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community garden history - comments

  • Subject: [cg] community garden history - comments
  • From: Don Boekelheide <dboekelheide@yahoo.com>
  • Date: Fri, 17 Dec 2004 18:30:02 -0800 (PST)

Hi, all,

Thanks to Adam for the community gardening history
lesson, in response to Michaels question. In a
nutshell, Adams posts together do two things  give a
very helpful overview of a powerful and perhaps
dominant view of community gardening, and invite all
of us to speak our own minds and think for ourselves. 

A couple of discussion points:

In this worldview, there appear to be two main poles
of the universe, New York (big pole) and Europe (small
pole). Somewhere out there in the distance, maybe, you
might glimpse Los Angeles (Watts Tower) and other
hamlets in the hinterlands, but the community
gardeners of New York are at the center of community
garden history.

Who are these New York gardeners? An eclectic bunch,
with a strong artistic streak. They have charismatic
leaders, whose names are venerated and remembered, and
at the same time have an equally strong anarchistic
streak. But this is Kropotkin anarchism, a
constructive cooperative force that creates garden
beauty in the bleakest wastes of Metropolis. These
gardeners come from different cultures. Their gardens
are both expressions of their unique cultures, and
common ground where different cultures meet.

Theres also a strong element of political organizing,
and a push-pull relationship with legitimacy. On the
one hand, gardens fight to be independent of city
hall; on the other, they delight in getting leases,
money and recognition (respect or power is perhaps
a better term). But it doesnt appear to be fame or
(god knows) money thats the motivator  it is a
desire to keep, even in the midst of a paved-over
cityscape shaded by skyscrapers, a modest patch of
soil where people can grow plants, hang out with the
neighbors, and create things, all kinds of things,
from Latin jazz concerts to whimsical sculptures of

Surprisingly, theres barely a mention of food. 
Certainly, both victory gardens (on both sides of
the continent, and both sides of the pond) and
allotment gardens do make food production a key
element and raison detre. The point is not, of
course, that NYC gardeners dont eat great food from
their gardens. Its that garden organizers dont
necessarily emphasize it, perhaps because they take
this element for granted, or because they honestly
believe that food production, while nice, isnt really
central (a belief already shaping policy in
Philadelphia, where an established greening agency
that once focused on community gardens is instead
doing little faux suburb fescue lawns and fences on
vacant lots, since community gardens are  in essence
 too much trouble).

Missing from the NY history, too,  is the ecology
element thats very strong in other places, including
here in the Carolinas. While love of nature may flavor
NY garden ideology for publicity purposes (see the
lead of the history piece on NYC gardens, with the
croaking froggies of 2 centuries ago and chirping
birdies), maybe ecology, like food, isnt seen as a
central element  or is taken for granted as something
too obvious to fuss about.

If, in this view, NYC is the center of the modern
community garden universe, then Europe is
simultaneously the venerable source and the unholy
other.  The standard story says allotments came into
being thanks to the largesse of wealthier classes,
seeking to keep the poor folks out of the pub, after 
enclosure had booted all the peasants off the land and
into those dark satanic mines and mills. Makes a nice
story, but was it that simple? Though Im not thrilled
with it, heres a somewhat more longer and more
detailed timeline for English allotments:

Starting history with the Paris Commune makes some
sense (wed adapt to Paris or London of 1850 much more
readily than we would to, say, New York of 1750 or
even 1800), but there was this small provincial revolt
and a continental regicide a bit more than a
half-century earlier that did have some impact on
global political development. Thinking globally, there
was also the small matter of colonialism. 

But debating this kind of thing may just be a detour
from a broader question  havent there been gardens
in cities since the first cities were invented? In
fact, quite possibly, the availability of water,
rechanneled for more reliable crop production was a
key factor leading to the growth of cities. Plus, as I
saw firsthand in West Africa, piles of excrement and
waste from intense human habitation (especially with
livestock in the mix) are ideal, once composted, for
vegetable crops. Underneath all the art and the
politics, even with that unparalleled New York
chutzpah, those gardens in Manhattan may express a
very long-established human pattern, and perhaps an
even deeper human yearning. This may be true for
community gardens everywhere.

While NY was doing its thing, so was California and
the West Coast, particularly the work of Alan Chadwick
at Santa Cruz in the mid-1960s, and, at the same time
and shortly thereafter, the community gardens in Santa
Barbara lead by Richard Merrill and in Berkeley
(remember Peoples Park, and the Free Speech
Movement?). That ecological/spiritual/food-oriented
garden ethos is still here in community gardening,
informing, motivating and inspiring gardeners.

More fundamentally, while white American and Europe
can be pleased about victory gardens and potato
patches for the poor, the vast majority of humanity
living elsewhere in the world - in Asia, Mexico,
Africa, The Middle East, Oceana, and among North and
South Americas First Nations - have been doing
community gardening all along. This constantly strikes
me, working locally with Latinos from various
countries, Hmong gardeners, and rural Southerners.
They were gardening with a community element long
before they ended up at our community garden gates. My
working theory is that modern community gardening in
North America owes a great and growing debt to
immigrants bringing in ideas, plants and know-how.

When all is said and done, maybe the element that
Americans bring to community gardening is a sense of
artistry, defining the garden a shared space where
people create and enjoy a blend of whimsy, beauty and
utility. And NY has certainly helped pioneer and
establish that.

Anyway, history books on the English part of story:
Ive enjoyed Jenny Uglows A Little History of British
Gardening, and the clunky but worthwhile The
Allotment, Its Landscape and Culture by David Crouch
and Colin Ward. The definitive book on American
community gardening hasnt been written yet, I dont
think (Adam? Interested?) 

Heres a good list of contacts for allotments in the

One of my favorite garden spots in the UK is Emerson
College. Im no true believer in Steiner and
biodynamic stuff, but, wow, this is one glorious
garden. http://www.emerson.org.uk/biodynamic.htm

My guess is that you can find some wonderful
allotments in Holland, though Dutch commercial farmers
apply huge amounts of fertilizer and chemicals to
conventional farms (no bovine growth hormone, though).
Heres a story, from the UK, about Dutch allotments:

Actually, Michael, since Seattle gave us Master
Gardeners, Master Composters, a super community garden
program, Jimmy Hendrix and (for better or worse)
passable espresso on every street corner from Cheyenne
to Beaufort, maybe you ought to quality as a center of
the universe, too.

Don Boekelheide
Charlotte, NC
(in deep grits)

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