Growing a Community: Part 5

Last one! Remember each comment get you an entry into the drawing — which I will draw Wednesday (26 January 2011) at noon. Good luck!

The future of community gardening in New York

On November 22, 2010, in front of a crowd gathered at the Food and Finance High School in Manhattan, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn unveiled a sweeping 59-point-plan to improve the city’s food system. FoodWorks, as described in Speaker Quinn’s speech, is “going to reevaluate and redefine every step in New York City’s food cycle: production, processing, transport, retail, consumption, and post-consumption.”

The FoodWorks plan views community gardens as an integral part of food production within the urban landscape, a far cry from the idea of community gardens being less worthy than other commercial uses for the same piece of land. And more than just preserving the community gardens that already exist, FoodWorks goes an incredible step further and looks to expand urban agriculture through the creation of even more community gardens, along with green roofs and even urban farms.

The city council hopes to encourage the creation of new community gardens, in a number of ways. First, the city will create a new, easily-accessible database that will list all city-owned or -leased properties, including vacant land that can be cultivated. Next, the City Council will work with organizations throughout the city, like the Parks Department’s GreenThumb program, to support and expand garden education services for community gardeners, as well partnering with academic institutions, such as Columbia University and the New School, that will help encourage small-space gardening design innovation.

While this isn’t the first time a city is trying to make urban agriculture a priority (both San Francisco and Detroit are mentioned as cities with programs in progress similar in some way to FoodWorks), this is a first for New York — and a very long way from Mayor Giuliani deriding community gardening as “communist.”

Where does this new plan for the city leave me? My attempts at fire escape gardening were, well, a bust. While my green bean plant yielded a few handfuls of beans, I ended up with only one or two tomatoes in all. They were kind of hard, and more than a little tart—but to me, they were amazing. By the next spring, I had already started several egg cartons of seedlings (shade-tolerant plants only this time: tiny lettuces, some mint, a few borage and nasturtium plants) when I ran into the superintendent of my building. My “garden,” he said, was a fire hazard. It had to go. Immediately.

Twenty-five pounds of soil I’d nurtured for months, mixing in crushed eggshells and spent coffee grounds were unceremoniously hauled down to the alley and dropped into the trash. When I got back into my apartment, I looked out at my now-empty fire escape and cried.

forget-me-not seedlingsStill, I didn’t entirely lose hope. After several days of grief-induced neglect, the lettuce seedlings wilted beyond repair, but the mint, borage, and nasturtiums all revived after a little care. I brought this tray of seedlings to my seven-year-old daughter’s Brownie meeting; they were earning a badge for community involvement and were going to pick up trash and plant some seedlings in a recreational community park on the Upper West Side.

I went along to help keep order and to help the Brownies find a good spot for the plants to grow. I told them what each plant was, what it would look like when it was grown, whether it needed shade or full sun. I showed them how water will perfectly bead up on the surface of a nasturtium leaf because its surface is covered in waxy hairs too small for us to see.

The girls, by and large, could not have cared less. They were all too busy running and yelling and occasionally finding bugs to pick up (one unfortunate woodlouse dubbed “Pilbo” was quite literally loved to death, then given a hero’s funeral attended by no less than six Brownies). That left me alone to plant the seedlings, and although finally getting to dig into the earth and plant something was somewhat bittersweet, it was an act decidedly more sweet than not.

The lease to the apartment I live in now will be up this spring. At that point, I will have a decision to make: will I be part of just another immigrant wave, staying in Washington Heights just long enough to move on, or will I stay, and make this neighborhood a place I can put down roots—both metaphorically and, I hope, literally.

Well, that’s the end. What did you think? Did you like the personal + history mix or would you rather I just stayed out of it?

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6 thoughts on “Growing a Community: Part 5

    1. I doubt it, really. If the rental agent thinks some plants on the fire escape are such a major liability (when the building next to mine has tenants with [seriously] entire mufflers on theirs), I suspect rooftop access is right out.

  1. I admire your dedication to this dream. I think you’ve got it covered here- it’s not like you are asking so much… I hope a solution presents itself this Spring.

  2. We’re lucky that, what looks like a fire escape off our kitchen, is actually just a peculiar wrought iron balcony (no ladders), so we can do whatever we want out there.

    Of course if there is a fire, we’re screwed, but at least we can enjoy some fresh basil while we burn to death.

    This has been a good series of post, BTW. Enjoying them.

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