Growing a Community: Part 4 + more giveaway details

I understand not all of you have the time, space, and/or inclination to have a garden, but, you guys! It’s not like I’m going to show up at your house with a camera crew and an oversized novelty packet of seeds to tell you you’ve won! So, don’t let the possibility of maybe winning stop you from commenting. (Wow, that’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.) If I pick a winner who doesn’t think they could use the seeds, s/he is welcome to say “thanks, but no thanks” — no hard feelings about it.

For those of you who DO want to win, if you haven’t had the chance to check it out already, you could win a Kitchen Herb Value Pack PLUS a pack of Danvers carrot seeds — for those of you who don’t know, Danvers is the Boston-area suburb I’m from and where at least some of my family has lived since the early 1600s or so. It’s completely suburbanized now, to the point you’d never know there were any farms there, never mind enough farmland to develop a carrot namesake. The addition of the Danvers carrots is my small way to keep this cultivar going.

Onward to part four!

Why not Washington Heights?

More than 600 community gardens in New York City… and yet virtually none in my own neighborhood. How can this be? What’s different about Washington Heights?

Each of New York City’s neighborhoods are different in their own way, but Washington Heights is especially so. It’s one of the biggest neighborhoods in Manhattan. It begins at the northernmost edge of Harlem, at 155th Street, and continues uptown for nearly fifty blocks, ending at Dyckman Street. Covering the width of the island, it’s flanked by Fort Tryon and Fort Washington Park, skirting along the Hudson River the the west, and by Highbridge Park on the banks of the Harlem River side to the east.

It’s also relatively younger than most neighborhoods, and one of the last areas in Manhattan to be completely developed. Most of the housing stock originates from the early 20th century (my own apartment was built in 1914), when the IRT subway line rolled out to the tip of Manhattan and into the Bronx. Most of Washington Heights consists of blocks and blocks of massive brick apartment buildings, five to six stories high, with around 40 apartments each—a far cry from the older buildings of the Lower East Side, that were torn down or simply collapsed from neglect in the 1960s and 1970s.

apartments, W 187th and Audobon

Since its beginning, Washington Heights has always been a predominately immigrant neighborhood—Irish, Armenian, European Jews—but no one group seems to have stayed much longer than the time it took to assimilate and move on. For example, in the 1960s, Washington Heights had so many Greek immigrants, it was called “the Astoria of Manhattan.” While Astoria still has much of its Greek population, the Greek presence in Washington Heights has all but vanished, leaving only a few Greek Orthodox churches behind.

Today, more than half the population of Washington Heights was born outside of the United States. Nearly 90% of those immigrants arrived from the Dominican Republic or Central America, making Spanish the primary language in 8 out of 10 homes here.

sabrosoWashington Heights is also one of New York City’s food deserts. Like most urban food deserts, it’s predominately a low-income neighborhood; in my census tract, the median income is just over $30,000 a year. Nearly half the schoolchildren in this neighborhood are overweight or obese and taking a walk along St. Nicholas Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares of the neighborhood, it’s easy to see why: fast food outlets comprise nearly half of all food retail outlets here, while bodegas and delis often outnumber grocery stores by more than five to one.

Still, this limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables doesn’t seem to mean there’s no appetite for them. Every summer, I’m stunned anew to see the 175th Street Greenmarket—one of only two (seasonal-only) Greenmarkets in Washington Heights—absolutely packed with people, despite it being in the middle of the day on a Thursday.

A low-income neighborhood with diet-related diseases, low access to fresh produce, but consistently high demand for it… these three factors in tandem seem to me as though Washington Heights should have more than its share of community gardens—and yet, I instead found myself trying to nurture sickly plants, alone and illegally, on my rusty fire escape.

So, what’s missing from the Washington Heights equation? What does this neighborhood have that neighborhoods like the Lower East Side or parts of the Bronx don’t? It’s hard to say for certain.

Perhaps it’s the fact the buildings are bigger or were better maintained in the 1960s and ’70s; other neighborhoods, with older buildings that were falling apart or being torn down, had more vacant lots available for cultivation. Maybe it’s the way Washington Heights seems to act as just a stopping point for waves of immigrants—while Liz Christy was working to clear away debris on the Lower East Side, Washington Heights’ Greek population was draining away, while a new wave of Dominican immigrants was pouring in.

Regardless of how Washington Heights got to be the way it is now, the most important question still remains: will it continue to be this way? The answer may lie in FoodWorks, a bold new plan from New York’s City Council.

Big finale: The future of community gardening in New York

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10 thoughts on “Growing a Community: Part 4 + more giveaway details

  1. I never had any idea that I’d love gardening until I just started doing it. For me, planning what to plant in the spring builds garden anticipation through the winter. You’ve inspired me to get my gardening books out in the living room for a few extra months of daydreaming. I usually don’t start this process until March, which is still winter for us.

      1. I love it that you know how to have a really good time! I just clicked and ordered the Richters’. I used to get a beautiful one from White Flower Farm, so I just re-ordered theirs again too! In truth, I need to study my Perennial books so that I can perhaps get a few of their names right when I’m out showing friends the garden. I love your point of view here, my next move is to send a link to this article over to Bette Midler.

    1. There are some vacant lots, but they’re nearly all private property — unlike the lots in the Lower East Side in the 60s and 70s which were usually owned by some city agency. And to be perfectly frank about it, it’s my feeling that even if there were more lots here, I don’t think the community-building (or -repairing) ethos exists in a substantial enough amount to get a community garden up and going. At the risk of wildly oversimplifying a whole group of people, from what I’ve read and observed, many people who come to the US from the Dominican Republic don’t really come here to stay permanently. They keep their DR citizenship [you should see it up here when it’s election season there], they educate their kids here, they work here, but they plan to return there when they retire — so I think that would naturally limit how much you care about a place, you know?

  2. When we bought our house just east of DC (definitely a food desert) a few years back, I ambitiously started a huge, unwieldy garden in our side lot. My neighbor thought I was CRAZY. After a couple of conversations with her about it, I came to understand her perspective. She’d been raised in the deep south, very poor, and her family subsisted on the food they grew. There was nothing fun or exciting about it for her. In her eyes, growing one’s own food wasn’t freedom; it was drudgery and advertised the embarrassing fact that one couldn’t afford to go to the supermarket.

    I wonder the Washington Heights population have a similar perspective, seeing the US as a place where they don’t *have to* grow their own food?

    1. You know, I never even considered that, but yeah, that would make sense to some people — a “I didn’t leave that other place to come here and have to work to grow food” mindset. I really think the prevailing factor is that there simply isn’t the space here. I didn’t delve too deep in the history of Washington Heights, but I suspect that it just simply held up better than other parts of town when NYC was in major decline in the 60s and 70s.

  3. Here’s a strange one: I get lots of seed catalogs and drool over them, but have yet to start a garden. I love the bright pictures of perfect produce and flowers but haven’t have the (time? motivation? ability to get beyond perfectionism?) to do it. I hope to this year. I even have Gail Trayla’s wonderful book on gardening and a whole mess of reader’s digest ones. I have a bunch of houseplants – one I’ve had for 25 yrs. I just have to get that thumb outside. My bee phobia probably doesn’t help matters.

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