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Where was I? Austin, Texas? Portland, Oregon? Nope. That farmer was no hipster, and this was no trendy zip code. It was East New York, an area of Brooklyn where the median household income is $34,000. Like others I met there, Jahnice Johnson is a high school–aged intern, paid by the local nonprofit that runs East New York Farms (ENYF) to learn valuable life skills and political lessons through growing food.
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In spite of recent publicity for a brand of urban farming involving back-to-the-land millennials, famous chefs, and big-time investors, ENYF is far more typical of plots under cultivation in U.S. cities. Most are homegrown, and if they have a shared mission, it’s summed up by Johnson’s colleague Tanim Ahmed, 15: “Spend time doing something that benefits everyone, not only you.” Nowhere is this more taken to heart than in New York City, whose 600-plus community gardens represent the nation’s largest concentration. Gardeners here exemplify a grassroots movement that’s been strengthening across America for four decades. Fresh food, social justice, health, happiness, and quality of life—they’re bringing it all home through planting.
"They call it a community garden for a reason: It’s the word community,” says Aziz Dehkan, executive director of the New York City Community Garden Coalition (NYCCGC), which advocates for the people and their plants. “Most of the gardens are in underserved areas, and we the people took the vacant lots and greened them up.”
“It’s beautiful, it’s free, it’s open; it’s a place where people can come and relax, get off the street, and get out of the hustle and the bustle of the city.”
“Underserved” is an understatement. The history to which Dehkan refers goes back to the recession of the 1970s, when New York was cash-strapped. Real estate values fell, and in poorer areas like East New York, banks denied improvement loans. As buildings deteriorated, landlords abandoned or torched them. Empty lots soon numbered in the tens of thousands. Facing bankruptcy, the city cut services. Hills of uncollected garbage rose. Residents resorted to self-help; where rubble and trash had been piled, Edens sprouted. A green-thumbed artist named Liz Christy formed the Green Guerillas to clean up Manhattan’s bombed-out Lower East Side. In the South Bronx, relocated Puerto Ricans planted gardens around casitas, “little houses” that served as gathering places.
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It was a process repeated across the country. Building on momentum from the first Earth Day in 1970, which spread the idea that even city dwellers were stewards of the environment, gardeners broke ground in Philadelphia, Denver, and Boston. In East New York, where there was little fresh food, residents grew their own. Though most New Yorkers don’t know it as they speed through en route to JFK airport, this ostensible slum became a boomtown for bootstrap greening. By 1998, when ENYF launched, the area was home to more than 60 community gardens.
“That’s more than any other neighborhood in New York,” says the group’s agriculture director, Deborah Greig. The farm bolsters this network by holding workshops, doling out seeds, and training youths to assist local growers. Greig’s 33 interns help operate two weekly markets. Here, gardeners cater to the tastes of an area where newcomers from places like Bangladesh and West Africa form 30 percent of the population. Bottle gourds, long beans, callaloo—“everything is affordable and grown right here,” says intern Lianna Hurtte, 16. “You don’t have to go to the supermarket to buy it.”
She’s proud of her work, this sweet-faced kid; that’s by design. “We’re not necessarily expecting anyone to become a farmer,” says Greig, “but we want them to make decisions and build confidence in themselves to help the community grow.”
“You meet the best New Yorkers in the gardens—people who care about their neighborhoods and are willing to get their hands dirty.”
Community gardeners, in other words, grow more than plants. “The movement has been an incubator for other things,” says Bill Maynard, president of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), which gives technical support to plots in 49 states. He ticks off gardeners’ good works: cleaning up blight, improving ecologies, bolstering locals’ health, generating income.
Of course, uplift like this comes with challenges in restless New York. As flowers sprouted in abandoned lots, officials awoke to the potential of once-forsaken neighborhoods. At first the city pitched in, establishing GreenThumb, a program that helps New York’s 20,000 growers with leases, equipment, and training. But by the 1990s, real estate development was back in gear. Some plots were bulldozed to make way for buildings; others were rescued when the city parks department took them under its wing. Among the first to be transferred to Parks jurisdiction was 6BC Botanical Garden in Manhattan’s East Village. Founded atop tenement ruins by mothers looking for a safe place for their kids, 6BC grew into a wonderland with a duplex fairy tale cottage and an English-country feel.
Unlike other gardens, 6BC isn’t focused on edibles. Boyd Hottenstein, a ponytailed gardener who sat one day, rake in hand, beneath wisteria dripping from the cottage eaves, distilled its purpose: “It’s beautiful, it’s free, it’s open. It’s a place where people can come and relax, get off the street, get out of the hustle and bustle.” Indeed, a soul could get lost under the arbor draped in grapevines, by the weeping cherry beside the pond, in the grotto used by book groups that gather around the stone table. In an area short on parkland, 6BC is popular for weddings and photo shoots.
