The Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of the borough of Brooklyn in New York City is composed of about 150,000 souls. Dutch farmers were the original European settlers, but the region slowly developed from farms to villages to towns to a city because of closeness to Manhattan. By the 1870s rowhouses began to be constructed here and the neighborhood adopted its current look.
After the completion of the Fulton Street IND transportation line in 1936, many people left an overcrowded Harlem for better housing options among Bed-Stuy’s historic brownstones. During World War Two a large influx of southern African Americans came to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and a resulting largely successful effort at ‘blockbusting’ by real estate agents and speculators to drive out whites left the neighborhood with a 85% black population by 1960. Over time it has become a center for Brooklyn’s African American culture.
By the early 2000s the area’s large stock of substantial rowhouses on tree-lined streets began attracting an ethnically diverse population of Afro-Caribbeans and foreign-born people, as well as gentrifying whites. According to the American Community survey in 2013, the population was 56% Black, 22% White, 19% Latinx, and 2% Asian.
Perhaps this eclectic and cosmopolitan population base explains the look and feel of Bed-Stuy’s Hattie Carthan Community Garden and Farmer’s Market when I visited in October. The Community Garden is on the end of a block of brownstones and contains numerous plots for individual gardens as well as quiet public areas, picnic tables, and stretches of trees. It has been in existence since 1981. The Farmer’s Market, established in 2009, is on a narrow strip of land adjacent to the Garden. It serves as a site for community members to gather, buy and sell food, and take part in educational, spiritual, musical, artistic and cultural programming.
Perhaps the two pieces of land represent the needs of the community at the time they were established.
The community garden is like so many other such facilities in densely populated American cities – a site from which private housing had disappeared and which residents, often from rural backgrounds, began using for growing food. Ultimately this activity became so popular that the city, having taken title for non-payment of taxes, allowed it to be formalized for that purpose and supplies such basic necessities as water.
The farmer’s market is a much more up-to-date space, once an abandoned lot where trash was dumped, now it is filled with murals, chicken coops, demonstration plantings, free libraries of kids books, composting spaces, display tables, rows of raw and processed produce for sale, live and recorded music, and costumed people.
Or perhaps the two spaces have taken on the character of the two strong black women who established them.
Hattie Carthan (1900 – 1984) was a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident who loved trees. Mrs. Carthan led the charge to preserve a particular Southern magnolia tree, brought on a ship from North Carolina in 1885, that became a symbol of the neighborhood. The tree, rare in the northeast but protected from killing frosts by adjacent buildings and probably heat from the nearby subway, had grown to 40 feet in height. Carthan not only succeeded in having a wall built to protect this tree but also spearheaded the successful attempt to designate it an official city landmark in 1970. Noticing natural conditions in her neighborhood beginning to deteriorate, Mrs. Carthan began replanting trees there. She started the Neighborhood Tree Corps in 1971 as a way to teach young people how to care for trees, and the Green Guerillas, a force behind the resurgence of the community garden movement. The organization began informally in 1974 with tactics as simple as throwing water balloons filled with seeds into abandoned lots; the positive response showed the overwhelming need for more green space in the inner city. In May 1998, the garden was named in honor of Mrs. Carthan.
Yonnette Fleming is another natural community leader. Born in Guyana, she came to the US at 15 years of age. She had grown up living on large family sugar, rice, and coconut plantations, and with a grandmother who still grew food and baked bread. But upon coming to America she got caught up in the dream of success for a time and worked as a financial broker on Wall Street. Since 2003, however, she has been active in urban gardening and farming. Currently vice president of the Hattie Carthan Community Garden farm, she is a raphaologist, ordained minister, plant and sound medicine practitioner, reiki master, healing circle facilitator, and herbal Wysewoman. She teaches a Food Justice course for the Farm School in NYC and is a member of the Farm School’s advisory board, considering herself a ‘social change activist’.
When I first met Yonnette she, along with others helping with the market, was wearing a flaming orange and black face mask.
“This is the Day of the Dead for us”, she explained. “We have altars that were set up this morning. We are introducing children to their dead. My grandmother’s body is on that altar. She died at 106!” (She shows me the urn with her ashes in it). “So the majority of the world is celebrating this time with All Souls, All Saints, everyone is celebrating. So we make a concerted effort to pay attention to this. We have land, so we have to have the ancestors, all the old gardeners who have spent 40 years of their lives here, you have to have them in memory. That is what we are doing today. Almost all of the world celebrates their dead now. Yeah! But you would never know it from where we are in this country – Halloween costumes, trick or treats, candy…”“All of these beautiful tablescapes,” she continues, “were created by me and the children this morning. The craftings conjure up memories. Here we have our juniper berries, our amaranth that reminds us of where we are from. Here is an amaranth that is from Guyana, all of the beautiful things that we have prepared for our dead. This in itself speaks a volume about culture and us. Over on this table, what we asked our community to do is either bring pictures or a representation of their culture for our dead table. If they have nothing, we encourage them to write notes. What we know about the dead realms is that the way is paved by the heart. In other words thinking, standing still, remembering. So that is what we are doing. And this is going to be built up all afternoon, and our ritual ends with the drums and a whole celebration and eating.”
