The following is a talk given by me to the attendees of a breakfast sponsored by the City Gardens Club.
Thank you, for inviting me. I work for the organization formerly known as Council on the Environment, now called GrowNYC. Hopefully the name will be easier to remember and reflect more accurately the work we do to grow food, community, minds and awareness about New York City’s environment. I work in the Open Space Greening program.
We support community gardens in many ways including providing tools and material transport with our Grow Truck thanks in part to the generous yearly grants from the City Gardens going to provide a little background and history about the precursors to the urban agriculture movement, community gardens.
Of course if you go back far enough in history there were many farms in New York City even up until fairly recently. In fact, when I was a young boy growing up in southeast queens there was still a large farmhouse a block away from my home where an old man we called the farmer, still grew beans and tomatoes on about an acre of land. Once he passed away the land was sold for housing.
There were different types of community gardens at least from the 1890’s. In the period from 1890 to 1917 community gardens were used by settlement houses in Manhattan and other social service agencies in places like Jackson Heights in Queens as a way to include the new immigrants into the social fabric of American society.
During World War 1 and 2 they became Victory Gardens. A way to support American troops by growing vegetables close to home so that the produce grown by American farmers could be sent overseas to feed the troops.
The disinvestment in American cities, white flight and the race riots in the 1960’s left cities with diminished populations and lots of vacant lots.
The people who stayed took it upon themselves to do something about his situation. The joined together as a community and cleaned up these rubble strewn lots and began planting seeds or using seed bombs -- balloons or Christmas ornaments filled with seeds, fertilizer and water tossed over fences surrounding vacant lots to begin greening the city.
This was long before most people had heard the words community garden.
Today there are maps to help you find a community garden and others that show the distribution of community gardens in neighborhoods that lack open space. You can find all of this information on a collaborative website OASISNYC.net that I have helped to create and sustain.
Community gardeners grow food, sometimes enough to sell at neighborhood markets like the group of gardens called East New York Farms or like the Youth Market run by youth in GrowNYC's Learn It Grow It Eat It Program but they also grow community.
They provide a safe haven for families from the City's concrete and asphalt and the urban ills that plague many NYC neighborhoods.
They provide learning centers for neighborhood schools to teach subjects ranging from math to science to Art.
They are places where art and culture can be expressed through murals imagery and plantings of all kinds.
African American women in the Bronx created an herbal booklet with an artists. A garden in Brooklyn evokes African culture with a grass roofed structure.
Found objects like gargoyles and plastic swans adorn some gardens.
The coqui a thumbnail size frog with a loud croak found in Puerto Rico becomes a symbol of pride and resistance. A garden on an African burial ground is called M’sinda Kalunga – the garden at the edge of the world.
Casitas are the New York City version of the “Bohio” or communal house usually found in the countryside in Puerto Rico.
Community gardens are models for what can be done to achieve the goals of sustainability by providing habitat for pollinating insects, songbirds and urban wildlife in general. All necessary to garden sustainably.
by recycling used olive barrels into rainwater collectors or bricks and beer bottles into a decorative pathway,
by composting using old wooden pallets and at the same time providing training in building skills for young people ,
by practicing the permaculture tenet of multiple outputs with a structure that provides both shade and a Rainwater Harvesting collection surface,
and by collecting their own solar energy to run a pump to oxygenate the community gardens pond.
I can’t say that community gardens are an utopian solution to all urban problems but I will say that they are microcosms of the larger society. They are mini societies where neighbors have to learn how to live together to survive.
Someone has to take out the trash.
They are possibly the only place where a 20 something white kid, a 70 year old African American grandmother, an Asian couple and a Latino family can all interact.
Today where many are trying to buy and eat local and sustainably community gardens and community gardeners are showing us all how to.