Lower East Side Garden Tour (kinda)

Posted Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009 at 3:38 pm

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So I’ve been doing a tour of community gardens here in New York.

Pardon my interruption for this breaking news alert: it’s winter.  For all my fellow Angelenos that means it’s cold.

The wickedness of the icy wind is hard to fathom for someone used to the sunny climes.  So I’m sure you’ll understand that  I’ve only been to a few gardens, since I can’t stay out long before hurrying back to the apartment and cozying up next to the radiator.  Ah…New York.

Though I love all the arts and the people watching and the energy of the city, the New York landscape has never particularly enchanted me.  Every square inch, it seems, is crammed with buildings in its dense grid of grimy traffic-jammed streets.

So on this trip, I was curious to investigate where buildings weren’t.  The negative space.  The in-between places where nature, however improbably, might present itself.

Setting out from the West Village, my husband and I braced ourselves for the 30 degree temperature and walked the half-mile to the Lower East Side.  The gritty streets in this part of town are a cultural smorgasboard New York is famous for.  100 year old bakeries are next to hipster thrift stores are next to mosques, bodegas and social services buildings.

Shockingly, according to the map I downloaded, there was also a huge cluster of community gardens here as well. In fact, there are no less then 57 community gardens within this 1 square mile!

The biggest and most impressive one we saw was El Sol Brilliante on East 12th Street.  Taking up four vacant lots, this huge garden is surrounded by an incredible black steel fence created by the artist Julie Dermansky featuring a cutout of a giant whimsical jungle. In existence for thirty years, the garden is filled with benches, stone sculptures, murals, tons of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, you name it.  It’s obvious that this was a much loved and cared for piece of land.

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Flabbergasted by the number of gardens I was seeing, I did a bit of research to discover why.

The Lower East Side, A.K.A ‘alphabet city’, was for years a neighborhood synonymous with drugs, prostitution and garbage-strewn streets.  Arson of tenement buildings abandoned by their owners was common and these burned out vacant lots festered with crime.  Anyone who walked past them was in danger.

In 1973, plants, as they often do, came in to save the day. Artist (and my new hero) Liz Christy founded Green Guerillas, a group that went around throwing “seed bombs” into these hell zones, intending to transform the landscape .  She got some friends together and started clearing out a vacant lot on Bowery and Houston and established the first community garden in NYC.  Though under constant threat by developers the garden still remains, growing strong.

After five years of Christy’s non-stop organizing, the city soon realized that it was to their benefit to let these volunteers cultivate the space.  When community gardens went in, crime went down, not to mention the increased property values.  In 1978,  NYC established the Green Thumbs program to step in and manage the process.

Today, there are over 800 community gardens in the city.

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So it was that when people gave up on a neighborhood, gardens came in to save it.  And it wouldn’t be long before the people would have to save the gardens in return.

In the 1990s, Mayor Guiliani decided he wanted to turn the gardens back into housing and gave the deeds over to the Housing Department rather then the Green Thumbs program. Well, New Yorkers weren’t havin’ that.  They swung into action and joined with larger groups, like Bette Middler’s New York Restoration Project, creating a media blitz and a groundswell of protest.

Luckily they were able to buy a lot of the land back from the city, and stop much of the impending destruction.  Even so these gardens are always under threat.  Especially now that the Lower East Side has been yuppified, complete with its own Whole Foods.

Right now of course the gardens are all locked and dormant for the winter. However, the raised beds, sculptures, and murals are all signs that they are much loved.

I can’t wait to come back in June, in the full swing of summer, and see what’s growin’.

More pics HERE

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Breathing Room

Posted Wednesday, December 9th, 2009 at 6:32 pm

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There are vacant lots all across Los Angeles.  Spaces waiting to be filled.  Between the concrete walls, patches of earth sit, waiting to be reclaimed and returned to a primal state.  Though it seems improbable in this industrialized, over-developed, metropolitan behemoth of a city, there is still breathing room.

These empty parcels of land create an illusion that “nothing” is there.  In reality, it is simply in a dormant state.  I love that word.  Dormant: lying as if asleep; inactive; torpid.

Last weekend, 45 people from all over California and Los Angeles gathered for the Growing Communities workshop to learn how to lift these barren landscapes out of their slumber and return them to life, as in some kind of urban fairy tale, by creating Community Gardens.

David King, Master Gardener at the Learning Garden of Venice High and Al Renner, head of the LA Community Garden Council, were our wise teachers, sharing decades of experience with plenty of humor and charm.

It’s funny, because I started this blog while meditating on my fruit bowl.  It boggles my mind how fast the journey was from my plate to the rest of the world.  My quest to find somewhere to plant a seed led me directly into a community of activists trying to shift our entire culture.  Before I could say “tomato plant”, I was thrust into a political movement.

