Turning from Mimosa onto Carpenter Street is like entering a new world. Surrounded on both sides by colorful houses, hand-painted signs and decor and full of greenery, the street is a far cry from the usual residential buildings and surrounding businesses. Welcome to the Carpenter Art Garden.
The Art Garden is a non-profit organization that serves the Binghampton community by offering after-school activities and classes, vocational training for teenagers and newly grown produce, along with helping with what seems like any other need that arises. Started in 2012 with a weekly outdoor art class and a few picnic tables, no one could have imagined how the program would grow in the next 10 years.
“Everything has grown from spending time and talking and building relationships,” said executive director Megan Banaszek.
Banaszek started as a volunteer just two years after Erin Harris, a former art teacher, started the first outdoor art classes across from the Cornerstone Prep Lester campus, but by the time she joined, they had to expand, building the House of Purple – which is really dyed purple – in the rest.
“People loved coming to the Tuesday art garden, people loved doing these classes,” Banaszek said. “Well, now it needs an internal space so that we can be more consistent, be more organized about what we’re doing.”
Now, the Carpenter Art Garden consists of the original art garden, two vegetable gardens, a sculpture garden that doubles as a mini-producers market, a kitchen, a bike shop, a sewing studio, a learning center, and the Purple House housing offices and a small indoor art classroom.
However, few of these spaces can be fixed to provide a specific purpose or program. As Banaszek explained, the Art Garden is about meeting the needs of the community, however they may change.
A big part of the organization’s growth, she said, was evolving with participants as they grew up, offering job training programs and driver education scholarships.
“Our programming has changed. We still do the original things that we’ve always done with the younger kids, but I think that’s the really unique thing about the Art Garden is that we’ve grown in terms of what we offer as they have participants. adult as well.”
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Another big change came with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Banaszek and her team were forced to run their operation largely based on in-person interaction to accommodate lockdowns and social distancing.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, they have provided housing, food, internet and technology resource projects and hosted a vaccine drive.
However, Banaszek said the pandemic hit her staff and participants hard because of their commitment to constantly being a physical presence at Carpenter.
“We’re always here after school,” she said. “Even if we’re not doing anything, we usually think about being on the front porch. And that was really hard because we were losing those key points of contact every day.”
For the garden, the 10th anniversary is in part a re-opening of sorts, as they return to their usual programming. They celebrated with a big neighborhood party on August 12, opening up all of their spaces for a community-wide art show featuring food made from produce grown in the community gardens.
As for what will happen in the next few years, Banaszek said he doesn’t know. She and her staff are focusing on getting back into the swing of their normal programming and starting another school year.
Made in Binghampton
If Banaszek is proud of anything, it’s the Art Garden staff and how they contribute to weaving the organization into the fabric of the community.
Five of the garden’s seven staff members live in Binghampton, and four of them live on Carpenter Street itself, including garden coordinator LaTonya Hunt and bike shop coordinator Lee Evans, lifelong residents of the area.
“That’s where I’m at,” Hunt said. “I grew up here. I went to Leicester in Kindergarten and I’m almost 50 years old. I have three children and they all attended Lester, East High, graduated from Douglass High. So I’ve been here for a very long time.”
Hunt is a 10-year veteran of Art Garden, and in addition to running the garden club, she runs a twice-weekly fresh produce market and teaches cooking classes for kids. And Evans, though his primary role is in the bike shop, helps with other programs and general maintenance, doing “a little bit of everything” and going wherever someone is needed.
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The organization’s dedication to community building is particularly evident in the mosaic garden at Hunt’s Market Place, where residents have literally stamped their identity everywhere.
The property at the corner of Carpenter and Mimosa was the site of a home destroyed by the city’s organized crime unit. After purchasing the vacant lot, the Art Garden invited residents to hand-make tiles, each with unique colorful designs and names of individuals, to decorate the retaining wall. Even all of the tiling grouting work was done by teenagers who learned the skills in the garden work program.
The centerpiece of the space is a large mosaic sculpture in the shape of a candle decorated with the names of deceased members of the community where people can come to pay their respects.
Whatever Carpenter Art Garden does, whether it’s offering sewing classes, helping kids with homework, or hosting bike rides on the Greenline, it’s always done with Binghampton’s needs in mind.
The organization has played many roles in the neighborhood over the past decade, but it is the stability and reliability of the Garden that is one of the main parts of its existence.
“A lot of nonprofits open and close within a year or two, so the last 10 years prove a point that it’s actually doing what it was put here to do,” Evans said. “It just lets you know that everything is progressing. You know, everything is constantly moving at its own pace, and I hope to have another 10 to 20 years of the Art Garden open.”
Niki Scheinberg is a FedEx and logistics reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at [email protected].