BK Man’s Gardens saved after months of fighting the city over rats

Somehow, John Cook looks ten years younger in just a month.

When he finishes work at the Lafayette Gardens complex in NYCHA one Thursday night, he comes out of the office with a hop in his timbs and a big grin.

It could be because after months of battling the city’s pest control over the future of nine community gardens he built over 14 years, he finally heard the gardens were being saved.

Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

“I just love the result,” said Cook. “It’s refreshing. I just hope that what has been created will continue. ”

The news comes after the story of Cook’s Gardens was shared by hundreds of Brooklyners last month, sparking a spate of help, donations and advocacy.

It was ultimately love of community that saved Cook’s Gardens.

The backstory

Cook began building the gardens about 14 years ago, two years after working for NYCHA in Lafayette Gardens.

Cook fell in love with the people of the complex and had a background in gardening and was soon working eight hours a day for NYCHA, then spending another four to five hours after work building the gardens and meeting the residents.

By that year he had laid out nine blooming gardens full of hydrangeas, azaleas, roses, cherry blossoms, weeping willows, angel statuettes, and even the remains of some of the residents’ mothers and their beloved pets.

Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

His problems started around July when the garden was in full bloom and Cook was told by NYCHA’s pest control team that the gardens needed to be cut back due to an increasing rat problem.

Cook says he tried working with pest control to break down dry ice, but that solution was turned down. Unable to negotiate a way forward, Cook agreed to dismantle the gardens to make way for pest control officers.

In September, he posted signs in the gardens promoting schools and community gardens to come and take the plants and flowers to bring back home, and people flocked to help him, his 14 year old Tear up work.

A change of fate

BK Reader interviewed Cook in early October and published a story about his gardens. Teachers from the school across the street also posted their story on Facebook to a network of NYC public school teachers.

“From that day on, it was constant that people were trying to figure out how to help.”

Cook estimates that since news broke that he had to demolish his gardens, he has had the support of more than 1,000 Brooklynites.

John Cook at Lafayette Gardens after learning he can save his gardens. Photo: Jessy Edwards for BK Reader.

There were community gardeners who came to repopulate plants and shrubs. Teachers from schools in Brownsville, Canarsie, on the Lower East Side, who took plants in buckets to “tend” them.

Dozens of worried neighbors who couldn’t do anything but say, “We’re with you, we love you.”

One day a woman stopped her car, which was pulling by to get out, her hair curled up, and told Cook that she was helping him. A professional photographer offered to do his portrait for free.

Cook’s phone started ringing, so many calls that he said it was lost. “Hello! Garden ?! Oh, this is my dentist,” he joked.

The signs Cook put up before the garden was saved. Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

Some nice things started to happen too. An unemployed artist who volunteered eventually connected with some of the teachers who were helping him. The meeting resulted in her being offered a position as an art teacher.

“There are certain things you can’t tell me because they make me emotional,” said Cook. “I was wondering, did anyone else come here and something fantastic happened to them here?

“And is there anything else we can do to keep doing this?”

Something fantastic on the horizon

About three weeks ago, Cook says, something incredible happened. A teacher who works for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, a nonprofit, was in contact with one of our congressmen (Cook isn’t sure who.)

The congressman contacted NYCHA, which in turn contacted the Red Hook Community Farm. The farm offered Cook to help with all of their expertise.

“They called me and said, listen, we’ll relieve you of the rat office. That’s when I realized that we could keep the garden. “

Shortly thereafter, Cook’s contact at Red Hook Community Farm called his managers and superintendents at NYCHA to find out what had happened.

Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

“[NYCHA] said OK they will come and help you clean up and cut back the gardens. So I took off my signs and they came and helped with the trimming.

“When they came it was a breath of fresh air because they brought mulch, people who know how to garden, what to bring, what to step on and what not.”

Pest control came along too, putting dry ice away, and Cook believes it removed about 75% of the rat population.

He says he hasn’t heard from NYCHA or pest control since cleaning up the gardens. “Maybe they’re waiting for it to fail again. I do not know.”

I’m looking forward to

However, having learned the gardens could stay, Cook said he was looking forward to rebuilding for “the best spring ever.”

Some of the plants people have taken come back to the garden, and he’s even looking for new flowers. “Daffodils are sold,” he notes.

He wants to put up changing signs in the gardens every day. His idea for the first character: “It’s not just you. It’s us.”

He says he even wants to build a garden in honor of the BK reader, which he calls the Journalists Jessy Garden, a place of healing that you can go to and make a wish for someone else.

John Cook at Lafayette Gardens after learning he can save his gardens. Photo: Jessy Edwards for BK Reader.

After two months of hell, where the community gardener was sure to say goodbye to the gardens forever, Cook says the community has helped him get back to a point where he’s more optimistic than ever.

“It showed me that the good outweighs the bad and that the good never dies. It just keeps reinventing itself and popping up anytime, anywhere, no matter who is around.

“It can seem simple, it is magical.”


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