Yonnette is proud that the Hattie Carthan Garden is known for its spirituality, not just its beauty and practicality. Other activities that illustrate this are:
• the Menstruation Hut — a place for HER to celebrate the mystery of women’s blood and for cultivating and affirming life bearing abilities. (First Sunday of each month)
• Healing Circles — weekly percussion circles that teach team work and cooperation through musical entrainment. (Sundays)
• Medicine making workshops. (Quarterly)
• Earth Day seed starting workshops free to the community. Each person leaves with plant starts. (April)
• Annual Plant Sale — local gardeners, schools, block associations pickup plants for their gardens.
• Foods of the diaspora – a culinary festival celebrating the foods and music of the African diaspora, attracts hundreds of people into the garden space. (June)
• Southern food festival — community gathers on lawn to celebrate Southern culture and blues band performs good old bayou blues classics to heal the broken hearted. (September)
• Labor Day Spirits come out to mambo — Afro Caribbean cuisine and west African drum and dance class is emphasized in market. Intergenerational conga line, costumes and youth carnival. Masquerade history demystified. (Labor Day)
• Bread baking classes — community gathers around Cobb oven in 3-week bread making series to mill vegetable and seed flours as a healthy alternative to wheat flour overconsumption. (October)
• Life and Death celebration — community gathers to remember Death traditions and to cultivate ancestral bonds through deep reflections, art and music. (Late October)
• Farmy Folks soiree — large hyperlocal dinner, demonstrating nourishing traditions to acknowledge the work and dedication of our supporters. Visioning with stakeholders and sharing lessons from the season. Failures alongside successes and aspirations. (Late November)
Of course the Community Garden and Market also run many education programs appropriate to raising food in the city.
“We have some composting systems behind the chicken coop,” Yonnette points out. “When the market is open we are also taking in compost from within a quarter mile radius. When people come to pick up their CSA basket of food, if they can’t compost in the home they can freeze the waste and bring it back here. We turn it over and it goes back to the soil. That is part of the theme on the dead – decaying and changing form.”
“Shortly we will be doing a vermicomposting workshop,” she continues. “Our compost is a mixture of animal manure, worm doo and plant matter. Our animals are hormone free and are cared for with herbal medicines, so we don’t worry about chemicals and drugs in the manure.”
Another practical program centers around the ‘Herban Farm and Apothecary’ that Fleming organized in 2011 on a neglected urban lot nearby. She studied plants and cell medicine for 10 years at the College for Indigenous Medicine and is a fan of their enormous restorative powers.
“A lot of things don’t grow here,” she admits, “but what does grow here we use a lot of. The reality is that people don’t even know the plants that grow here most. They are so busy weeding out what grows here they don’t know what it is. Yeah, so we run medicinal plant walks. Plants are outside of the codified system. We help to break that down.”
The herbal apothecary is loaded with freshly harvested medicinal herbs, herbal cosmetics and healing products crafted by Yonnette, who offers apothecary healing services such as Chakra rebalancing, energy healing, sound healing, aura cleansing, and reiki sessions. Groups focusing on dietary methods, percussion, plant dreams, sacred design, clearing land trauma, sacred mandelas and labyrinths are also available.
A number of young people have been engaged at the sites through Americorps or other programs. They do a variety of jobs, including running educational programs, and have expressed an interest in getting more involved in food and farming. African American-owned farms in the US have been on a historical decline for many years, but Yon would like to counteract that reality by finding ways to make black ownership easier. To this end she has helped create the Farm School, a training program of the Just Food program to promote learning about different kinds of farming and how to get access to land.
There is also a tiny tots program, including their own curriculum in the garden in the back in which 2-year olds participate. They have a pizza garden and had a program on smoothies and how you make them. The chickens are there, and a little cow that you can move back and forth to make compost.
As an example of an educational program, while I was there Jeneé Granum presented a demo on how to make pumpkin fritters drawn from the recipe in Caribbean Vegan, by Taymer Mason. You cut a pumpkin or squash into sections, grate the meat into a bowl, add flour, a tablespoon of brown sugar or agave or honey, corn starch, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. After mixing the dry ingredients together, you add ¼ cup of milk, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and mix the batter with the pumpkin meat. You pick out a tablespoon of fritter and deep fry or bake it, dust with sugar and then eat. The fritters Jeneé made were delicious!
Another delicious product of the Garden is figs. They have about 7 trees, which were producing delicious ripe figs when I visited. Apparently the effect of the subway line warming the soil is adequate to protect the roots and enable this treat to survive Brooklyn’s cold winters.
