The following is an excerpt from chapter 2 of Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City by Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen.
Just a short walk from Yankee Stadium, in the Highbridge neighborhood of the South Bronx, Abu Talib tends a nearly half-acre oasis of vegetables, cherry trees, space for a flock of chickens, and a play area for neighborhood children. In 1992 Talib, together with his son and other community residents, cleaned what was then a trash-strewn lot and turned it into Taqwa Community Farm. Vacant parcels like the one that became Taqwa were the consequence of public policies ranging from urban renewal to scaled-back city services that disrupted social networks, destroyed housing, and contributed to environmental, economic, and public health ills in the South Bronx and other low-income communities of color. Taqwa was created as the neighborhood was rebounding from decades of neglect. Despite New York City’s economic growth in the early 1990s, the problems of alcohol abuse, drug trafficking, and gang violence persisted in the streets surrounding the farm. Motivated by a desire to improve conditions in his community, Talib organized a group of volunteers and met with officials from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to get permission to garden the site. He and the other neighborhood volunteers turned it into what has since become one of the city’s best-known community gardens.
Today, Talib manages Taqwa with his fellow gardeners. During the growing season they gather at the farm to grow food, socialize, and provide a place for neighborhood youth to spend time outdoors with adult mentors. Other neighborhood residents shop at a farmers’ market held at the site. Like many gardens and farms that operate on city land, Taqwa has regular open hours for non-gardeners, and it also hosts workshops and classes conducted by the New York Botanical Garden’s Bronx Green-Up program and a not-for-profit training program called Farm School NYC. The farm is truly a community space, and it illustrates the power of neighbors to join together, take ownership in revitalizing abandoned lots, and steward them to meet neighborhood needs.
Although Taqwa stands out as an exemplary project, it is grounded in a long history of urban food production and community-based activism in New York. As noted in chapter 1, New York’s farms and gardens are as diverse as the city itself, ranging from small patches of green space to larger, even commercial-scale, operations, and urban agriculture programs are led by people with varied interests and occupations—hobbyists, activists, farmers, entrepreneurs, chefs, students—who are part of different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.
As is true in many diverse systems, individuals and organizations involved in urban agriculture in New York City experience different levels of privilege that in turn affect the extent to which their farms and gardens are successful or help achieve social justice goals. Urban agriculture in New York is rooted in the broad social, political, and historical contexts of the city itself; yet it is also a system composed of different individuals, organizations, and agencies, as well as networks, policies, material resources, and physical spaces.
As discussed in chapter 1, some urban agriculture activists explicitly connect their farming and gardening efforts to broad social change objectives. Others, like Talib, see their everyday activities of growing food, mentoring neighborhood youth, and maintaining community spaces as a way to address day-to-day symptoms of structural oppression in communities that have long suffered political and economic disenfranchisement and government neglect, even if they do not describe their work as activism per se. To these de facto activists, the significance of their farm and garden programs lies not only in the activities in which they engage and the leadership they exemplify but also in their deep and long-standing relationships with the places and cultural communities in which they work. People like Talib have long histories in New York City’s urban agriculture system, even if their work is overshadowed by higher-profile initiatives. This chapter reviews the overall system, including the pivotal moments that explain the shape of the city’s contemporary urban-agriculture-based activism.
The Roots of New York’s Urban Agriculture
Urban agriculture is often portrayed as the latest fad, but food has always been produced in cities. In New York, farming and gardening have been important sources of sustenance for low-income residents since the city’s founding. Though early forms of urban agriculture in New York City were pragmatic, addressing the need for nearby and relatively low-cost food prior to modern transportation, processing, and preservation technologies, city food production has also been promoted during specific historical moments for social and political reasons. Farms and gardens have been thought of as a means to inculcate patriotism in wartime, as a way to augment classroom education, and as a remedy for what Progressive Era reformers believed were the ills of urbanization. Agriculture in the city has also long been intertwined with class differences, the politics of urban economic inequality, and the use of public space; since the 1960s and 1970s, some participants have engaged in it as a response to urban policies that have exacerbated racial and class disparities.
Early forms of urban agriculture in New York
Until the early nineteenth century, many New York City residents kept livestock and home gardens for subsistence, but by the midcentury commercial food production became common within the city. Commercial dairies were established during this time because the lack of refrigeration and efficient transportation made it impossible to be far from customers, and some neighborhoods, like the area in Manhattan that is now known as Chelsea, came to have sizable dairy herds (Egan 2005). Other livestock, notably hogs, were kept to manage urban food wastes and for their meat (Blecha and Leitner 2014; McNeur 2011; Tremante 2000). Many of these commercial businesses were owned by recent immigrants seeking financial stability (Tremante 2000). Animals raised for commercial purposes were often crowded into lots close to breweries, rendering plants, and manure lots located in industrial neighborhoods inhabited by low-income city dwellers (Tremante 2000). Although they provided food for the city’s growing population, these commercial livestock yards often posed a nuisance to surrounding neighborhoods; indeed, they were among the earliest examples of class-based urban environmental and health disparities related to food.
