The Future of Urban Agriculture in a Bushwick Microcosm

Ascending the staircase that leads to Bushwick’s Secret Garden – underneath the Gates Avenue el on the corner of Linden Street and Broadway – is like discovering a freshwater stream in the midst of a desert. While traffic propels aggressively beneath the J train, the aptly named Secret Garden remains unperturbed by the activity beyond its walls.

The peacefulness is what sets it apart from many of New York City’s other community gardens—when you step inside it’s easy to forget that one is strides away from the busy intersections of Bushwick—but tranquility is not the only thing the Secret Garden has to offer. Springing forth from its soil is an impressive variety of unbeatably fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs, including strawberries, bush beans, carrots, thyme, okra, beets, squash, eggplant, cucumbers, collard greens, jalapeno peppers, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, parsley, and grapes.

With films like Food, Inc. and an organic movement in full swing, where food comes from has become a politically charged issue, and community gardens that provide fresh produce have begun to factor into decisions made in the legislative arena.

In August, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz announced his support for New York City’s FRESH Zoning for Neighborhood Grocery Stores, an amendment that would make fresh food more accessible to underserved communities in all five of the city’s boroughs. Community gardens are seen as one possible means for accomplishing this task.

The amendment, proposed as an addition to the city’s broader Zoning Resolution, would offer financial incentives for the construction of grocery stores—which would be encouraged to sell produce grown in community gardens—in neighborhoods where produce-free bodegas are the only convenient sources of food items.

In a letter to the City Planning Commissioner, Mr. Markowitz asked that the amendment’s funds also be used to support existing grocery stores in improving the quality and freshness of their food. He asserted that efforts should be made to ensure that grocery stores provide food that is both fresh and locally produced, and proposed that the amendment require both new and existing grocery stores to hire mostly local workers. “These enhancements will maximize the opportunities for Brooklyn, employing Brooklynites and allowing local food producers to proudly display their products as local brands,” he wrote.

The Secret Garden, which is part of the Linden-Bushwick Community Garden, is one of hundreds of community gardens in Brooklyn that has the potential to nourish its community both nutritionally and mentally. The FRESH Zoning amendment, if passed, would make it easier for the fruits and vegetables grown in these gardens to travel from soil to plate.

Five years ago Cyril Joseph, born in the West Indies and a resident of Brooklyn since 1993, discovered the 31,000 square feet of growing space that was to become the Linden-Bushwick Community Garden. 19,000 square feet of the land, which been dubbed the Secret Garden, now produces eleven different kinds of vegetables, five varieties of fruits and two types of herbs. It earned its name because it is tucked away between apartment buildings, and elevated above the 12,000 square foot floral section of the garden which contains an all-season fishpond and a vibrant, sweeping mural designed and executed by two local arts organizations.

But the Secret Garden is not meant to be kept a secret.

“It’s just the name of it because many people look at this area down here and they think that’s the whole garden,” said Mr. Joseph, gesturing towards the front section. “But when you go up there you get a surprise.”

Residents of Bushwick and its surrounding neighborhoods visit the garden on a regular basis and, according to Mr. Joseph, they rarely leave empty handed.

“As you’re walking down the aisle, you see tomatoes, want tomatoes, I give you a few tomatoes. Cucumbers, I give you a few cucumbers. You want strawberries, I give you a few strawberries,” he explained. Sometimes visitors take fruits and vegetables from the garden for free, and sometimes they purchase them—distribution methods are informal.

“You can pick them yourself to make sure that you know that it’s locally grown, with no pesticides,” said Mr. Joseph.

Five years ago, this thriving parcel of greenery was nothing but a thicket of overgrown trees and bushes. But in 2004, Mr. Joseph, who was at the time the executive director of the Ocean Hill/Bushwick/Bedford-Stuyvesant Local Development Corporation (OBUSTY), discovered the space while scouting the Broadway strip for places to hang Christmas lights. “I saw this garden,” he said. “The way it was… it looked like a jungle.”

The land was, and still is, owned by the Schaefer family—also the owners of the Krown True Value Store that stands in front of it. Beginning in 1978 and up until recently, the family had been leasing the garden space to Avellar Hansley, the president of the Linden-Bushwick Block Association, for only one dollar a year. (Now they lease it for four dollars a year.) Recognizing the garden’s unused potential, Mr. Joseph approached Ms. Hansley and asked if he could adopt it. She said yes.

So the development of the Linden-Bushwick Community Garden began. Having decided to restore it, Mr. Joseph’s first task was to clear away the major trees and brush that had taken over. “ I took a machete, a couple of sticks, a saw, whatever I could get,” he said. “And chopped them down.”

But shortly after he took the machete to earth he realized that it would not be a one-man job—so he went to Brooklyn city council member Diana Reyna for help. When she heard that one of Mr. Joseph’s goals was to use the garden to teach school children about planting, she sent volunteers. Soon after, the Department of Agriculture, the Parks Department, the Office of the Mayor, and the District Attorney’s Office also volunteered to help.

Green Guerillas, a Manhattan-based advocacy organization dedicated to cultivating community gardens, became Linden-Bushwick’s fiscal sponsor. GreenThumb, a program of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation that operates many of the city’s community gardens, also became involved in its development by contributing volunteers, tools, and other gardening materials.

In April, the garden was one of six of the city’s community gardens to receive grants from the New York State Departure of Agriculture, totaling $24,950.

Operated by four full time unpaid workers and 17 other volunteers, the Linden-Bushwick garden is both bustling and beautiful. Every Wednesday, representatives from farms throughout the state set up shop outside the garden’s gates to sell fruits, vegetables, and freshly squeezed juice. On occasion the garden itself joins the market, selling its fruits and vegetables to the farmers manning the stalls who then sell them to their own customers. Mr. Joseph said he has been considering selling some of his produce to grocery stores, as well.

The garden also contains 19 plots that are available for rent to anybody who wants one, for a $30 annual fee.

Right now Linden-Bushwick’s gardeners hydrate their plants with rainwater collected in large upright barrels—a fairly inefficient procedure—so Mr. Joseph hopes to install a more advanced irrigation system sometime in the near future. He estimates that this will cost about $5000. All he needs is funding—his dedication and willingness to work are patently obvious.

“My favorite part about working here,” he said, “is that it reminds me of when I was a kid in St. Lucia . . . [My siblings and I] had to work to get what we wanted. That’s how I started in agriculture. We sold produce in the market and our profits went to buy the things we needed for school.”

Of the city’s resolution to expand the availability of fresh produce, Mr. Joseph declared that he thinks it’s “a doggone good idea. And I’ll invest in it 110%.”

His chief responsibility, as he sees it, is tending to his Secret Garden. “As long as I have my health and strength I will be here,” he said. “As long as the lord gives me breath.”

Photos by BushwickBK

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