In the most urban of cities, I look out my window and see a meadow. The meadow is there because of urban blight gone good. From the empty lots sprung the meadows. We call it the garden and it is one of the many community gardens in Loisaida.
The past weekend’s snowstorm brought out the neighborhood children in droves on a sunny Saturday morning when the garden was a winter wonderland of fluffy new snow – the kind that’s perfect for snowmen, the building of forts and snowball fights. It was lovely to hear the children’s laughter all day long until the snow turned blue as dusk fell. I was reminded of my girls when they were little and played in the garden in winter.
Loisaida’s community gardens were abuzz this past weekend as the first Harvest Arts Festival kicked off. Twenty-four of the forty community gardens in Loisaida participated with music, poetry, theater, films and workshops on art, health, fun and environmental concerns.
El Sol Brillante Garden on East 12th St. Harvest Arts Festival.
Loisaida has more community gardens than anywhere else in the city. The gardens are like little kingdoms unto themselves, so different are they from one another. Some are tiny verdant jewels tucked in between narrow tenements with gravel paths and tranquil shade gardens. Others are sprawling meadows with chickens and rabbits roaming free. Some have stages for performance, outdoor film screenings, and yoga. Others have children’s play equipment, tree houses and sandboxes. There are those with individual garden plots – some sprouting flowers and others growing food. From vacant rubble-filled lots, the gardens were created by people who banded together and occupied the discarded land – seizing the opportunity that the abandonment had created. Today, they are still cared for and grown by dedicated volunteers.
The 1st Harvest Arts Festival was organized by Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens (LUNGS). Here is an excerpt from the program notes written by organizer Charles Krezell: “If you want to study democracy in action, don’t go to Washington, join a garden in Loisaida. These gardens are the purest form of democracy we have in this city. We are groups of people who come together for mutual purpose and try to sort out our differences. Each garden a mini-experiment in government, we come up with our own rules. Some work through consensus, some compromise, some are dictatorships, some oligarchies. They are frustrating and fascinating, dysfunctional and utilitarian all at once. There is social unrest and class warfare over where to plant the dahlias…”
The festival was so rich with activity that I actually covered only a sliver of what took place. Every garden I made it to had lots of food. A celebration of the harvest in the ancient way, with food and friends and community.
Art Rumble outside of Orchard Alley Garden
I went to a workshop on the Bokashi Method of recycling food waste for fertilizer at a beautiful corner garden on 12th St. They have a slot in the fence where folks drop off their food waste and they turn it into good soil with this method. They are now recycling tons more food waste than with the basic composting method and their garden’s soil is rich, black and teeming with earth worms.
It is said that ten tenement buildings stood where El Jardin del Paraiso now grows. When I first saw it, El Jardin was called an empty lot and it was a desolate place. It was clear to the eye that anything that once existed here had been razed and pulverized in a brutal fashion. The ground was nothing but fine brick colored dust.
The first twinkling of reclamation came in the form of a wooden platform where homesteaders sat in the sun to eat lunch and drink a cold beer after a hard day’s work in the warm summer months. There was also a primitive swing set for children that was two wood boxes that held a frame for the swing. Medieval-like wooden structures in a sea of tenement dust. One of my favorite memories is the sight of Camelia at three years old in the early garden barechested and clad in a pink lace skirt working hard with a tiny rake.
Once the reclamation began there was no stopping it. Raised garden beds arose in a corner of the lot. A teepee was built. It spread. People dug, watered and planted. The roots of weeping willows drank from the underground springs you saw bubble up when you dug deep enough.
People tapped into the electricity from the streetlights and connected amps for concerts and projectors for film screenings on warm summer nights. The renaissance had begun.
A very exciting project is underway in Loisaida – a new living history museum that will focus on how the community came together to reclaim abandoned buildings and empty lots and created homes, cultural spaces and lush gardens in what was known as the “Take Back the Land Movement” of the late 70s and 80s. Check out the fantastic video and donate if you wish to get the museum up and running.
My daughter Camelia appears in the beginning of the video when she was little. She is the girl in the pink jacket with purple wings in the Jardin del Paraiso community garden.