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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Community Gardening Yeasayers and Naysayers

I regularly come across news items that either highlight the benefits of community gardening, are feel good stories about community gardening or are in some way negative about community gardening. Sometimes the news items make great counterpoints to each other like these.

I have been an advisor to Project Grow school gardening project at City as School H.S., an alternative public high school in lower Manhattan. For many years they had a garden and greenhouse in the entry plaza to the school. Last year, the greenhouse and garden had to be removed to make way for a renovation project to the school's facade. The school has no other usable space but currently they are gardening in a mini-farm at Battery Park. Some of the students created an interesting video about their project. Definitely Yeasayers.  Please note that Battery Park is 25 acres of  Parks Department parkland in Manhattan.

Another article I came across : "Senior Citizens' Illegal "Vegetable" Garden Destroyed In Highbridge Park" was about a group of seniors in Upper Manhattan that were growing vegetables in an underutilized area of Parks Department land in Upper Manhattan. Now, the seniors seemed to have neglected to ask permission -maybe they forgot, maybe they wanted fresh local vegetables like the aforementioned downtown Manhattan dwellers or maybe they were a group of guerilla gardeners. I don't know what their motivation was but it does point out that there is a demand for space to grow vegetables in NYC.
There was a disturbing comment from Manhattan Parks commissioner William Castro in the article which appeared in the on-line Gothamist weblog,  "'we almost never get a request for' vegetable gardens.". Definitely a Naysayer.  By the way, GreenThumb is the largest municipal community gardening program in the US, is part of the Parks Department and does issue licenses to nearly 300 groups to grow vegetables on land under the jurisdiction of the Parks department.

One more Naysayer: A Harvard professor, Edward L. Glaeser, wrote an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe with the subtitle  "Urban farms do more harm than good to the environment". His argument is that more urban agriculture = lower population density= more driving= more energy use. I guess on the surface this argument makes sense except that no one is talking about depopulating cities in order to grow more food within city limits but rather utilizing unused spaces like vacant land and rooftops.  I don't think that most cities will be able to grow a high proportion of the food they consume. The point is to grow as much as possible particularly items that provide high nutrition values using the most sustainable farming practices. Yes, I am a Yeasayer!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Community Garden Version of the High Line and More

Today I visited the Long Island City Roots Community Garden which is built on a former rail siding that ran in this industrial area of Queens, NY. The rail is not exposed in the garden but their are tracks visible outside of the garden.  I was told to follow the tracks west as they appeared and disappeared to get to the subway entrance to return to my office. There is a new garden which has sprouted on the tracks.

 It is the Queens version of the High Line, an elevated former rail line on the west side of Manhattan. The second phase of the project which will add an additional 1/2 mile to this linear park will be officially opened on June 8th. While this project has a price tag of several hundred million dollars, This Queens "Low Line" while not so ambitious has probably cost pennies. A few pics:


I also took a few photos of the Morris Jumel Garden in Washington Heights, Manhattan. They have an interesting Rainwater Harvesting system that collects the rain in a raised barrel with a lower one serving as overflow and a barrel to fill a watering can.


                    There were interesting little vignette gardens / sculptures.

A metal sculpture with mannequin leg

A neat assemblage including an outdoor tool rack

And from the All Peoples Garden in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a beautiful new photorealistic mural of the garden's founder Olean For:


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Early Years : Garden Plan to Reality

Having a plan for the garden is wonderful but without gardeners to make it happen... well it is just a sketch. The plan called for a bit of heavy labor to remove the old raised  beds and build new ones. At the time there were not very many outside groups offering to help with a labor force. The only one I can remember was C.A.S.E.S. and alternative to incarceration program for those convicted of misdemeanors. Today there are many corporate groups, citywide volunteer organizations like New York Cares and job and skill training groups like N.E.W. and the Green Apple Corps looking for volunteer opportunities. 

There was a guy I knew, Mike Gorman, who was a teacher at an alternative high school called Manhattan School for Career Development (MSCD) which was about 4 blocks from the school. The students needed field training leading to non-college career opportunities. The garden provided some opportunities and Mike was very interested in having his students spend time in the garden to learn construction skills, horticulture and garden maintenance, i.e. pulling weeds, pruning and cleanup. So this group spent a lot of hours in the garden to make the sketch become reality.

Fences were removed and most important the fence that created the alleyway alongside the garden was moved to cut off the drug highway/ alleyway and in the process add an extra 500 square feet to the east side of the garden. Other gardens took the fencing and poles and hardware to use at their gardens. The raised planter in the front of the garden was initially repaired and eventually removed as it was never used for it's intended purpose for senior or disabled gardeners.
New Structure shortly after it was built.
Note the series of chain link fences. Drug Alley in rear of photo

The neighborhood was still awash in drugs and there was a sizable homeless population although the Dinkinsville and other encampments were gone. The 6BC garden (which was called Sixth Street Community Center Garden at the time) had our own homeless person named Junior who moved into the ramshackle shed that held our garden tools. The MSCD crew rebuilt the shed around Junior and we tried to keep his possessions separate from the garden stuff. He would help sweep and carry supplies as they arrived especially if someone gave him a couple of dollars to buy something alcoholic to drink. A number of folks in and outside of the garden tried to work with Junior to find him shelter and services but he preferred to be in the garden and lived there until he died a few years later. 

There were many things happening in the community gardening world at this time that would impact the 6BC Garden. A group of organizations that provided assistance to the community gardens were meeting as an ad hoc group called the Lower East Side Technical Assistance Group, spearheaded by the Green Guerillas. We worked with architect Michael Kwartler who had just developed the Environmental Simulation Center. This was the beginnings of the use of computer modeling for Urban Planning and to use computers to do sun/shade modeling.  He was able to develop plans and drawings that showed how the Lower East Side could have housing built on truly vacant land and the community gardens could continue to exist and thrive.

 Kwartler Map. Gardens are shown as flowers. 6BC labelled.  

There were constant contentious meetings of the local community board that were often disrupted by demonstrators opposed to the types of development that were proposed. Gardens were given 5, then 10 year leases as a step toward permanency. A few gardens were transfered to the Parks Dept from the Departments of General Services and Housing Preservation and Development. Some members of the 6BC garden began to put together documents and photos depicting the positive impact that the garden had on the community in preparation for the coming battles to preserve not only this garden but all of the community gardens in NYC. That's the next chapter.