In the Words of, are segments and pieces written by authors within our extended i love this place community. These young people offer their own perspective, lens and analysis of issues around societal issues, community change and their own experiences.
Mahlia is a multimedia phenomenon. Effortlessly, she uses her natural understanding of complex issues to curate and create personal works that weave auditory styles with visual presentations. Her dynamism transcends into her writing, as she blends her own experience with a larger narrative of naming the issues that impact her community most.
Last year, in July 2016, in the languid air of the right kind of New York City summer, I made my way on the train through the South Bronx and on the 4 train. I was filled with excitement because I would be going to a new stop, 138th Street, the last stop in the Bronx. I had never been in or around Mott Haven and I was glad that I would be able to check off a new place in the Bronx.
I was introduced to and made aware of urban farming within the city through grassroots activists from the South Bronx. Urban agriculture is a demonstration of the resilience of the Bronx and its residents in the face of government disinvestment and blight. Low-income residents have access to green space. The Bronx is thriving. There is something grounding and just a part of the culture to tie it back to the earth. The Bronx is thriving.
Up until that point in time, I was somewhat unaware of where I was physically located in the Bronx. But my interest and curiosity in urban farming has compelled me to move around and go to places where I had never been before. It sparked a desire to know my city more deeply and its neighborhoods. I realized I had never learned about NYC’s rich history and that I was not acknowledging it. I did not have to visit the marvelous museums that line Fifth Avenue to learn the history and I figured I would not find much about it there anyway. Going to these urban gardens and physically working the land made me realize the depth and gave me a glimpse of the strong community that was there. I made connections. I learned the complex history and opened myself up to learning. The Bronx no longer was this place of hopelessness. That’s what I like so much about gardening: of course, I enjoy learning about horticulture and how to take care of the soil, but what I love most is that you show up and you have to be present in these places. You’re not just sitting behind a computer screen - you have to physically move your body and engage with the environment around you.
From the time when these gardens have to started to pop up, there has always been a connection between a type of activism that shows so much care and love for the people it serves and urban farming. Activists talk of self-determination and empowerment. In Detroit, another city with its own thriving urban agriculture network, the women of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network say urban agriculture is an “act of resistance… an opportunity to work against systems and structures that have oppressed them.” (1) They want to move their communities away from boxed, highly processed foods that are prevalent in supermarkets that serve low-income neighborhoods. They want community members to work on their own behalf instead of waiting for supermarkets to arrive. This issue is just one that makes community gardens important to me. I come from a fairly privileged point of view. I have access to fresh foods and I had never dealt with food insecurity in my life, but I recognize that there are many people in the Bronx who do not have this same access. Working in community gardens has been a lesson in being an ally. If I want to begin to create a relationship with the Bronx, I also have to create a relationship with the people in my borough.
The perspective we take on urban farms depends on how we relate to them. Since the 1970s, when the city undertook a wave of policies to revitalize its communities, the network of New York City urban farms that it has served as a space of empowerment for communities of color. Urban farms and community gardens provide residents with a sense of transparency and knowledge about where their food comes from. According to a 2011 report, “Two million residents of New York City are estimated to be at risk for hunger; half of them reside in the Bronx, the poorest and by some estimates the "hungriest" urban county in the United States. Paradoxically, New York City has high rates of diabetes and obesity and these problems are also concentrated in poor neighborhoods.” (2) The gardens allow community members to forge a battle against these overwhelming statistics and determine the state of their health through the food and crops they grow.
Garden of Happiness is a 0.217 acre-community garden in the heart of the Bronx. It is located on Prospect Avenue in the Belmont area of the Bronx, between 181st and 182nd Streets. The garden is headed by Karen Washington, one of the most respected experts in urban agriculture in New York City. A leader of the Bronx’s urban farm movement, she was coined by the New York Times as “Urban Farming’s Grande Dame.” I have the pleasure of working with Karen this summer and learning the skills from her to grow and plant my own cilantro, kale, collard greens, etc. She will also be taking me to the La Familia Verde Farmers’ Market, which starts in July. (3)
Since its inception, the GreenThumb program, under the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, has provided farming resources like soil and gardening supplies to the multitude of community gardens around New York, in addition to holding workshops that cover basic gardening processes. In New York City, there have been multiple programs to aid and support community gardens in the Bronx.
The history of the Garden of Happiness starts before the land on which it sits was turned into a garden. In the Bronx, a developer named Abraham Shnay had planned to build duplex town houses to be sold to moderate-income buyers under the Section 235 program to bring the middle class back into the borough. (4) Most of the houses were eventually constructed, but Shay abandoned one set after bedrock was discovered in the ground below. Over the time, the vacant lot became host to drug activity and trash accumulation. Karen did not want to live across that environment. One day, she saw a man working on the lot and she discovered that he wanted to start a garden. “It was the birth of what is officially called the Garden of Happiness. ‘If you come into the garden feeling sad, you will leave feeling happy,’ she said, walking through the allée of holly bushes that forms a graceful entrance to the 36-plot garden. (5)
(1) Monica M. White, “Sisters of the Soil: Urban Gardening as Resistance in Detroit.” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 5, no. 1 (2011): 13–28, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/racethmulglocon.5.1.13.
(2) Arati Karnik, et al, “Food Insecurity and Obesity in New York City Primary Care Clinics,” Medical Care 49, no. 7 (2011): 658–661, www.jstor.org/stable/23053694.
(3) Ibid., 75. After same source
(4) Richard Higgins, "2,000-House Plan Will Test Market in Renewal Areas," New York Times, Feb. 11, 1981 (Proquest).
(5) Dan Shaw, "A Believer in Vacant Lots," New York Times, Sept. 19, 2014 (Proquest).