i’d really not ever heard of the neighborhood east new york brooklyn before a couple of years ago when i started hearing about this project in east new york called east new york farms. everything i heard about the project made it sound like a must visit project, and when my co-worker and i were out giving a presentation at the just food conference, it seemed like a natural time to visit. we had a few hours before our plane took off and just enough time check out east new york farms.
our hosts we were staying with were kind enough to provide us with a vehicle and a contact at the farm. amazingly enough they were willing to meet us on easter sunday morning.
east new york reminds me more of detroit than almost any other neighborhood i’ve visited in new york. it has lots of vacant land, mostly wide streets, plenty of single family homes and few buildings are much over four stories high. it still feels much denser than detroit, the elevated train makes it feel more urban, and it has a much larger caribbean population.
we had little trouble finding the farm and our host deb was already there when we arrived, cutting some flowers to take to sunday brunch. east new york farms is pretty spread out, and where their programing begins, and others ends is a little vague. it seems like they are really working hard to support others to develop their own projects and not overstep their role. some times they are too heavy handed, and realize they have to step back, other times they realize that community members need more support than they anticipated.
i feel like at our farm we struggle so much with trying to support folks in developing their own projects while respecting their autonomy. it’s hard to figure out where that line lies, especially given the fact that it moves around so much. while east new york supports lots of other projects, it’s clear of at least a couple things they do, a weekly farmers market and their main farm site.
the main farm site looked about 1/2 acre or so. not too much by detroit standards, but a really big garden by new york standards. before we even got to poking around the gardens, i focused on the shipping container that was being used as a shed.
i have something of an obsession with the idea that one day the farm at work will be well organized, and have a shed that is labeled and everything has a place. i don’t think we will ever be well organized, we just have too much going on and are trying to do too much, but i can always dream. tools with a place, everything with a label, it’s my dream, i fantasize about having a shed like this. deb bursts my bubble just a little letting me know that it had just been cleaned up and organized the day before.
while the tool shed caught my intrest for a moment, i was quickly drawn to the garden. though not without plenty of distractions. i have a lot of problems focusing on one thing at anyone time. some have labeled this as a psycological problem. most of the time i don’t really find this to be an issue, but on that day trying to focus on deb talking while the train went over head, and the church service went on over a PA was just too much for me.
while some might see it as a fault, i see it as a opportunity to notice those things that others might not, to notice the beauty of the world.
no matter what the visual image of the garden with the train going over head combined with the chours singing at the same time was just too much for me. and just too cinematic. i had to take some shots of it.
i wish i had a tripod and a better camera, but i still think it captures a pretty amazing moment. S thought that i had added the soundtrack in, but no, that’s a live recording.
after my obsession with getting a great shot, we wondered about the garden. there really wasn’t that much going on as early in the year as it was. though the garlic they were growing as weeks ahead of ours. i some time forget how farm behind detroit is of other places, because we are so ahead of so much of michigan. they had an impressive network of pipes collecting water from all the neighboring houses. impressive from a plumbing perspective and impressive from the work it must have take to work with homeowners, landlords and tenants to get it pulled off. they have made excellent use of cover crops, something i noticed in this garden and other gardens that east new york farm is involved in. most community gardens and urban farms don’t seem to make much use of cover crops so it was very refreshing to see the lush winter growth.
the main gardening site employs a lot of youth – i could be wrong but i think deb said something like 40. that’s a lot of youth to manage, but even more difficult they place the youth at other garden projects in the neighborhood to support others work.
as mentioned before east new york farm is involved in supporting several other gardens in east new york. in addition to the gardens supported by east new york farms, the neighborhood has one of the highest concentrations of community gardens in the city. it’s hard to get a feel for this without going for a walk, and deb was kind enough to drive us to a location where we could walk past many community gardens. the first stop was a huge community garden, literarily an entire block. this was an allotment style garden, but unlike most allotments everyone at this community garden used their plots to grow produce to sell at east new york farm’s market. east new york farm’s had a big hand in setting up this community garden, but was now working to reduce their role.
venturing deeper into the neighborhood we walked on blocks where there were two or three community gardens. the idea of community gardens in this setting was greatly expanded including shady groves of trees for relaxation. many of the gardens looked like they needed additional attention and were not being used to full capacity. deb confirmed that many of the gardens were cared for by the same gardeners for the last 25-30 years, and that recruiting new gardeners to countinue to care for the gardens was proving to be a challenge.
this made the decision by a local organization to develop this fancy new garden all the more confusing.
clearly all the current gardens are struggling and need support, why create another one? but i see this all the time in detroit. people would much rather start new projects rather than supporting older ones. in many ways starting new projects is just easier. you don’t have to deal with established individuals or visions, and its much easier to impose your ideas at a new one not an established one. we often see the ideas of newer gardeners to be in conflict with older gardeners, and many of the new gardeners seem to lack the skills to work though these competing visions.
my trip to east new york farms was extremely inspiring, its one of my favorite urban ag projects i’ve come in contact with in the country and one i felt an immediate kinship with. i hope to be able to return for a workday, or to figure other ways to continue learning from their work.