Somehow, John Cook looks ten years younger in just one month.
When he finishes work at NYCHA’s Lafayette Gardens complex one recent Thursday evening, he’s comes out the office with a bounce in his Timbs, a big grin on his face.
It might be because — after a months-long battle with City pest control over the future of nine community gardens he built over 14 years — he’s finally heard the gardens will be saved.
“I just love the outcome,” Cook said. “It’s refreshing. I just hope that what’s created continues.”
The news comes after the story of Cook’s gardens was shared by hundreds of Brooklynites last month, leading to an outpouring of help, donations and advocacy.
The community love, ultimately, was what saved Cook’s gardens.
Cook first started building the gardens about 14 years ago, two years after he started working for NYCHA at Lafayette Gardens.
Falling in love with the people of the complex, and having a background in gardening, Cook soon found himself working eight hours a day for NYCHA, and then spending another four to five hours after work building the gardens and meeting residents.
By this year, he’d built nine flourishing gardens filled with hydrangeas, azaleas, roses, cherry blossoms, weeping willows, statuettes of angels and even the remains of some residents’ mothers and dearly-departed pets.
His troubles started in about July, when the garden was in full bloom, and Cook was told by NYCHA’s pest control team that the gardens must be cut back due to a mounting rat problem.
Cook says he tried to work with pest control to put down dry ice, but that solution was rejected. Unable to negotiate a way forward, Cook agreed to dismantle the gardens to make way for pest control officers.
In September, he posted signs across the gardens advertising for schools and community gardens to come and take the plants and flowers to re-home them, and people started coming in droves to help him rip up his 14 years of work.
A change in fortunes
BK Reader interviewed Cook in early October, and published a story on his gardens. Teachers from the school across the road also posted his story to a network of NYC public school teachers on Facebook.
“From that day on it was constant, people trying to find out how they could help.”
Cook reckons since news broke that he had to break down his gardens, he’d had support from more than 1,000 Brooklynites.
There were community gardeners who came to help re-home plants and shrubs. Teachers from schools in Brownsville, Canarsie, the Lower East Side, who took plants away in buckets to “foster.”
Dozens of concerned neighbors who couldn’t do anything but stopped to say, “We’re with you, we love you.”
One day, a woman stopped her car driving past to get out, hair in rollers, and tell Cook she supported him. A professional photographer offered to take his portrait for free.
Cook’s phone began ringing off the hook, so many calls he said he got lost. “Hello! Garden?! Oh, it’s my dentist,” he joked.
Some beautiful things started to happen, too. An unemployed artist who came to volunteer ended up connecting with some of the teachers who were helping. The meeting resulted in her being offered a job as an art teacher.
“Certain things you can’t tell me because it gets me emotional,” Cook said. “I asked myself, is there anybody else that came here and something fantastic happened to them here?
“And is there anything more we can do to continue doing this?”
Something fantastic on the horizon
About three weeks ago, Cook says something incredible happened. A teacher who is involved with non-profit Big Brothers Big Sisters of America had contact with one of our congresspeople (Cook isn’t sure who.)
The congressperson contacted NYCHA, which in turn contacted Red Hook Community Farm. The farm offered to help Cook, with all of its expertise.
“They called me and said, listen, we’re gonna give you some relief from the rat bureau. That’s when I realized we were gonna be able to keep the garden.”
Soon after, Cook’s contact at Red Hook Community Farm called his managers and superintendents at NYCHA to advise what was happening.
“[NYCHA] said OK, they’re gonna come and help you clean up the gardens and prune back. So I took down my signs, and they came and helped prune.
“When they came, it was a breath of fresh air, because they brought mulch, people with knowledge of gardening, what to bring, what to step on, what not to step on.”
Pest control also came and put down dry ice, and Cook believes it’s removed about 75% of the rat population.
He says, since cleaning up the gardens, he hasn’t heard from NYCHA or pest control again. “Maybe they’re waiting for it to fail again. I don’t know.”
However, since learning the gardens could stay, Cook said he was looking forward to rebuilding for the “best spring ever.”
Some of the plants people took are coming back to the garden, and he’s even sourcing new flowers. “Daffodils are on sale,” he notes.
He wants to put up signs in the gardens that change, daily. His idea for the first sign: “It’s not just you. It’s us.”
He says he even wants to build a garden to honor the BK Reader, calling it the Journalist Jessy Garden, a place of healing where you can go to make a wish for someone else.
After two months of hell, where the community gardener was sure he was saying goodbye to the gardens forever, Cook says the community has helped him bounce back to a point that he feels more optimistic than ever.
“It made me see that the good outweighs the bad, and that goodness never dies. It just constantly reinvents itself, and it shows up anytime, any place, it don’t care who’s around.
“It can just appear, it’s magic.”
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