On a street corner in the South Bronx, adjacent to a highway, a rustic hearth in a community garden is readying to be the heart of the neighborhood. Surrounded by the leftovers of this year’s harvest season, Colombian American architectural designer, Zarith Pineda, sat down in the garden, a day before the site would be cleaned out for construction. “Even though it may not look like it right now,” Pineda said, “so many magical things have happened here.”
Pineda is the founder and executive director of Territorial Empathy, the only Latina-led design nonprofit in New York. “I refer to it as a design collective,” Pineda said. It is composed primarily of women and immigrants, specializing in “spatial justice in urban spaces.” Their newest project, H.earth is set to formalize the existing community garden as a sanctuary championing social equity, fostering mutual aid, and nurturing resilience.
The project was born out of conversations between Pineda and Carolina Saavedra at the Design Transforms Borders conference three years ago. Saavedra’s family runs the local Oaxacan restaurant La Morada, a pillar of the community, located a few blocks away from the community garden.
La Morada preserves and shares Mixtec heritage through food, while addressing issues facing its community. “Right across [the garden] is Hunts Point, which is the breadbasket of the whole city. All of our produce arrives literally right there, but The Bronx is one of the most food insecure places in the whole city,” Pineda said. Starting in April 2020, thanks to the Bronx Land Trust and garden steward Saavedra, the garden reopened and allowed La Morada to spearhead a mutual aid kitchen that feeds 2,000 people. Territorial Empathy and La Morada envision the project as a sanctuary within a sanctuary city, where residents can connect with their heritage and ancestral practices through food.
“The garden was already telling us what it was doing and what it needed to do, our tools just came in to formalize that,” Pineda said, “but also challenged what they could look like.”
Prior to renovations, the 6,300-square-foot triangular site was carpeted with wood chips, garden beds, makeshift solar panels, rainwater barrels, and the hearth that inspired the project’s name. When complete, the site will feature the same elements materialized through new designs. Territorial Empathy connected with the community for every step of the way. “[Zarith] heard every single one of us no matter how hard it was, and that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do,” Saavedra said.
At the center of the remodeled community garden will be a revamped hearth within a brick pavilion structure. Similar to a sundial, the pavilion is oriented toward the sun, tying in the Saavedra’s indigenous Mixtec connection to the natural elements. Here, community members may cook and learn from the food they are producing.
Underneath the pavilion, water tanks will collect rainwater from the octagonal transparent roof membrane. The roof’s transparency makes the process of water collection visible. The rainwater collected will serve as irrigation to the garden beds and drinking water.
When it rains, the roof’s material mimics the sound that community members recall from their roofs back in their homeland—a design decision that stemmed from a community meeting and a testament of Pineda’s inclusive design process.
Toward the back of the garden, a greenhouse will be constructed at the site of its predecessor. The garden’s border will be lined by a perforated brick wall drawing in light and blocking the highway’s view. At the site of the original hearth will be a memorial, in remembrance of the garden’s activist history.
The materials used for the project will be mostly recycled from previous garden structures, and ceramics sourced from Oaxaca. The brick will blend the garden with The Bronx’s urban fabric, and allude to the building behind the garden which housed Central and South American refugees in the 1970s. “This garden was really used as a hide for activism and resistance, to the point that the NYPD actually landed a helicopter on top of that building and kicked out a lot of the community activists, and got rid of a lot of elements in the garden,” Pineda said.
With over 100,000 newly-arrived asylum seekers in New York City, and the ongoing effects of climate-induced migration, the community garden is tasked with supporting the influx of migrants in the city.
H.earth received funding from re.arc Institute, a Copenhagen-based foundation funded by Ikea’s subsidiary Interogo foundation. Fundraising is integral to getting the project done on time. “People rely on this garden for produce,” Pineda said. With some funding for the project secured, the Saavedra family and community members have proposed barbecues and cookouts for additional money. Pineda continued, “It’s really been this labor of love, bootstrapping it to get it to where we are.”