“The Garden Seems to Draw People Together”

Across New York City, community leaders are turning vacant lots into food-producing havens for people and wildlife.

Starting as early as the late 1960s, New York City residents, largely Black and Latino in low income neighborhoods, came together to clean up vacant lots. These lots had been abandoned by profit-centered landlords who simply walked away from their decaying properties, or in the worst cases, burned them down to make a greater profit from the insurance money than collecting rent. At the time, the city did little more than bulldoze the remaining structures and install locked gates around the vacant lots.

Community-minded residents, tired of living with abandoned spaces, took initiative to transform them, cutting open the gates, pulling out rubble and trash, planting vegetables, flowers, fruit trees, and shade trees, and inviting their neighbors to join them. They transformed these trash-filled spaces into verdant, welcoming gardens. This movement continues to this day.

Community gardens play an outsized role in providing culturally-relevant food security, local gathering and social space, and community-led neighborhood greening. Recently, the traumas of the pandemic have heightened the value of these unique spaces as resources for fresh food, fresh air, and places to relax and connect with friends and neighbors.

The benefits of community gardens extend beyond the sociopolitical. These gardens also offset the city’s heat island effect, retain stormwater, sequester carbon, and create wildlife habitat.

Since 2018, when I began producing these images, I have sat down and spoken with 47 gardeners in 26 community gardens throughout all five New York City boroughs. While I made solo portraits, each garden is a group effort of volunteers coming together in a multifaceted web of motivations to build and sustain these spaces.

Prior to working as a professional photographer, I spent 14 years working directly with New York City community gardeners as a community organizer, program manager, and as part of direct action campaigns to support and defend gardens from destruction. I’ve also been an active member of various community gardens. I’m proud to share these images and stories of people who created and sustain these dynamic spaces. I believe that these images and quotes convey the importance and value of community gardens through the voices of people leading them.

These images and stories offer a New York perspective on a global experience of finding safe haven — a need heightened by the pandemic — as well as joy, community, mental health support, and fresh food, all through community gardening.

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