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.
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.
Washington 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