It was, for lack of a better phrase, a dumping ground. Though far from pristine farmland, Mr Hillery knew that he could grow something in the space.
In the 11 years since Mr Hillery began working on the site, he and members of his organisation, Harlem Grown, have transformed the land, and several other spots across the borough.
The volunteer-driven project has now created a network of thriving urban farms that aim to teach and empower local children while combatting food insecurity.
Harlem Grown currently operates 12 agricultural sites and maintains partnerships with five Harlem school districts.
The Independent has partnered with Harlem Grown to celebrate the organisation’s achievements and to mark Earth Day on 22nd April. Staff from The Independent will join Harlem Grown in May to volunteer their time at the farms. Those who wish to join The Independent in its support for Harlem Grown, can donate to the organisation through its website.
Harlem Grown is not your typical community garden. Rather than sectioning off plots of land to individual gardeners, the project invites its elementary school “farmers” and their families to work together to grow a variety of crops during Saturday workshops.
In addition to teaching sessions and working the farm, which includes watering crops, pulling up weeds and caring for mushrooms, Harlem Grown also provides storytime, cooking demos, and lunch.
The weekend sessions run from April to October. In summer, the organisation also offers a free, seven-week intensive Summer Camp at the urban farm.
The yield from the students' labour is not only collected for distribution to those in need in the community, but also used to help teach the children healthy eating habits.
"We plant fruits and vegetables, but we grow healthy children and sustainable communities,” Mr Hillery said.
The organisation focuses on children who are just starting elementary school, the founder and CEO says. He believes that using Harlem Grown's "living classrooms" to instill good habits - like healthy eating and sustainability - in early childhood will ensure those habits continue as students grow up.
Many students participating in the program come from low-income backgrounds, and Harlem Grown is often their only access to extracurricular education and fresh, organic produce.
The non-profit estimates that 98 per cent of the students that attend are part of the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), some 90 per cent live below the poverty line, and 40 per cent live in homeless shelters.
The organisation has been successful at serving these students, their families, and the wider neighborhood. Last year, Harlem Grown engaged with more than 1,000 students at in-person programs, and another 8,877 young people online.
The organisation held 18 farm tours, during which participants learned about sustainability, nutrition, and urban agriculture.
Harlem Grown also operates a Mobile Teaching Kitchen. The van parks up in different parts of Harlem and volunteers offer cooking lessons, and share ideas on recipes and ingredients. The test kitchen served more than 1,000 community members last year, and provided 69,044 servings of food in 2021.