Friendship Garden in Hamilton Heights is One of NYC’s Hidden Gems
In an overcrowded city like New York, gardens often hide in unexpected places. Such is the case with Friendship Garden, a humble yet vibrant alley-turned-community abode nestled between two apartment buildings in Hamilton Heights. The community-run space is used for growing plants, hosting gatherings and parties, and— perhaps most rare amidst the ever-moving city streets— as a quiet oasis for people to relax during the day.
Located on 150th Street near Amsterdam, Friendship Garden isn’t exactly in a secret location, and yet, entering the space feels like stepping far beyond the bustling streets of Manhattan. The garden is open for a few hours around noon during the weekday, and when the sun’s out people often gather there to enjoy their lunch break.
As a humble but vibrant space, Friendship Garden is only about 1500 square feet. Originally established in 1982, “Wicked” the musical later sponsored the garden’s renovation. Themes from the Land of Oz blend in different ways throughout the space— from the art on the front door to the lampposts and the “yellow brick” path, to the painted murals of bright turquoise and poppies, not to mention that it’s named after two of the musical’s main characters.
With the buildings to each side providing shade amid several benches and tables, the garden is one of the neighborhood’s best hidden spots to relax, read, and picnic. And yet, the “Wicked”-themed garden has also enjoyed its share of excitement: over the years the neighborhood has held parties, barbecues, and events such as a Halloween haunted house.
Friendship Garden is ripe with flourishing plant life, roses, lilies, hostas, and hydrangeas. Potted plants are organized along the walls, and a variety of plants including the Japanese fern, liriope, and dozens of others weave between the sitting areas, having been carefully planted by community members and volunteers. Towards the back, a tree as tall as the building beside it looms between the two concrete structures.
Building and maintaining a community garden isn’t an overnight task; it requires the commitment of multiple volunteers and community members. Friendship Garden is part of the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), a larger network of gardens dedicated to transforming open city spaces to create a greener and more sustainable city. To date, they own and operate 52 community gardens in the 5 boroughs. They also help the NYC Parks department maintain two Manhattan parks– Sherman Creek Park in Inwood, and Highbridge Park in Highbridge.
These gardens are spread throughout the five boroughs in unlikely, often small, and sometimes only 1,000 square feet-wide, places. The Friendship Garden existed before NYRP, which was founded in 1995. Leah Silver, who is the Marketing and Communications associate at NYRP, told us that “In 1999, the city was selling a lot of vacant lots for development, including a lot of community gardens.” Bette Midler, the award-winning singer and actress, proceeded to purchase these plots of land from the city to put them into a land trust so that they couldn’t be developed. Midler later helped to engage the surrounding communities with these gardens.
Each of the spaces have different purposes depending on how the community wants to utilize the garden, yet they all have their particular quirks. (One community garden in East Harlem, for example, has space for children to play basketball.) NYRP displays all of the gardens on their interactive map, which includes history, programming, and transit information on each.
While the role of NYRP is consistently changing, their goal to serve as a bridge, supporting the gardeners, volunteers, and community members in implementing their own programming, so that the community can maintain the space on their own.
“The process for renovating gardens is a heavy community-based initiative,” Silver says. “We have multiple meetings before a design is presented and approved with the community in mind before [we even] get started.” Once the design is implemented, the organization’s regional managers help to find community members who want to be involved. These volunteers then organize community hours, set up meetings, and are in charge of upkeep, opening, and closing of the space.
At Friendship Garden, volunteers alternate throughout the week to open up the space, and the schedule is posted on their notification board. The operations staff at NYRP also helps with the general maintenance such as with weeding, replanting, and making sure the garden is accessible and safe.
Each of the 52 gardens under NYRP’s tutelage has a Facebook page where the organizing parties can connect with the community and post about the latest activities and meetings in the gardens. On Friendship Garden’s page, you can learn about their latest plant sale, their upcoming block party, and much, much more.