And it’s more than that, says board member Nick McKinney. “It’s a place people get to know each other.” Though gentrification has rocked the East Village, at 6BC, sixth-generation Lower East Siders unite with Wall Street trustafarians, hosting al fresco music and poetry, pruning trees, and making collective decisions. “The democratic thing,” says McKinney, “is healthy for everyone.”
The raised beds of shiso and amaranth, berry bushes heavy with fruit, and trees that attract migrating warblers will remain, thanks to the garden’s stewards.
Someone should have told that to Rudy Giuliani. In 1999, eyeing real estate revenues, the mayor made a unilateral decision to auction off gardens on city-owned land. Growers fought back. Dressed as sunflowers, they protested at city hall. Actress Bette Midler, founder of the urban greening nonprofit the New York Restoration Project, laid down a check that saved 52 gardens. The Trust for Public Land, whose mission is to ensure green space within a 10-minute walk of every American, rescued another 69. By the time the dust cleared, Michael Bloomberg was mayor and New York’s gardeners had prevailed.
In retrospect, Giuliani “did the cause a favor,” says Jon Crow, one of the founders of the Pacific Street Brooklyn Bear’s Community Garden, “because we had to organize.” Few know the contest between development and gardening as well as the Bears. Their spit of green, named for an adjacent street and a stuffed teddy found in the weeds here, sits on prime real estate facing Brooklyn’s new arena, Barclays Center. In 1985 when it began, the group’s biggest problems were used condoms, needles, and crack vials, Crow recalled as we sat beneath a magnolia tree, watching butterflies flit from yarrow to milkweed. But their next challenge came when a real estate mogul snatched up their block for a million dollars. A quarter of that sum, paid by the borough president’s office, got the Bears two-thirds of their plot back. A chain sporting-goods store now stands on the other third, garden ivy creeping up its wall to obscure lettering reading “Modell’s.”
When the arena opened across the street, it brought noise and crowds. High-rises are on their way, too. But the Pacific Street Bears organized with other gardens and in 2012 formed a small land trust. The raised beds of amaranth and shiso, raspberry bushes heavy with fruit, and trees that attract migrating warblers will remain, thanks to the determination of their stewards. “You meet the best New Yorkers in the gardens—people who care about their neighborhood and are willing to get their hands dirty. And look at what you get,” Crow said, gesturing toward the lush surroundings. “You don’t know how many times people walk through the gate and say, ‘Thank God you guys are still here.’ ”
Today, community gardeners are riding a wave of national interest. The ACGA’s Bill Maynard cites locavorism and gardening First Lady Michelle Obama as boons. Movement leaders like Black Urban Growers cofounder Karen Washington, New Orleans’ Johanna Gilligan, and Oakland’s Kelly Carlisle garner media attention. The ACGA’s online map shows gardens multiplying in suburbs and rural areas. And in many cities, including Sacramento, where Maynard is coordinator of community gardens, new ordinances are enabling bigger, more numerous, and often profitable plots.
In New York, where space is at more of a premium than ever, gardeners continue to tuck plantings into schoolyards, churchyards, public-housing blocks, and land left over from public works. The quest to green the city taps wellsprings of resourcefulness. One young project is three-year-old New Roots Community Farm, a collaboration between South Bronx residents and the International Rescue Committee that uses gardens throughout the United States to help refugees, many of whom have farming backgrounds, integrate into the community. Sitting on land meant for a bridge that never got built, the garden slopes severely. So New Roots growers built bioswales—gorgeous swaths of native grasses and shrubs—to capture and filter storm runoff and protect their beds from flooding.
Such ingenuity shows gardens’ potential to help manage big problems like climate change; NYCCGC is spearheading creation of similar green infrastructure on the Lower East Side, using funds earmarked after Superstorm Sandy. Still, land tenure remains uncertain. The present mayor, Bill de Blasio, plans to build affordable housing on some gardens. At plots on private land, gardeners battle speculators over deeds. Development is coming even to East New York, where cranes in the sky signal a land rush. On top of that, gardeners who started in the ’70s are aging, and they worry about succession plans.
Given these pressures, the future of the movement might be in models like East New York Farms, which is raising a generation of gardeners with political savvy and community-based ideals. On the day I visited, hydrants that nearby gardens normally use had been shut off to make way for construction. Intern Jahnice Johnson was tapping the farm’s tank to share its water. As she filled jugs, she told me her story: “I was a problem child, always in trouble.” But gardening changed her. As a second-year intern, Johnson oversees newer farmers. “I had leadership qualities even with the old me, but now I know how to use them properly. So I’m not leading people in the wrong way; I’m leading in the right way.” And, with that, she picked up her overflowing vessels and strode toward a patch of pumpkins and greens down the block where a neighboring gardener stood in a colorful sari, waiting for a helping hand.