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Monday, April 26, 2010

The Multi-Culture of Community Gardens in New York City


When a casual observer walks into a community garden, the culture or ethnic group of the gardeners may not be immediately apparent. However, with closer observation of the garden obvious clues can be found. The types of plants people grow, the horticultural practices used, the layout of the space, the placement of chairs, tables and sculpture, types of sculpture or symbols and colors that objects are painted are all products of culture that can be seen in a garden. Even though community gardens may be based on an overall design, the implementation of that design and the “accessories” that you find in a garden are reflections of who the gardeners are and their ancestry.

The design of community gardens is much different from institutional or municipal open space design. First of all the design is ever evolving as the garden membership grows and changes. It is never complete or static and it very much reflects the background and culture of the gardeners. Often there is a clash with traditional ideas of aesthetics and beauty. This process of creating open spaces that are reflective of ones ethnicity is empowering to individuals and communities and serves to keep alive cultural traditions and memories that might otherwise be lost.

I think that ethnic community gardens in New York and other cities are fertile ground for ethno botanic research. For example, from 20 responses to a survey of herbs grown in community gardens in NYC that I conducted in 1991, we found that gardeners used plants from their native countries to make healing products. Gardeners told us that some plant like Rue have healing properties that are strengthened if the plant is stolen rather than grown by the user. We also learned that gardeners came from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, Barbados, Argentina, Philippines, Guyana, Mexico, Canada, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, China, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy and over a dozen different states in the United States. While, this is not a comprehensive list, we know that residents of New York City’s Borough of Queens come from 150 nations; it gives you some idea of the diversity of community gardeners in NYC.

Another reference to the diversity of cultures in community gardens in New York City comes from a report to the New York State Senate written in 1997 by Carole Nemore of the Senate Minority Office titled “Rooted in Community - Community Gardens in New York City”. Based on responses from 229 gardens, over 90% of community gardens indicated that more than one distinct ethnic group regularly uses the garden. Nemore wrote, “The number of ethnicities listed was astounding, with 24 in the Bronx, 44 in Brooklyn, 39 in Manhattan, 18 in Queens, and 5 in Staten Island. Surely, it would be hard pressed to identify any other neighborhood amenity which draws together such a diversity of people in pleasurable activities or events so close to home”. The location of community gardens also closely parallels neighborhoods that have a majority of African American or Hispanic residents

Some New York City community gardens have an ethnically diverse group of gardeners where different expressions of culture co-exist side by side. In these gardens the interaction of cultures is fascinating to observe. In some cases, a garden’s membership is from one particular culture. Whether the gardens are single culture gardens or multicultural gardens, they contradict the idea of the “melting pot”, a formerly popular sociological theory of immigration to the United States.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in 1845, first used the phrase, “smelting pot” to describe his idea that America, was an “asylum of all nations”, where “a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature” would be created by assimilation of races and cultures. The phrase “melting pot”, was popularized by a play by the same name written by Israel Zangwill that was the hit of New York's 1908 Broadway season. It has provided one metaphor for the American immigration experience ever since. Perhaps the first new thinking about assimilation came from the book, Beyond the Melting Pot: the Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City, by Nathan Glazer & Daniel Patrick Moynihan. According to Glazer the premise of the book is that “The ethnic group was not only a survival from the age of mass immigration, but something of a new creation, and thus we could expect not rapid assimilation but an extended persistence, even as each group underwent change.”

Today, the prevailing explanation for the new immigrant experience is multiculturalism, often referred to as a mosaic or salad bowl, creations or mixtures that retain their original characteristics while being combined with others. These are two fitting metaphors, that of the mosaic and salad bowl, but I would say that community gardens and gardeners might be better understood using the analogy of alloys. Alloys are combinations of metals which when mixed together form a different metal having superior properties to the individual metals. They tend to be stronger, more malleable, more resistant to heat or better conductors of electricity. This strength from working together is exactly what we are seeing manifested in the community gardens in New York City today.

While many immigrants adopt American cultural traditions like the celebration of Thanksgiving, which recreates a harvest celebration shared by American Indians and new settlers from Europe in the early 1600’s, most immigrants hold onto and share with others from their homeland, their own symbols, holidays and celebrations. Whether gardeners are all from one ethnic group or represent many ethnicities, the expression of cultural symbols is very clear. These symbols give us a window into the lives of the people who garden there. As long as a visitor looks with an open mind and doesn’t prejudge things that are different, these symbols are beautiful and educational.

