In 2008, I joined AmeriCorps and was placed in an organization called New York Restoration Project. My three-person crew oversaw a network of community gardens and small parks throughout the Bronx and Northern Queens. Every morning, I’d drive a dump truck over the University Height’s Harlem River bridge towards the Bronx Zoo to pick up a load of ZooDoo, which is exactly what it sounds like – a part of the city’s composting project that makes good agricultural use of elephant waste. From there, we’d make our rounds: tilling soil, checking on gardeners, picking up garbage, building trestles and painting fences from farm to tiny farm.
New York has a long history of farming--this bucolic spot was located at Flatbush and Ditmas Avenues in Brooklyn, c.1890
When I was working the land uptown, I came across a bounty of fresh crops that reflected the immigrant growers harvesting them – tomatillos shining bright green through their paper sacks, waxy yellow summer squash ripe for a Sunday BBQ, hundreds of vibrant hot peppers ready to be ground into sauce. I even saw miniature avocado trees blooming willfully in the humid July heat. These gardens offered relief from the food deserts of the poverty-stricken Bronx, where you’re more likely to find a corner store hawking Twinkies than a grocery store selling fresh fruit.
Community gardens are bountiful oases in urban "food deserts"
The neighborhood residents working alongside my crew transformed vacant lots into sources of sustenance and community identity, much like the turn-of-the-century tenement dwellers who ripped the flowers from their window boxes, choosing instead to plant the familiar Italian herbs and Southern peanut vines of their homelands. For these reasons and more, urban agriculture has always played a major role in the culinary development of New York City.
In Eat The City: Farming the Five Boroughs, author and activist Robin Shulman explores the benefits and struggles of urban farming. And on May 28th, the Museum hosts Robin and three of her fellow garden advocates at our seventh Culinary Conversation. The panel will talk all things urban agriculture, ranging from green architecture and how we can better incorporate farming into our cityscape to youth gardening programs in hurricane-ravished Red Hook to stocking farmers’ markets in Brooklyn’s East New York. After the talk, vendors including The Meatball Shop and Fort Defiance set up shop bazaar style in our main event space, cooking up locally sourced ingredients and giving their take on this delicious and environmentally conscious movement. There will even be live music from bluegrass duo the Katydids to set the picnic mood. Join us for a mouth-watering evening and immerse yourself in this beneficial – and deeply rooted – cause.