” says her husband, Victor. “She doesn’t have the time to think about her son.”
Benitez lost her son, Victor Alvarez, 57, to a sudden heart attack a month ago. “I forget, I leave all my troubles away and I am not thinking, I’m raking, then I’m planting, I just don’t think…” Last week, she planted a magnolia tree in memory of her son. “A tree is life, so when I look at that tree I see him alive.”
Every year, Benitez trains groups of young people to take care of the garden. “They are the new generation, and you have to let them come up with their own ideas,” she says. Groups from around the city volunteer on a weekly basis. “I feel the years already beating me, and though I am confident many volunteers will take care of the garden, no one will love it like I do. It is my life.”
In November, Benitez, with the help of her husband and volunteers, starts preparing the garden for the winter. She adds soil and covers it with seeds in anticipation of the next harvest. While the garden is at rest, Benitez and her husband go back to Puerto Rico: “I leave it behind,” she says. “I don’t have to worry. It goes to sleep really nice and when I’m back, it’s back to life and I feel like I’m back to life as well.”