How Radical Gardeners Took Back New York City

New York­ers’ rela­tion­ship to New York City com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens is large­ly informed by how long we’ve lived here.

Do you remem­ber the 60s, when a fis­cal cri­sis and white flight result­ed in thou­sands of vacant lots and aban­doned build­ings in low income neigh­bor­hoods?

Activists like Hat­tie Carthan and Liz Christy sprung from such soil, cre­at­ing youth pro­grams, haul­ing away debris, and putting con­stant pres­sure on elect­ed offi­cials to trans­form those urban waste­lands into green oases.

Ver­dant sites like the Bow­ery Hous­ton Com­mu­ni­ty Farm and Gar­den (now known as the Liz Christy Gar­den) improved air qual­i­ty, low­ered tem­per­a­tures, and offered a pleas­ant gath­er­ing place for neigh­bors of all ages.

In the ‘80s, the city boast­ed 1000 com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens, most­ly in neigh­bor­hoods con­sid­ered blight­ed. School aged chil­dren learned how to plant, tend, and har­vest veg­eta­bles. Immi­grant mem­bers intro­duced seeds new to Amer­i­can-born gar­den­ers, to help com­bat both home­sick­ness and food inse­cu­ri­ty. On site arts pro­grams flour­ished. There were al fres­co birth­day par­ties, con­certs, movie screen­ings, hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions, per­ma­cul­ture class­es, com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings…. Gar­dens became focal points for com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment. Par­tic­i­pants were under­stand­ably proud, and invest­ed in what they’d built.

As Yon­nette Flem­ing, founder of the com­mu­ni­ty-led mar­ket at the Hat­tie Carthan Com­mu­ni­ty Gar­den and Farmer’s Mar­ket, says in the above episode of Vox’s Miss­ing Chap­ter: “Com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens grow com­mu­ni­ties, for the peo­ple, to be run by the peo­ple, for the ben­e­fit of the peo­ple.”

In the mid-90s, new­ly elect­ed May­or Rudy Giu­liani sided with devel­op­ers over cit­i­zens. More than half of the city’s gar­dens were bull­dozed to make way for lux­u­ry res­i­dences.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly low-rise neigh­bor­hoods like the East Vil­lage and Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuyvesant would become increas­ing­ly fash­ion­able dur­ing the ear­ly days of the new mil­len­ni­um. New arrivals with lit­tle inter­est in neigh­bor­hood his­to­ry might assume that the side­walks had always been lined with cute cafes and hip­ster bars, not to men­tion trees. (In real­i­ty, Carthan was 64 when she began her suc­cess­ful cam­paign to line Bed-Stuy with trees, and land­mark a ven­er­a­ble Mag­no­lia that was at risk of being torn down.)

Per­haps hop­ing to com­mand younger view­ers’ atten­tion, Vox’s Miss­ing Chap­ter opens not with the rich his­to­ry of New York City’s com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens, but rather the many recipes for seed bombs on Tik­Tok. The glass half full per­spec­tive on our 500-strong sur­viv­ing gar­dens can ring a bit emp­ty to those who lost the fight to pre­serve a num­ber of East Harlem gar­dens just a few short years ago.

Don’t for­get your roots! Christy’s type­writ­ten, hand illus­trat­ed Green Gueril­las recipe for seed bombs is below. (If you want to try it at home, please use seeds native to your area.)

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A New Inter­ac­tive Map Shows All Four Mil­lion Build­ings That Exist­ed in New York City from 1939 to 1941

Behold the New York City Street Tree Map: An Inter­ac­tive Map That Cat­a­logues the 700,000 Trees Shad­ing the Streets of New York City

New York City: A Social His­to­ry (A Free Online Course from N.Y.U.) 

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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