There are many cultural symbols that we find in the gardens beginning with the garden name. The name is one obvious way to tell the majority culture in a garden. Spanish named gardens like Bello Amanecer Borincano, El Jardin Del Paraiso, El Sol Brilliante and Parque de Tranquilidad have gardeners from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or Mexico. African named gardens like Taqwa, or Ujima have primarily African-American gardeners although one garden in particular with mostly white gardeners, M’Finda Kalunga which means “garden at the end of the world” is a tribute to the fact that the gardeners found that their garden land was at one time an African American burial ground. Other names have French roots like La Petit Versailles, American Indian like Wanaqua or Chinese like Suen Dragon.

Gardeners have also used some ethnic symbols as an organizing tool to fight against the loss of their garden. One symbol that has been used is the coqui, a thumb-sized frog that is the national symbol of Puerto Rico. In one Puerto Rican myth a monster approaches the forest and intends to destroy it. The tiny coqui steps up and is able to scare away the monster with the loudness of its voice, a fitting analogy for community gardeners facing bulldozers ready to destroy their garden. A group of gardeners erected a giant coqui shaped sculpture with room inside for 2 people at the front gate of El Jardin de la Esperanza. Unfortunately the coqui was not able to save this garden.

Many community gardens have sculpture or murals painted on the walls of buildings adjacent to the garden. Often these murals have cultural symbols in them. That could be a flag, a scene from the homeland, a religious symbol or examples of dress or native plants, animals or insects.

The Culture of Horticulture

Perhaps the most obvious and easiest to understand symbols of culture are the plants that people grow. Puerto Rican gardeners tend gardens where you find hot peppers, corn and cilantro. If you find Calaloo, probably a Jamaican gardener planted those seeds. Where Collards, Okra and Black Eye Peas are in abundance you will find African –American gardeners with roots in the South. A garden with a fig tree, a patch of basil and some garlic is a sign that Italian gardeners have their hands in that soil. Asian gardeners plant rows of Chinese cabbage, Tatsoi and Pak Choi. In multicultural gardens, we see a visible symbol of community at work when gardeners share seeds and grow plants from cultures other than their own. This is the best example of community gardens bridging the gaps between cultures.

Another example of community gardens bringing cultures together, this time with birds, is in the Hua Mei Bird Garden in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park in Manhattan. In a ritual that Chinese men have brought to New York from their homeland, they keep beautiful Hua Mei songbirds in fancy bamboo cages. On sunny days they bring the birds in their cages out into the garden for fresh air and companionship. On weekends, the garden can be filled with singing birds, sometimes as many as 30 or more. With assistance from my organization, the Council on the Environment of New York City, a dedicated group from this diverse local community of Italian, Dominican and Chinese immigrants helped build and maintain this unique garden in a park. The organization Project for Public Spaces, which highlights successful examples of urban open spaces, had this to say about the Hua Mei Bird Garden. “This trio of garden, men and birds creates a sense of place and destination in a part of this park that seemed forgotten until only recently ……. The garden's reputation has extended all over the city, and people bring their Hua Mei birds from miles away. Their singing nearly drowns out the heavy rumble of traffic coming across busy Delancey Street.”

This garden is even the subject of a children’s book, Happy Birthday Mr. Kang, by Susan L. Roth recently published by National Geographic Press. The author was inspired to write the book after visiting the Hua Mei Bird Garden. Using collages of photos of the garden and the Hua Mei birds, Ms Roth weaves a delightful tale that is interesting to young children and their parents.

I was part of the leadership team that created a Program called Garden Mosaics. Garden Mosaics refers to two beautiful mosaics found in urban community gardens across North America. First are the gardeners, who represent a mosaic of cultures from around the world. Second are the mosaics of plantings that these gardeners create.

The goal of the Garden Mosaics program is to promote science learning, as well as intergenerational and multicultural understanding, through youth and adults conducting action research in community gardens. Many community gardeners grow plants and use cultivation practices that originate from their unique cultural traditions. Beyond what I have described here, little is known about the diversity of plants and practices in urban gardens. Garden Mosaics is seeking to answer questions such as: Are there sustainable practices that might be adapted by others? Are there herbs that might be grown or used by a broader community? In Garden Mosaics, community gardens and in particular multicultural community gardens have become the subject matter for citizen science and a tool for bridging generations and cultures.

