NEWARK, NJ — For the past 15 years, Lot 50 on Grafton Avenue in the city’s North Ward has been a wasteland of syringes and garbage, bringing down the community’s morale.
Those days are coming to an end, according to Bilal and Breonna Walker, two educators who are transforming the lot into a community project unlike any other in Newark. Dubbed Jannah on Grafton, what was once a blight on the neighborhood will soon be a community garden providing access to healthy food options, urban gardening advocacy and sustainable education efforts for North Newark residents.
The project came about due to divine inspiration, according to the couple, who are practicing Muslims.
“There’s a saying that loosely goes, ‘If you plant a seed, and it grows and an animal or human benefits or eats from it, then you get that reward.’ That’s something I’ve been reflecting on for a very long time, and I’ve always thought about how I’d like to leave my mark on the world,” Bilal said.
The lot’s vibrant graffiti would always catch the couple’s eye, and so through the city’s Adopt a Lot program, the Walkers began their endeavor to bring grassroots sustainability to an underserved population. Through Jannah on Grafton, they’re setting a goal to provide 20 families locally grown produce and cushion their monthly food income.
Programming is also a main focus for the couple — they plan to teach youth and families about sustainable living and holistic health. Breonna’s initiative, Power to the Period, is a women’s health program that combines urban gardening with education about menstrual inequity, or unequal access to menstrual products in communities of color.
“Period poverty and food deserts disproportionately affect people who live in cities like Newark and economically disadvantaged communities,” Breonna said. “We want to bring more awareness to the community and educate residents so ultimately they can advocate for themselves.”
The garden will also be a collection site for donated menstrual products, which Breonna and her volunteers will then distribute to the community.
“Our ears are always to our community, we’re always looking at how we can help our communities advocate for the things we don’t have right now,” Bilal said.
Eventually, the garden will become a space for group yoga, meditation and community empowerment. Bilal said a classroom and study space is being built into the garden as well, and they plan to maximize the space as much as possible.
The lot is located next to a housing development with more than 100 families, which the couple said they are collecting input from. They hope to offer youth employment this summer through the garden, which in turn will help keep the lot maintained.
Bilal and Breonna estimate they’ll be ready to start planting in mid-June, but are currently struggling with outreach as a result of COVID-19. They’re looking to partner with La Casa de Don Pedro, Newark Community Health Center, SNAP and North Ward Council member Anibal Ramos.
Newark Science and Sustainability, an organization focused on sustainability efforts in the city, has been working with the project, and Bilal he hopes to work with Rutgers University-Newark to eventually test the soil for lead.
“Based on what we’ve experienced while up there cleaning up the lot, the Grafton area community is very excited, and they’re hopeful that this will transform the energy in and around Grafton,” Bilal said. “After 15 years of this lot being riddled with heroin needles and trash and construction material, there’s going to be something beautiful growing from it.”
Aside from funding, Jannah on Grafton is seeking soil and seed donations, volunteers and plant-based food waste from local restaurants that can be used as compost. Donations to Breonna’s period bank can be dropped off starting in early July once the garden is situated.
To contact Jannah on Grafton, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.