Roytman with a moose skeleton from Maine.
by Vanessa Ogle
Wheelbarrows, dirt and a vision are all someone needs to make a difference in the community.
Jacqui Roytman, a former dance teacher, is known for combining science—often in the form of plants and photosynthesis—and art to transform neighborhoods and derelict plots of dirt from listless land into places of pride.
Now she’s obtained control of a lot on 26th Avenue to bring locals a community garden, green laboratory and event space.
“This is an amazing story to tell you the truth,” Roytman said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Roytman began SNAP to Grow! more than 10 years ago and she’s still shocked by how much it has grown.
Inspired by Roytman’s interest in the connection between the sciences and the arts, SNAP stands for Science Nature Art Projects and combines everything from chemistry to robotics with arts and crafts.
The studio Roytman uses, lent to her by the Shore Parkway Jewish Center (8885 26th Avenue), is filled with artists’ biography blurbs, children’s books, maturing plants, paint-covered smocks and enough ingredients to make elephant toothpaste—which the kids in her workshop have done before.
Roytman is expanding the ideas from the inside studio with an outdoor community garden.
She is helping improve a small section of land, where she hopes to transform it from a forgotten space into a place for teaching people that it’s possible to grow food in a city.
“Whether you have a fire escape or whatever—as long as you have a lot of sun, there’s many ways to grow food.”
But this piece of land for Roytman to transform was especially astonishing.
“I looked at this piece of property and my jaw dropped because it was just huge and not used and all I could see was a farm in my head,” Roytman said of the Shore Parkway Jewish Center’s large yard’s potential.
A serendipitous meeting—it was a rainy Thursday, Roytman recalls—brought a new partnership together with ideas as big as the yard.
Roytman met Arielle Hartman, the garden coordinator for Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders, which focuses on the importance of fresh produce, while she was on her way to pick up pizza.
She saw Hartman and two students standing in front of Layfette High School, selling produce under a blue tent.
Roytman pulled her car over and invited Hartman to join her in planting produce at the Shore Parkway Jewish Center.
It was because of this partnership, Roytman said, that New York Cares, which provides funding to the Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders and the Bensonhurst Greenmarket, became involved.
“Look, I have four wheelbarrows, two 20-foot ladders—I’ve got material that is off the charts,” Roytman said, pointing out all the different donations from New York Cares that are being used to transform the yard.
The yard is going to be divided into sections: the front will be the Art Garden; the back will hold the sun-powered greenhouse that is currently under construction; the long rectangular patch that connects the front to the back will be an urban garden with programs designed for children and senior citizens; and the inside studio will continue being used for science and art projects, while also implementing adult art nights.
The garden, which is wheelchair accessible, will be open year-round.
“What I’m studying is using cold greenhouses,” said Roytman, unafraid of winter closing the garden. “People up in Maine grow food all year long. We could do it.”
All the outdoor sections will hold various community events, like compost nights to show everyone just how easy it can be.
Roytman, bobbing her head as she motions to the yard, talking about its completion that’s expected in April, also envisions weddings, concerts, dance performances and poetry nights in the Art Garden.
“It’s going to be awesome,” she says, looking around the yard with still-melting snow. “Can’t you see it?”
Correction: The original version of this article misidentified the location of the planned garden. It is not the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center, it is the Shore Parkway Jewish Center. The article has been corrected.