The turn from Mimosa onto Carpenter Street is like entering a new world. Lined on both sides by colorful houses, hand-painted signs and décor and lots overflowing with greenery, the street is a far cry from the ordinary apartment buildings and businesses around the corner. Welcome to the Carpenter Art Garden.
The Art Garden is a nonprofit organization serving the Binghampton community by providing after-school activities and classes, vocational training for teens and freshly grown produce, along with helping with what seems like any other needs that pop up. Started in 2012 with one weekly outdoor art class and some picnic tables, no one could have imagined how the program would grow in the next 10 years.
“It’s all just grown from spending time and having conversations and building relationships,” executive director Megan Banaszek said.
Banaszek started as a volunteer just two years after Erin Harris, a former art teacher, started the first outdoor art classes at the lot across the street from the Cornerstone Prep Lester Campus, but already by the time she joined, they needed to expand, constructing the Purple House — which is indeed painted purple — on the next lot.
“People loved coming to Tuesday art garden, people loved doing these classes,” Banaszek said. “Well, there’s a need now for an indoor space so we can be more consistent, we can be more regular about what we’re doing.”
Now, Carpenter Art Garden consists of the original art garden, two vegetable gardens, a sculpture garden that doubles as a mini produce market twice a week, a kitchen, a bike shop, a sewing studio, a tutoring center and the Purple House that houses the offices and a small indoor art classroom.
However, few of these spaces can be pinned to providing one particular 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 the participants as they got older, offering job training programs and driver’s education scholarships.
“Our programming has shifted. We still do the original stuff that we’ve always done with the younger kids, but I think that’s the really unique thing about the Art Garden is we’ve grown in terms of what we offer as the participants have aged up as well.”
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Another big change came with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Banaszek and her team were forced to pivot their largely in-person interaction-based operation to accommodate lockdowns and social distancing.
During the past 2½ years, they provided take-home projects, food, internet and technology resources and hosted a vaccine site.
Still, Banaszek said the pandemic hit hard for her staff and the participants because of their commitment to consistently being a physical presence on Carpenter.
“We’re always here after school,” she said. “Even if we’re not doing anything, we usually make a point to be on the front porch. And that was really hard because we lost those key touchpoints every day.”
For the garden, the 10-year anniversary is partially a reopening of sorts, as they move back to their usual programming. They celebrated with a big neighborhood block party Aug. 12, opening up all their spaces for a community-wide art show, catered with food made from the produce grown in the community gardens.
As for what is next in the coming years, Banaszek said she doesn’t know. She and her staff are focusing on getting back into the swing of their normal programming and the start of another school year.
Made in Binghampton
If Banaszek takes pride in anything, it is the staff at the Art Garden 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 those live on Carpenter Street itself, including garden coordinator LaTonya Hunt and bike shop coordinator Lee Evans, lifelong residents of the area.
“This is where I be,” Hunt said. “I grew up over here. I went to Lester in kindergarten, and I’m almost 50. I have three kids and they all attended Lester, East High, graduated from Douglass High. So I’ve been here a very long time.”
Hunt is a 10-year veteran of the Art Garden, and, besides heading the garden club, she runs a twice-weekly fresh produce market and teaches cooking classes for the kids. And Evans, though his primary role is in the bike shop, helps out with other programs and general upkeep, doing “a little bit of everything” and going wherever someone is needed.
The organization’s dedication to building community is especially apparent in the mosaic garden, the site of Hunt’s market, where residents have literally stamped their identities all over the place.
The property on the corner of Carpenter and Mimosa was the site of a house demolished by the city’s organized crime unit. After purchasing the empty lot, the Art Garden invited residents to handmake tiles, each with unique colorful designs and individuals’ names, to decorate the retaining wall. Even all of the grouting work to attach the tiles was done by teens who learned the skills in the garden’s job 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 honor them.
Whatever Carpenter Art Garden does, whether it is offering sewing classes, helping kids with homework or organizing bike rides on the Greenline, it is always done with the needs of Binghampton in mind.
The organization has filled many roles in the neighborhood over the past decade, but it is the consistency and reliability of the Garden that is one of the key parts of its existence.
“A lot of non-profits 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 let you know everything is progressing. You know, everything is constantly moving at its own pace, and I hope to get another 10 to 20 years of having the Art Garden open.”
Niki Scheinberg is the FedEx and logistics reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Binghampton nonprofit Carpenter Art Garden marks 10th anniversary
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