Roots of Urban Agriculture Activism
New York City has a long and diverse history of urban agriculture that has been about politics and social justice as much as it has been about food production. Gardening and livestock husbandry performed by poor city residents and commercial operators in the nineteenth century gave way to Progressive reform-oriented garden projects at the turn of the twentieth century and subsequent government-sponsored programs that were prominent throughout the United States during the two world wars and the Depression. After a hiatus in the mid-twentieth century, urban agriculture re-emerged in New York City in the form of grassroots “guerrilla” and community gardening beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. The roots of contemporary urban agriculture activism in the city can be most directly traced to this era, when community gardening was a means to rebuild neighborhoods that had borne the brunt of public and private disinvestment. Despite a frequent association of this movement with white, middle-class activists, people of color throughout the city were also leaders in this period of urban agriculture.
As the economy grew in the 1980s and 1990s, community gardeners and urban agriculture organizations had to defend their rights to the spaces they occupied and reaffirm the value of the gardens to city officials who viewed them largely as a temporary use for sites that were slated for development. This galvanized a strand of urban agriculture activism focused primarily on preserving and maintaining gardens situated on city-owned land. The Giuliani administration’s largely unsuccessful attempt in 1999 to sell a large number of city-owned garden sites required gardeners and farmers to become more politically active and to ally with sympathetic political officials, nonprofits, and philanthropic organizations.
The 1999 crisis produced several outcomes that have stabilized urban agriculture while also creating tensions in this system: the gardens preserved through the New York Restoration Project and the Trust for Public Land became permanent (privately held) green open spaces, establishing the viability and value of working urban landscapes; and a strand of activist-oriented urban gardening took hold through the organizing efforts of the New York City Community Garden Coalition. However, the process of protecting the gardens also made what had been a transgressive use of public space part of the status quo. Most of the gardens remaining on city land were spared development and were given additional protections from eviction—though not permanent tenure—alleviating some but not all of the tensions between gardeners and City Hall.
Contemporary New York City urban agriculture comprises an increasingly diverse network that builds on historical legacies but makes use of innovations like aquaponics and rooftop farming and engages with current social and political concerns. A small number of larger community and commercial farms have also joined long-standing community gardens, while relatively new technologies have been used to publicize key information about existing and potential farm and garden spaces. City agencies, including those responsible for low-income housing and environmental protection, have invested in integrating urban agriculture into housing facilities. They have also subsidized urban farms and gardens as stormwater management infrastructure and have established policies to help commercial urban farms and greenhouses, thereby advancing the notion of urban agriculture as a source of entrepreneurship, job creation, and tax revenue for the city. The embrace of urban agriculture at the city level has mirrored the growing popularity of the practice at the national and global scale. Yet race- and class-based disparities among urban farmers and gardeners detract from the sustainability of individual projects and the system overall.
Since 1999, urban agriculture activism has continued to gather momentum and has also diversified. Today, gardeners and farmers still advocate for policies affecting their day-to-day and long-term agricultural practices, most notably garden tenure and legalization of specific activities like beekeeping. However, some urban agriculture activists also focus on broader social, environmental, and economic justice concerns. An overlapping group of New York City activists, many of them people of color and women with long-standing roots in their communities, use urban agriculture as one strategy to address tangible inequities such as community food insecurity and lack of green space, as well as much deeper historical social problems including structural and intersectional forms of oppression.
As discussed in chapter 1, some of these activists frame their work in terms of specific concepts or in line with various activist and intellectual traditions. Others, like Abu Talib, simply speak of their farming and gardening efforts as a proactive way to address the ongoing effects of concentrated poverty in their communities. While their labors bring important benefits that reach far beyond providing food in their communities, these activists’ work is often overlooked in mainstream accounts of urban agriculture, reproducing cycles in which public recognition and social capital reinforce disparities between comparatively privileged (often white) groups and those with fewer economic and political resources.
Simply documenting what is wrong with this system does not go far enough in shifting the narrative toward one that supports the leadership of people of color and women whose work is focused on dismantling oppression. Highlighting existing leadership among activists of color (and like-minded white activists) and the various ways in which they use farm and garden programs to advance social justice is a key element of this project, to which we turn next.
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