Now four years after the storm, the gardens are more beautiful than ever thanks to a partnership between NYCHA, United States Forest Service and the hard work of some the housing project's residents. There are 37 gardens in all adjacent to the bay.
“It was in a disarray,” longtime resident and gardener Celeste Grimes said of the destruction left by Sandy. “We didn't know who owned what, and people were coming and saying 'Oh I want that, that's mine that little sliver over there.'”
So NYCHA hired Elizabeth Gilchrist, a Rockaway resident and co-founder of the nearby Edgemere Farm, to help revitalize the garden.
There were environmental concerns about the toxicity of the soil, but Gilchrist and residents built new planting beds and re-organized the garden after tests confirmed the soil was safe.
“She was instrumental in getting us back together as a group of gardeners, because most of us were scattered here and there doing our own thing the best we knew how after Sandy,” Grimes said of Gilchrist.
That put the garden on the path to recovery, but gardeners picked up another partner in the U.S. Forest Service and project coordinator Renae Reynolds.
The area became a test-subject on resilience, and how the bay area will react and recover in the wake of Sandy.
“This was really looking at the impact of Hurricane Sandy on this garden and on the residents who take care of it,” Reynolds said. “And how we as a federal agency could really support the recovery process in a collaborative way right along with the gardeners.
“Socially, I think we definitely want to understand longterm what it means to recover from a disturbance,” she added.
Since 2013, researchers from the Forest Service have joined with NYCHA, NYC Urban Field Station and landscape architecture firm Till Design and Natural Garden Landscapes through the Landscapes of Resilience Research and Design Project.
Grimes said she was overjoyed to see so many organizations and agencies involved, because people don't often care about public housing.
“From the first time they came here, my heart was pounding,” Grimes said.
Grimes is now part of NYCHA's Resident Green Committee. What started as a garden club is now an official group where residents and gardeners can share their skills and knowledge in an effort to crete more sustainable communities.
Last year, two of the gardeners won awards in NYCHA's annual Citywide Garden Competition. At an awards ceremony in November, three more gardeners will be honored.
There are still issues with the space though. Grimes says the gardens still flood about twice a year.
“In the summertime there was a heavy rain, and this whole area was like a swimming pool,” Reynolds added.
To address some of the issues, they've raised the grading and installed a bioswale to help divert water to hearty plants and grasses.
The Forest Service doesn't solely have a research-based stake in the project either, so they won't be ready to cut ties with the gardeners after their study is over.
Reynolds, who is a Rockaway resident, said the Forest Service is continuing to make sure the garden gets upgrades, and is working on a guide for potential gardeners to help them figure out the best times to plant, along with other useful information.
“We're invested,” Reynolds said. “I live out here too, so we're going to be involved in some capacity or another.”
For Grimes and the other gardeners, the space represents something more.
“It gives us something better than what public housing stands for,” she said. “This garden enhanced and beautified our community.”