In the mid-1970s, the South Bronx was a symbol of urban decay. But José Soto had a new vision for his neighborhood.

Jose Soto

Jose Soto

José Soto

In the mid-1970s, the South Bronx was, literally, burning. There were 12,000 fires in one year and the area lost 40% of its housing. Meanwhile about 300,000 people fled the area. Many of the abandoned lots were havens for drug dealing and criminal activity.

While the South Bronx became synonymous with urban decay and blight for many people, it was also home to thousands of people, including José “Chema” Soto. And he had to walk past these empty lots every day. One day when he was walking his daughter to school, he decided to do something about one lot in his neighborhood. He started clearing the lot of debris, garbage and abandoned cars. Soon, 50 neighbors came out to help.

To honor Chema for creating urban gardens and a lasting center for his community, Gardener’s Supply has named him a 2009 Garden Crusader Winner in the Urban Renewal category. The South Bronx site is known as La Casita de Chema and it is many things to many people: a performance space, a place to play cards and dominoes, a place for impromptu jam sessions, a site for neighborhood cookouts and a space to grow vegetables.

The 3,000-square-foot corner lot includes a casita, an outdoor stage and community gardens. And it is a place where celebrated Latin musicians come to jam and perform. It now serves over 500 members, plus the community at large. And it is one of the oldest community centers and gardens in the South Bronx.

Francisco Velez, who nominated Chema for the award, calls it one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Chema said he never thought it would be as big and successful and impact as many people as it has. His goal, all along, was simply to bring Puerto Rico – where he and many of his neighbors grew up – closer to New York.

Garden Crusaders Slideshow

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