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July 14, 2010

CCNY Student Project Inspires New Open Space in Harlem



(Left to right) Dr. Jean Krasno, Michael Reed, Dawn Mikkelson and Kemar Morrison affix top to birdbath in a community garden they are creating on E. 140th Street.

Garden, Play Area Replace Weeds in W. 140th Street Lot

A City College of New York (CCNY) graduate student’s capstone project has led to the creation of new community space for residents of two buildings in central Harlem.  Two adjacent empty lots on W. 140th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X Boulevards are being transformed into a garden and play area thanks to the initiative of Dawn Mikkelson, who earned her Master of Public Administration degree in May, and her mentor, Dr. Jean Krasno.

“This began as a theoretical idea,” said Ms. Mikkelson.  “I never anticipated we would produce a real garden.” 

Ms. Mikkelson, a native of Minnesota with an interest in community-driven policy-making, last fall surveyed central Harlem to identify all open spaces in the neighborhood.  For her spring 2010 semester capstone project, she and two classmates did further investigation to learn whether development was planned for the properties and what agencies and nonprofits have oversight for an involvement with open space and creating gardens.

Their investigation led to Kenneth Morrison, a property manager with Maxwell Properties.  A mid-rise apartment building under his management on W. 140th Street had an 18-foot-wide strip of vacant land next to a similar-size strip that was part of the next property.  Combined, this created a parcel 36 feet wide and 110 feet deep.  Ms. Mikkelson discussed her ideas for the land with Mr. Morrison and he helped her get permission to proceed.

Before physical work on the project began in April, Dr. Krasno and Ms. Mikkelson canvassed residents of the two buildings to learn what they wanted. “We didn’t come in with our own agenda,” said Ms. Mikkelson.  “Instead, we interviewed tenants so we could address their concerns.”

“Tenants would come and tell us about the history of the area and share their ideas,” added Dr. Krasno.  “They helped us with the work and got some of their friends involved.”

The idea for a play area and garden was well received, especially by the children living in the two buildings.  It also fits with the goals of the UNICEF-sponsored Child-Friendly Neighborhood project that Dr. Krasno administers through City College to create more open space.  Members of that project’s summer youth program are helping to create the garden.

“A key goal of the project is getting people who live there to participate and take ownership over their new community space,” added Ms. Mikkelson, who noted that, to date, more than 20 residents have helped with construction.  Several of the children in the building have volunteered to water the garden.

The site is gated, with only residents of the 116 apartments in the two buildings having access.  By early July, the project was nearing completion.

Friends, family members and neighbors of Dr. Krasno have donated many of the plants and other materials used for the project.  A florist near the Connecticut town where she lives provided a butterfly bush and sold her additional plants at discount.   Her mother gave a playhouse for the playground.   Ms. Mikkelson’s father provided funds to acquire a birdbath.

“The project is another way for City College to connect with the (Harlem) community,” said Dr. Krasno.  “We’re helping to create something that as it grows will hopefully inspire other community gardens.”

“It also creates a sense of pride in the neighborhood,” noted Ms. Mikkelson.  “If you take away the litter, you can appreciate the natural possibilities for the open space you have.”

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