Beyond the wealth of information, most of which I’m still trying to digest, the real benefit for me was my fellow classmates. I met teachers, city officials, organization leaders and just plain concerned citizens trying to start their own gardens.  What brought us all together was a deep commitment to “food security” (making sure that nobody goes hungry and everybody has access to fresh food) and a farm-to-plate ethos, something I find increasingly important in my own eating habits.

So why community gardens?  There are the obvious answers: neighborhood unity, fresh food, urban beautification.  But just as important is that, amidst the chaos of the city, a garden is a place where the simplicity of nature is protected; held sacred.  The lush surroundings reflect a natural abundance, which is an essential contrast to the scarcity experienced in so many parts of the city.

Solano Gardens

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Gardening also offers people a simple, rewarding, highly therapeutic relationship that is, all to often, hard to replicate in the complicated world of human affairs: if you give to plants, they will give back.

Recently a friend sent me a story in the New York Times about the incredible effectiveness of the Veteran’s Administration’s  Garden Therapy Program in rehabilitating soldiers returning from Iraq who were suffering from PTSD.  By learning to deal with plants, they eventually were able to learn how to deal with society.

It follows then that the workshop curriculum had to do with tending people, not gardens.  We learned how to navigate the jungles of government bureaucracy, grow neighborhood interest, attract volunteers.  We were warned about some of the common pitfalls within organizations caused by the imperfections of human beings.  Emphasis was placed on the personal beliefs of a good community organizer:

– people are basically good and want to do the right thing,

– people can be trusted,

– groups make better decisions than individuals

– everyone’s opinion matters

We were encouraged to adhere to these principals even if we didn’t necessarily believe them.  If not for our organizations, then for our plants.  These basic tenets give space for people, and gardens, to grow.

CLICK HERE to purchase the in depth Growing Communities Curriculum on which the workshop was based.

As a parting gift, here are just a few of the organizations and gardens I learned about this weekend.

The Learning Garden at Venice High Schoollaunched in March of 2001, it  has quickly become one of the country’s largest and most successful school gardens.

Los Angeles Conservation Corpa group that provides at-risk youth with job skills with a focus on conservation and community projects.

Mudtown Farms, 2.4 acres in the middle of Watts, one of LA’s poorest neighborhoods, that is being tended by 118 farmers.

SHARE -  works to find affordable house for disabled people.

Millagro Allegra – the newest community garden in Los Angeles located in Highland Park

Solano Canyon – a community garden just East of Chinatown

There are plenty of places to jump in and get dirty.

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Hooking Up

Posted Tuesday, December 1st, 2009 at 1:41 pm

One of the big hurdles for an apartment gardener is finding a plot to plant in.

True, a lot can be done with containers, and I’m going to start that project in full in the New Year.  However, a container garden on a concrete patio just isn’t the same as having a real patch of earth to smell, dig and roll around in.

Last year, I signed up for one of the 117 spaces in the three community gardens run by the City of Santa Monica.  The average wait time is five years.

That’s 20 seasons! Hopefully by then this blog will be called Evangeline’s Palatial Farms.

Luckily, there’s a new idea that’s recently sprouted up to address the high demand and low supply of public gardening spaces.  It’s called garden sharing.

Locally there are two programs, Growfriend.org and Santa Monica’s Garden Sharing Registry, that seek to create a “patch made in heaven” by pairing desperate, bio-love seeking gardeners with the lonely, unused yards of homeowners.

Filling out my profile for Growfriend.org, run by the L.A. Community Garden Council, brought me right back to my days of internet dating.  Set up as a social networking site, Growfriend seeks to create “robust gardens” by making lasting garden-sharing partnerships.

I spent about 10 minutes answering all kinds of questions about my intentions and experiences, trying to make myself as attractive as possible.  Was I dependable, knowledgeable, emotionally and psychologically available to devote myself to a long-term relationship?

I couldn’t help but think of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. Here I was trying to sound as appealing as I could to a potential garden patch.

I even uploaded a photo of myself gazing adoringly upon a squash.

With my profile done, I was able to access a map that detailed the gardeners and land holders in my neighborhood.  I could then email my profile off and hopefully find my ideal gardening partner.

So far, I’m still gardenlorn.

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The Garden Sharing Registry, launched in September, is run by the Community and Cultural Services Department of Santa Monica.  Registration is done the old fashioned way: download a form and mail it in.  So far, they’ve only had one successful match, but the program is still young.

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On a nationwide level, Hyperlocavore is another social network launched in January that is organizes yard-sharing as a way of promoting  locally grown produce.

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Garden sharing is brilliant idea that will help people go beyond the lawn, create edible landscapes and bring neighborhoods together. It’s a concept I hope America will fall in love with.

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