Sunday, August 14, 2011

Carver, the Manhattan Land Trust, and Farming Concrete

The other evening I got to visit one of my favorite spots in Harlem, a community garden named Carver. Carver is a wonderfully quiet and unassuming little oasis tucked just a block away from the main metropolitan vein of 125th Street. From the blocks of retail monsters, street vendors, and masses running from one gritty location to another you can turn and find a simple chicken wire fence and look in to see raised planter beds and in the back a covered gazebo.

Carver is one of the 14 community gardens in Manhattan maintained by the Manhattan Land Trust. The Manhattan Land Trust is a nonprofit organization established by gardeners to support and sustain community gardening throughout Manhattan. Our collective mission is to preserve, improve, and promote community managed open spaces for the benefit of all. As a member on their Board of Directors we have been working hard over the last number of years to transfer the ownership of these gardens to the gardeners themselves, and in such a way that these locals can ensure for themselves and their future generations the preservation of these vital green spaces in New York City. Victorious, as the gardens deeds were formally transferred from the city to the MLT in June of this year, it's been a great year for the MLT and our gardeners.

This evening there was an operations meeting. I arrived before the other board members and garden representatives from around the borough to find the gate unlocked and a man busy working in the gazebo. I walked up and reintroduced myself to a staple of the garden, a quick-witted and kind man named Jimmy. Jimmy was doing a little canning of his favorite veggie concoction which included a little bit of everything harvested from his plot here in the garden. Luckily he hadn't yet added the vinegar so he let me have a taste. Laced with a hot pepper or two he warned me it had some heat to it, and ooh wee, was he right! But so good, just the right mix to get you through the cold winter months to come.

Before the meeting got started I poked around a bit and checked out what people were growing. Here are a few shots from Carver.

The cantaloupe was still small and green but the different squash were taking shape and ripening up beautifully.
Look at that perfect butternut squash hiding under that big, wonderfully textured leaf, and the zucchini below, nearly the size of Erica's arm!

This evening was sensational for a couple reasons. Of course it was very inspiring, as my trips to the MLT gardens always are. Determined to maintain community and health and well-being in the face of this urban jungle and all it's seemingly backwards development I love, admire, and value these gardeners and their gardens more and more with each passing season.

The second reason for my elation this particular evening was due to the fact that Erica Packard, dear friend and Executive Director of MLT, was introducing us all to another genius nonprofit called Farming Concrete. Ray Figueroa joined our little circle and explained his organization, which works with community gardens all over the city to properly document the amount of food produced in these different open spaces. As he so eloquently put it, "...because we're not just planting food, we're planting social responsibility". With an extremely smart and systematic approach Farming Concrete helps New York City gardeners by giving them the scales and forms to easily document all that is grown in their gardens, from greens in spring to veggies in summer, to fruit and nuts in the fall. Banning together and producing this Crop Census city-wide we can show to the folks in City Hall and up in Albany exactly how much good we are growing in these unassuming little lots. As Ray reminded us this evening a healthy diet is the best preventative medicine in the world. Thanks to Farming Concrete and their plan we can show with precision the numbers, the solid proof of the work being done and the successes within different communities, some of which are quite needy of course. Not to mention by showing the pounds per square foot produced, or pounds per square acre, we can then show the potential of other gardens and open spaces and why it is essential that we continue to find ways to return to the earth instead of cover it over with blacktop. Last year calculating the quantity grown in New York City and it's estimated value Farming Concrete showed that a million dollars of food was grown by local communities for local communities throughout the five boroughs. Isn't that amazing?!? I might even imagine it was even more than that, but to have a million dollars of food clearly documented that is quite a feat.

Wouldn't it be so fabulous to have that number continue to increase year after year as urban gardeners continue to ban together and organize for a greater good? Oh, you know it!

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