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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Curb Your Herb – Truck Farming

Categories: New York | 2 Comments
Posted Thursday, December 17th, 2009 at 3:10 pm

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Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, are on the road to the future.

These intrepid makers of compelling environmental documentaries,  have asked the same question as FarmApartment, but their answer is more ingenious than anything I’ve come up with so far.

Question: How do you grow your own food in the city if you ain’t got no land?

Answer: Truck Farming!

The Brooklynites have created their own version of a hybrid car by planting a mobile garden in the back of their Dodge pick-up.  Growing arugula, lettuce, broccoli, herbs, tomatoes and habanero chilies, the “cardeners” have even started a CSA.  As the soundtrack to this clip explains: “for only $20 bucks you can eat whatever grows in this truck.”

Watch this teaser to see how they got their agri-mobile rolling.

Transforming their Dodge was no walk in the parking lot.  First, holes were drilled into the bed for drainage.  Using the same technology as the latest rooftop gardens,  NYC based Alive Structures helped to install  a root barrier, erosion blanket and drainage mat into the flatbed.   Then the soil, a special lightweight blend of Styrofoam, organics, and clay, was poured on top.

If you’re interested in seeing more, check out their website for some hilarious, yet informative, excerpts from their upcoming documentary.

City-dwellers have to be creative, resourceful and experimental if they want to green their concrete jungle.  Ideas like this one are going to put urban farming into overdrive, inspiring new ways of thinking about space.  These two pioneers have found a vast new territory just by walking down to their parking spot, creating a concept that is sure to get some serious mileage.

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Hungry Filmmakers

Categories: Events , Films , New York | 1 Comment
Posted Wednesday, December 16th, 2009 at 3:37 pm

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Farm Apartment Is In New York!

I get to travel here a couple of times a year since my husband, a die-hard New Yorker, still has his roots here and his parents have a farmhouse about two-hours north of the city.  On this trip, I am excited to check out the urban gardening scene – to see how people are claiming the land in this most densely populated metropolis with the most expensive real estate in the country.

As it turns out, New York is turning into the Big Organic Apple.  Last night, we went to the standing room only “Hungry Filmmakers” event, an evening of provocative documentaries about the new generation of dedicated agro-warriors, scrappy urban-farmers and uber-locavores on the forefront of the new agrarian movement.

All proceeds went to benefit Just Food, which “works to promote access to fresh, seasonal, and sustainably grown food for all New York City residents.”  Delicious.

After a scrumptious dinner at the Spotted Pig and a red velvet cupcake from Magnolia (sometimes I love this city) we walked through the wintery cold to the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village.  The place was jammed packed – standing room only.  Surprised, in a good way, by the vibrant community here, we walked in and took a seat in the aisle as all the theater seats were taken.

Clips from six unreleased films were being shown:

WHAT’S “ORGANIC” ABOUT ORGANIC? by Shelley Rogers – untangling the complexities of this baffling word.

BIG RIVER and TRUCK FARM by Curt Ellis & Ian Cheney – they started a mobile farm in the back of a pickup truck in Brooklyn.  Hilarious.

THE GREENHORNS by Severine von Tscarner Fleming – examines the lives of new farmers

GROWN IN DETROIT by Manfred & Mascha Poppenk – an award-winning documentary about teen moms becoming urban farmers in Detroit.

FACES FROM THE NEW FARM by Liz Thylander, Kat Shiffler & Lara Sheets – three women bike from D.C, to Montreal, interviewing farmers along the way.

[AS YET UNTITLED FILM ON CLIMATE CHANGE & FOOD SYSTEM] Sara Grady

While all of the films made these issues come alive, we were both particularly inspired by  “The Greenhorns” a film which explores the lives of young farmers – kids who are basically going for it, with little knowledge and big ideals.

The couple that were interviewed in the short clip we saw were in their 20s, a few years out of college.  The wife described moving to their farm with only their principles, a remark that got a fist pump from her husband. At first, her husband was determined to do all the work with nothing but hand tools – scythes, axes, hacksaws.  He’d even built his own woodfire oven using found materials.

However, she went on to say that it wasn’t long before reality set in.  “We just bought a chainsaw last week.  It’s fine to have your head in the clouds as long as you’re willing to look down every once in awhile.”

During the panel discussion after the screening, the director, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, was asked about the idea of compromising on ideals in the face of real world problems.  She gave a truly thought provoking response.

She talked about the “logistics of courage”, a phrase that beautifully illustrates the challenges faced by these agricultural pioneers.  We all want to be brave, and fully intend to be.  The trick is how to stay courageous when the difficulties of manifesting our ideals set in.

Von Tscharner Fleming (love that name) poetically described how these young farmers were entering into this lifestyle with innocence and purity and dreams – which she likened to “sugar”.  Soon they realize that in order to sell their “sugar” to stay afloat, they need to engage in marketing and other business tactics, to engage the community and create a customer base.  She called this interaction between people and the farmer an “organism.”

She explained that when these folks are using the sun to make “sugar” with their bodies, or farming, the organism of their business model forms around them.  The organism is a very “honest animal” and takes the shape of whatever matrix it’s in, the business matrix, the cultural matrix, whatever.  It’s up to the farmer to live with the organism, and keep it alive while staying as true to their original vision as possible.

Whoa dude.  I never knew the farming business could be so psychedelic.

Her website, which she calls a hub “for adaptive young Americans…and hopeful greenhorns,” is definitely worth checking out.

This whole question of negotiating one’s values comes up a lot around the topic of food.  I’ve been educating myself on how the USDA came up with the federal standards for Organic Certification, which set a new standard for compromise.  So much so, that organic farming, as defined by the US government, can be just as damaging to the environment as industrial practices, but for different reasons.  For more on this, read the Big Organic section in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Yet this new agro-movement is so energized and motivated, it’s hard to discount the progress that is being made.  Yes it’s slow, like good food, but it’s progress nonetheless.

After the screening there was a get together at Jimmy’s 43, but our brains and our stomachs were already full.  On the walk  home my husband said that he could see us moving to someplace like Detroit and raising children and farming the land.  Although it sounds so romantic, and like a possible dream life, the whole point of urban farming is that you don’t have to dramatically change your life, uproot and isolate yourself to grow your own food. You can find ways to do it right where you are, on the land beneath your feet or at the very least, in the back of a pickup truck.

So, for now at least, we are remaining city kids.

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