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  • We need to acknowledge the holistic value of urban gardens beyond food production. 

  • Affordable housing advocates and urban garden advocates should recognize their common cause.

  • Urban garden success stories like Bronx Sauce are highly replicable.

  • New ways to protect vulnerable urban gardens that include community ownership need to be explored.

TALKING WITH Raymond Figueroa of The NYC Community Garden Coalition

Contributor: Julian McKinley

Home to one of the nation’s largest public housing projects, diesel power plants, one of the city’s largest wastewater treatment plants at Hunts Point (also the location of the city’s major wholesale food distribution center),  and with a long history of urban planning gone wrong, the South Bronx is not usually identified as having a surplus of high-value land.  


But the sometimes-hard to-quantify value of the South Bronx's community gardens—particularly their impact on neighboring property values—is not lost on Raymond Figueroa, President of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, director of the Bronx’s Brook Park youth community farm, and a visiting faculty member at Pratt Institute’s Graduate School of Architecture. For Raymond, his neighbors, and fellow organizers, whom we met on a frigid winter morning at Melrose-based community development corporation Nos Quedamos (“We Stay)”, the city and its developers have failed to recognize the value of these plots of paradise that have risen from rubble over the decades.


A careful examination of the Bronx’s gardens— often developed over years by community members who have transformed vacant, rubble-strewn lots of city-owned land into productive assets—reveals a bouquet of critical services addressing the needs of the neighborhoods they serve.  “We’re not just pure agriculture initiatives, pure horticulture initiatives, or pure landscaping initiatives,” notes Raymond. “[Maintaining] community gardens means that we’re responsive to the issues in our community.”

At Brook Park, for example, the connection between the land’s ability to bear fruit and a general dearth of affordable and healthy food in the park’s Mott Haven neighborhood illuminates a daily struggle to survive for some residents. The garden is situated in the heart of a food apartheid zone. (Taking note of the planning policies and business practices that actively create and maintain an absence of healthy food options, the term “food apartheid zone” has been adopted by many as a more accurate description of what has caused the food access crisis in urban areas than the term “food desert.”) The lack of affordable and healthful nourishment leads to mental stresses, and, as Raymond relates, is among the reasons local youth are tempted into illicit activities. He reports that Brook Park provides an alternative to illegal pursuits and an antidote to recidivism, connecting youth to nature and to the practical experiences of crop cultivation. As such it is much more than a garden, it is a place where lives are often reclaimed.

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The value of the Bronx’s gardens lead those who maintain them to consider themselves as much more than gardeners. They preserve culture. They provide education centers. And, most immediately, they are farmers. “Our community gardens are not just landscaping amenities,” Raymond maintains, “they’re not just open space amenities. They are, in the richest sense of the word, community cultural hubs.  Part of the key to addressing issues like economic dislocation, economic marginalization, is us coming together as a collective.”


Raymond and others are also looking to prove how a bit of business acumen and additional funding could transform the community gardens scattered across the city’s neighborhoods and boroughs. Those who question the feasibility of their pursuit need not look further than the shelves of Whole Foods throughout the greater New York City area. Bronx Hot Sauce, sold at the major retailer (in addition to many farmers’ markets) is produced from peppers grown at Brook Park and several other South Bronx community gardens. “They get every pepper we grow,” Raymond says.


The partnership was spearheaded by Karen Washington, who has been leading urban gardening initiatives in the Bronx since the 1980s and who has contributed to the national conversation about how urban gardening can address food insecurity. “We can aggregate our harvest, and bring money into the community,” Raymond recalls Karen encouraging local growers.


Although the project returns only a modest profit at the moment, it supports programming at local community farms, including Brook Parks’ efforts to help its youth farmers afford food and other necessities. More importantly, however, the project serves as proof that when small-scale farmers pool resources, information, and connections they can achieve ambitious collective goals.


Experiencing limited but undeniable success with strategic partnerships, Figueroa and others are examining paths to steady growth for urban community gardens. One of the most vexing issues for gardeners is the perceived notion that affordable housing and community gardens represent an either/or choice. Raymond believes this is a false choice and that a more holistic strategic vision of more affordable housing and the preservation and enhancement of community gardens is required to restore and regenerate urban communities.  Most recently, Nos Quedamos and several Bronx growers are pursuing the establishment of a Community Land Trust to protect the value of their land, as well as preserving the culture and access to food their farms provide.  


“We need to look at CLTs where the community is owning and directing resources,” says Raymond, who notes growing displacement throughout the Bronx as extractive development sets its sights on undervalued plots within the city. “We are looking for a route that can be financially feasible in terms of… building our assets, our community gardens: a distributed network for urban agricultural development and food-based economic development.”

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