The Culture of the Little House

Some gardens have one cultural or ethnic group represented in the garden. Many neighborhoods in NYC are enclaves as one ethnic group gets established and their numbers grow, that particular neighborhood becomes segregated. This settlement pattern can be found in many neighborhoods in New York City. The most common ethnic group found in New York City community gardens are Puerto Ricans. Often “Latinos” or “Hispanics” are lumped together. In fact there are at least 70 community gardens with Latino names but a closer look will reveal examples of cultural heritage and tradition that are unique to the particular Latino group, be it Puerto Rican, Mexican or Dominican.

Garden structures are often the most obvious symbol of the community gardens dominant culture. One very visible example is the casita, literally “small house” but which means much more to the Puerto Rican people for whom the casita, is a reminder of their Taino ancestral indigenous tradition. Tainos are the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. The casita is the current expression of the Bohio or communal house usually found in Taino Conuco or communal gathering places in Puerto Rico. Within the Conuco, often referred to as batey generations mingle and the youth learn of their culture, as they are entertained with folkloric songs and stories. The casita community gardens serve the same purpose to the community gardeners in New York City. The casita is a perfect example of the clash with traditional ideas of aesthetics and beauty. These homemade structures are considered a fire hazard by the city.

In field research in 20 New York City Latino community gardens done by Cornell University Graduate student Laura Saldivar, she found that, “All 20 gardens in this study had wood casitas, which are used to display pictures and store musical instruments, and as places to sit and relax. In Puerto Rico, similar casitas are built in the fields as shelter from the sun and rain and serve as centers for social life and secular and religious celebrations. Cooking facilities, such as a “kitchen,” stove, or home-made pig roasters (fogons) were present in 40% of the gardens, and all gardens had unplanted areas surrounding the casitas (bateys) that were used for barbeques, picnics, and potlucks.”

As reported on page 3 in the City section of the New York Times on September 10, 2000, the casita gardens like Rincon Criollo in the Bronx are used for festivals such as La Bombazo, a dance and drumming festival with roots in Africa. The Bomba or Bomba y Plena art form is unique because the bomba drummers take their cue for the progress of a piece from the dancers. The music and dancing celebrate the emancipation of slaves in Puerto Rico and the rich African traditions that preceded slavery.

The Culture of the Swept Yard

In, “Black Hands, Green Gardens” in the Washington Post, August 25, 1999, DeNeen L. Brown looked at some cultural clues that could be found in African - American gardens. The placement of objects of found art and an overall neatness in a garden or “swept yard” are some of the elements that are indicative of African - American gardens and yards in the South and in community gardens in New York and other American cities. You will find chairs that are strategically placed to welcome visitors to stop and sit and enjoy the garden. Often you will find glass bottles hanging from a tree, placed on the ground or buried upside down in the garden. In the African tradition, bottles trap evil spirits.

The “swept yard” has its roots in West Africa where yards were swept using a certain type of stalk from nearby woods to sweep the garden in a herringbone or other type of pattern. The sweeping would have to be done walking backward so the footsteps of the sweeper would not be seen. Sweeping was especially important at holiday time. Lawns are a suburban phenomenon; keeping a swept yard or community garden is following a rural tradition of a neat yard, free of any unwanted grass. I have seen older African- American community gardeners with roots in the south who will sweep sections of the garden bare. While this may seem as wasted space to some, it serves the purpose of presenting a neat garden to visitors.

I have often wondered why people paint the rocks in their community gardens. I think the rock tones have a natural beauty to them. Rock painting is another expression of the African- American garden tradition of using found objects to “prettify” the garden. They have been and still are often used as colorful borders. And they are a simple way to dress up the garden to make it look like a lot of effort went into this particular garden. Community gardeners also paint the wooden raised beds or tire planters in addition to the rocks with the same purpose of prettifying the garden.

These are just a few examples of how the design of community gardens and the placement and use of objects and structures in community gardens have cultural meanings attached to them. By looking more deeply into the meaning of these symbols, we can learn about cultures that are different from our own. More than just telling us which ethnic group is represented in a garden, understanding the meaning of symbols may help to promote tolerance of other cultures.

I see community gardens as fertile real world laboratories to study the interaction of people and cultures and the myriad ways that people organize and govern themselves. Gardens are the great equalizer as people from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds are forced by proximity to interact with each other. Often it is the only place in the neighborhood where these types of interactions occur. The phenomenon of multicultural community gardens in New York City and the experiments in social interaction taking place in them has many lessons for us to learn. I hope I have piqued your curiosity, answered some questions and maybe raised a few others about these fascinating people and places.

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