(Photo by Solmaira Valerio)
This essay was written by Solmaira Valerio and originally published on Kensington Voice, a new community-driven newsroom serving the heart of Kensington.
Next to Hope Park, on the 3000 block of A Street, a broken fence borders the remains of Victor Ortiz’s neighborhood garden.
“The garden used to bring so much light into the block,” said Ortiz’s youngest child, Victoria Ortiz Tote, 25. “There used to be block parties and everything growing up, but all of that stopped, and the garden is blending into the park with all of the drug use that’s going on.”
After Ortiz died from lung cancer in April 2006 at age 64, his wife Ana Santiago, then 59, was unable to tend to the garden on her own. For years, she sought help from the city, which owns the lot through its Parks and Recreation Department, to no avail. Now 72, she is seeking support from the community to help revitalize the space and the vision her husband had for their neighborhood.
Ortiz was raised in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, where he learned how to farm with his family. After moving to the United States, he worked as a house inspector but spent his mornings and afternoons tending to the garden in his backyard at their first home on 2nd and Diamond Streets.
“He would wake up at five o’clock in the morning, as if he were living in a field in Puerto Rico like his father who was a farmer, to water the plants, work on the terrain and everything,” Santiago said.
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In 1991, Santiago and Ortiz moved to the house on A Street with their five children: Victoria, Onix, Walter, Victor Jr., and Carlos. The house has a piece of land attached to it, between its south side and Hope Park. Ortiz fell in love with the land, so he fenced it up and turned it into a garden.
"He had me carrying buckets of tomatoes to give out to our neighbors."
Ortiz began by planting flowers, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, garlic, beans, peppers, and eggplant. Eventually, he grew so much food there that it was more than enough for Santiago to cook meals for their family every day. Santiago would watch him through the kitchen window or sometimes sit in the garden on a couch by the plants.
“It was very important to him,” said Santiago. “He would just drift out of this world.”
Although Ortiz was the only person who financially and physically contributed to the garden, he opened it to the neighborhood on the weekends and invited people to come in with a basket or bag to pick out any vegetables they wanted. Sometimes, he would personally knock on people’s doors to give them away.
“My husband had grace — he had such grace to do this,” Santiago said. “He had me carrying buckets of tomatoes to give out to our neighbors.”
“It was something very beautiful,” she added.
In the summer, Ortiz and Santiago would also host pool parties and barbecues, to which they invited their family and neighbors. The garden was a favorite place for their daughter Ortiz Tote to spend time — her go-to spot during the summer.
"Anything clean and beautiful would contribute to around here."
“That was the only time me and my dad actually bonded — when we were in the garden together, and I was helping him out,” Ortiz Tote said. “I would love to see it go back to what it used to be, but the city doesn’t want to take care of it, and my mom can’t do it by herself at this age.”
Today, not only is the property overgrown and vandalized, but according to Santiago, bugs from the land infest her house, and people use the property to hide or use drugs.
“Anything clean and beautiful would contribute to around here — right now it’s being used as a negative spot,” said Victor Rodriguez, a childhood friend of Santiago’s and Victor’s son, Onix Ortiz, who lives with Santiago. “People gather around here, and I always have to tell them to keep it moving.”
Recently, Santiago connected with Impact Services, a social services organization that works to stabilize vacant buildings and lots. According to Jasmin Velez, the community development project manager at Impact, they have plans to fix Santiago’s fence and clean the lot with volunteers, hopefully by May. Velez said they’re also working on a plan to revitalize the garden, but they’ll need gardeners to help restore and maintain the space.
“The most important thing I need is to get the fence fixed,” Santiago said. “When my husband was here, there was a great amount of respect, but after the garden was abandoned, people started to break in.”
Santiago hopes that once the garden is restored, the respect that was present in the neighborhood when Ortiz was alive will be restored, too.
“Do you know what it is to see how precious it was, and to see how it is now?” Santiago said. “It hurts me.”-30-
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