Empty Lot Gardens Fortify Inner-City Communities

I ran off the B82 bus to catch the incoming 3-train at the Van Siclen train station down Livonia Avenue — my typical New York City routine. As I got closer to the steep staircase, weaving in between casual walkers and watching out for the uncurbed dog leftovers, I slowed down when I passed the community gardens, Triple E Garden and New Vision Garden. Although I’d never ventured inside either of them, I knew that the gardens had become trademarks for Brooklyn 3-train straphangers. With a variety of plants and vegetables sold at weekly farmers' markets at New Lots since 1992, the gardens are just as laudable and a part of Brooklyn’s immense culture as the rappers at the Fulton Street Mall. This time, I decided to snap a photo and take a walk inside, causing me to miss my train.

As I looked around the gardens, I was in complete awe and disbelief that these environmental treasures have been resting in the middle of my daily route since I was 3 years-old. There were scarecrows, patches of plants with different signs indicating what community group had planted them, a wooden stage, colorful murals of children playing, barrels to collect and irrigate high rainfalls, benches for picnicking and trails of flowers throughout. This was my first face-to-face introduction to vacant lot gardens and it captured me instantly. According to Green Guerilla, a nonprofit started by Liz Christy in 1973 amidst economic hardships, there are currently 600 community gardens in the City.

The benefits of these empty-lot-turned-gardens are indispensible. In addition to the vibrant aesthetics they bring, these gardens also offer a number of healthy principles and ethics to the community — particularly among inner-city youth. At the New Vision Garden, different youth groups come to plant and grow what they eat, offering a valuable lesson in self-achievement, teamwork, discipline, and health consciousness — arguably one of the most undermined virtues in urban communities.

In my hometown of East New York, there are virtually more fast food restaurants than patches of grass on any given block. When money is tight and stomachs are grumbling, people will turn to what is convenient. The fact that sugar satiated products fly off the bodega shelves with the swipe of an EBT card, while farmers market products have only recently been added to what can be purchased with an EBT card in 2010 is a travesty.By no surprise, the CDC reports that childhood obesity rates increased from 5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2010; the percentage for non-Hispanic black females between the age of 12 and 19 increased to about 28 percent during the same period.

When I look at the beauty and benefits of Triple E and New Vision next to the sugar and poverty blight that continues to go neglected, I ask, “What’s going on?” Brooklyn leaders should encourage community members to grow more and get youth involved in the process.

Fortunately, Triple E and New Vision are becoming less of an anomaly. Urbanites with agricultural upbringings continue to revert back to farm roots by rallying youth, community groups, and other New Yorkers to cultivate community gardens in vacant lots that are otherwise filled with shredded tires, shard glass and pesticide.

While the gardens take a lot of time and dedication, what they reap eclipses environmentalism: It is about empowering communities and its youth. We can only hope that more Brooklynites will be inspired to birth a garden betwixt the concrete jungle.

Photo Credit: Jerome Nathaniel