Written by Alyla Phomphakdy, Landscape Design Intern

We see community gardens springing up more and more around our neighborhoods and in our communities, but when did this phenomenon begin? Why does it matter? A major contributor: The Community Garden Movement of the 1970s in New York City. Keep reading to learn more.

What is the Community Garden Movement of 1970s New York City?

Community gardens in the United States can be dated back to the 1890s to serve educational and dietary needs for small and low-income communities but they often fluctuated in number and popularity due to a lack of government support and funding (Lawson, 2005). It wasn’t until the 1970s that low income communities in cities, such as New York City, began to use gardens as a means to combat food insecurity and a way to escape from the urban blight, poor living conditions, and lack of social and political power many experienced (Fox et. al, 1985). Although other cities such as Philadelphia and Seattle also had a surge of community gardens at this time, New York City’s Community Garden Movement developed in the 1970s out of one of the worst fiscal crises in United States history and thus the movement followed a bottom-up approach, a grassroots strategy Each Green Corner employs.

How Did The Community Garden Movement Begin In New York City?

In the 1970s, New York City was experiencing one of the worst fiscal crises in US History. Its cause is complex- the blame ranging from the city’s bad budgeting practices to US political and economic issues at the time (e.g. the Vietnam War).  Regardless, New York city’s low-income areas (especially the Lower Eastside of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn) were experiencing extreme urban blight. Buildings were abandoned, torn down and/or burned, the homeless population was ever growing, government programs to help the poor were defunded, affluent white families were fleeing to the suburbs, leaving little power and wealth in the city (Vitale, 2008).

These living conditions soon inspired many throughout the community to take matters into their own hands to change the rapid removal of green space in their neighborhoods. The person most credited with making big changes in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan and to starting the Community Garden Movement as a whole was Liz Christy. Liz Christy was a young woman who, like many others in her community, was growing more and more upset with littering around her neighborhood. To change this, she formed a community group that threw seed bombs (balls of fertilizer, seeds, and soil) over the fences of city-restricted abandoned lots as a way to start greening the city and an act of civil disobedience (Grey House Publishing, 2018). This group was called the Green Guerrillas, and they would later go on to build the first community garden in New York City, named the Liz Christy Community Garden after its founder.

The actions of people like Liz Christy is what contributed to the surge of community gardens as a means of giving low-income communities social and political power, as well as providing a refuge from urban life, a place for neighborhood bonding and safety, and of course a way to grow healthy food and combat food insecurity. This history holds significance in our lives because we can see many of the same ambitions and goals in community gardens today.

Why Does The Community Garden Movement Of The 1970s Have Significance To Us Today?

The Community Garden Movement of the 1970s in New York City is important to today because it pioneered the strategies of community garden development and lay the groundwork as a tool of empowerment. Community gardens after the 1970s became more than just a means of feeding ones family but also a source of strength and power, safety and a biophilic retreat.

Sources:

Lawson. (2005). City bountiful : a century of community gardening in America.

Fox, Koeppel, I., & Kellam, S. (1985). Struggle for space : the greening of New York City, 1970-1984. Neighborhood Open Space Coalition.

Vitale. (2008). City of disorder how the quality of life campaign transformed New York politics. New York University Press.

Christy, Elizabeth. (2018). In American Environmental Leaders.


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