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Public Housing, Urban Agriculture and University Students

Posted Jun 02 2009 4:38pm

By Becky Davies


Row after row of identical windows extend up the dusky, red brick facades of nine austere, depersonalized high rises, as if stamped mechanically on each floor of the twenty-one story buildings. Residents identify their buildings by number—“1320,” “570,” “75”. The towers feel and look more like human warehouses than someone’s home. Situated between Harlem to the north and small shops catering to Columbia University to the south, Grant Houses residents keenly note their position in a valley, which prevents the towers from completely overshadowing the adjacent neighborhoods.


Built in 1957, the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses embody French architect Le Corbusier’s ‘Towers in the Park’ ideal. Le Corbusier’s designs aimed to increase housing density yet expose residents to the purportedly moralizing influences of nature. During a wave of public housing construction in the 1950s and 1960s, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) wholeheartedly adopted the concept, plunking public housing developments amidst swaths of cleared urban space.


However, during the next sixty years construction deficiencies, insufficient funding, and increasing social and economic isolation led to the progressive deterioration of what became known as “the projects.” Access to the green spaces surrounding the Grant Houses was eventually restricted to use as a dog run, with ball-playing, picnics, and barbecues specifically prohibited. Now, the thin green carpet skirting the monoliths is sprinkled with refuse, from broken couches to candy wrappers.


Yet even the feeble lawns hint at a relationship between the natural landscape and the intensely constructed built environment, suggesting that green space adds value to urban areas. At the Grant Houses, a few signs of human interaction with the natural world exist in the form of three small gardens in various states of order or decay. One hosts a conscious pattern of pansies and daffodils, while a tangle of overgrown bushes and vines choke another’s chain link fencing.


These gardens are part of NYCHA’s Garden Program, an initiative started in 1962 that currently supports over 570 public housing gardens city-wide. Community gardens gained steam in New York City in the 1970s and have battled private development and property regulations ever since. Nonetheless, recent trends towards increasing environmental awareness and reducing carbon emissions have invigorated urbanites’ drive to establish community gardens as sites for growing food locally, providing environmental education and uniting fragmented neighborhoods. Efforts range from well-developed, non-profit endeavors such as Added Value’s 2.5-acre farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to private fire escapes lush with lettuce and strawberries.


In New York City, Le Corbusier-style public housing, despite its faults, offers a distinct advantage for urban agriculture in densely populated areas. Although the existing gardens at the Grant Houses are ornamental, at other NYCHA developments residents utilize NYCHA’s property to grow produce.


With the potential benefits of a community food garden in mind, in the summer of 2008 I initiated a partnership between Grant Houses residents and Columbia students to construct a vegetable garden at the Grant Houses. Thus far the initiative has focused on engaging youth and seniors, the least mobile and therefore most accessible resident subpopulations. The Grant Houses Community Garden Project is creating a model for community development via environmental education and food production, cultivating cross-sectional relationships that will improve the physical environment.


For many Grant Houses residents, however, the appeal of cultivating the land is overshadowed by other pressing concerns. Inadequate trash disposal, youth vagrancy, physical health problems, broken elevators, and anxiety over gentrification and potential displacement resulting from redevelopment take precedence over gardening. Furthermore, an intergenerational divide frustrates attempts by the more active community spokespeople—those who facilitate meetings and events through the Grant Houses Tenants Association—to involve youth and young parents in community endeavors. Physically taxing, gardening presents a particular challenge to the elderly residents most interested in reaping the benefits of gardening.


The obstacles to establishing a community food garden and education program at the Grant Houses are precisely those which such an endeavor has the potential to alleviate. Reclaiming land, gardens create public spaces for residents of all ages to interact. Functioning as outdoor classrooms, gardens can provide ongoing extracurricular activities to engage youth. A newly attractive, productive landscape could improve both the immediate environment and restore residents’ pride in the buildings and grounds. Gardens can reduce residents’ food costs and supplement their diets with nutritious produce, combating high rates of diet-related health problems among residents that further inhibit their physical activity. Most importantly, gardens can offer residents a degree of control over their food supply, their housing development, and their community.


While similar models are sprouting around the country, the scarcity of space and diverse populations in New York City affect the form and function of agricultural community development initiatives. In the Grant Houses, an elderly Chinese immigrant population expresses enthusiasm for the opportunity to reconnect with an agrarian lifestyle that many left behind in China. Elderly African-American senior citizens, who migrated to New York City from the rural south in the 1950s, likewise can recall farm work but convey varying degrees of excitement or distaste for gardening in the city, reflecting mixed perceptions of past experiences. A diverse group of Columbia students and Grant Houses youths bring physical energy and modern technological skills to the endeavor but lack agricultural experience, having grown up in predominantly suburban and urban environments. Additionally, an array of local institutional officials is necessarily involved to ensure the legal viability of the endeavor.


While students and residents acknowledge that a community food garden will not cure all of the problems plaguing the Grant Houses, harnessing the complementary skill sets of neighborhood groups holds promise for alleviating some of residents’ most pressing concerns. The endeavor could set a precedent for community-wide greening initiatives. The garden project is not charity, it is a working partnership. We all will benefit from a healthier, cleaner neighborhood. At the least, the garden will create a resource for healthy, sustainably-grown food that did not exist for residents prior to the garden’s creation. With the realization of the garden, perhaps the Grant Houses will finally reclaim the ideals of the green space promised in Le Corbusier’s urban housing plans.

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