Obviously no activity like this can exist without financial backing. But Yonnette does not take a traditional approach to fund raising.
“We generally don’t do a lot of writing for grants from foundations,” she relates. “We don’t want to fit into small boxes and talk about ourselves as lacking or needing. The only money we are interested in is social justice money, for things like food sovereignty work. We have been here for forty years, so everyone has to support it! It takes a village to support the farm and the market!
“We must be very creative,” she continues, “to be able to support all this. In order for us to move or tweak the food system ultra creativity, connectivity and collectivity is called for. Any way that you can be creative to bring people along is going to be the way we have to do it. We have run plant exhibitions in our greenhouse where we create an ambience, a giant art exhibit. This is creativity. Once you bring that, then that same community comes back and supports you. The bread-baking class is a whole community of bakers. The composters are a whole different one. You have the bee people. The butterfly people. You have programs for them, you sell food at them. The bread-baking workshop was $40 and you go home with a loaf of bread. The same workshop is offered for $300 elsewhere, so ours is a bargain. I think it is amazing. You have egg people who love the chickens. We charge $6 a dozen for the eggs. That is the market price. If someone is ill and walks in here I will do the work with the herbs on them. It brings about a community. That is a market. Then with the sweat equity the city also has to support it. They didn’t build this for me, we built it ourselves. Our councilperson comes to our markets, as do our senators and legislators. We get public money for the youth, for instance. They learn and earn. And they certainly aren’t getting much money from selling collard greens!”
I met a young black woman named Myles, new to the neighborhood as she just arrived four weeks ago, handing out flyers about the November 11th Farmy folks Soiree, which charges $50 for a Hyperlocal, Organic dinner, and $30 for a Wine and ferment bar. She was also promoting a Healing and Volunteer Appreciation Dinner on Nov. 19th. She explained how they try to make the classes self-supporting by charging reasonable fees and making sure people get something for their money.
“We have a lot of classes here,” she says, “to educate people about how to make things. We had one on bread-making last week where you go home with a loaf. Generally, if you take a class you get a token worth a few dollars on items you can buy here.”
A young white man named Mike Swigert had been in the community for several years. He is particularly interested in the political dimension of the work there.
“There is obviously money required to keep all this going,” he agrees. “We do fundraising events, workshops, we are always having cultural programs with music and food. And youth corps members are getting paid. This is supported by a lot of earned income – selling at the farmer’s market, a ton of volunteer work, we do get support from the city council, from foundations, particularly the Noyes Foundation for capital improvements. We had a workshop on compost a few weeks ago, and another one on the food system and looking at that with a racial justice, economic justice lens.”
The produce and processed items sold at the farmers market raise some funds, obviously. But most of that is paid for by the market, either to folks who raise it in the Community Garden or to Pennsylvania farmers.
“You ask where our food comes from,” explains Yonnette. “Let me tell you how it goes from Friday. I invite community gardeners who could submit a crop plan and have me check their soil to make sure they are not using chemicals, and they can bring food on Fridays. I pay them and sell their food. We have about 8 community gardens that do that for us and we aggregate their food to sell it. Staples of squash, rutabagas, sweet potatoes – we’ll never be able to do those on urban land – those come from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania.
“Also,” she continues, “at the farm there is a working apothecary where we farm the herbs and together with my team we move the herbs and medicine into the apothecary. When we sell the herbs and medicine – massage oils, teas, butters, berries, barks, twigs – that helps to take care of the farm. Those herbs are things that people have used for resilience through the course of history – not just African-Americans but all people. Herbs like plantain for example, Europeans depended on that in the landscape. When we teach we aren’t separating out anything. We believe that all things are African!”
The role of African Americans in the Garden, Market, Farm, etc. is important to the members. Even Mike, a white gentrifier, feels this is important.
“This over here,” he says, “is a community garden and those are all individuals gardening here. The entirety of the other site (Herban Farm) is maintained as a community project. It is infused with a spiritual energy – it’s an African indigenous, woman-led, people-of-color project.
“The neighborhood is changing now,” he continues. “It has been predominantly African American and low income. But there is tremendous gentrification now. You can see the public housing here and the yuppie coffee shops over here. There is lots of change. The idea of this project is that the community garden has lots of long time members who are African American from the South and have been in Brooklyn for awhile but come from rural backgrounds. Yon led a project a few years ago which captured their story from the context of a community garden which is really cool. People have individual plots but it is a collective endeavor. I like being a part of that. I’m from Washington D. C. and am obviously one of the people who is “gentrifying” the neighborhood. But it has been really wonderful for me to come here and connect with what is going on. We have had some wonderful sessions here on Race and Equity, Access, and Power. I attended one right after the Charlottesville killing. We had people from 12 years old to 70 come out for that. A lot of people have been volunteering here over the years, contributing to the agriculture. I come every week and water a number of beds. I have a little garden plot in my backyard but I contribute as a community member to this project too.”
The role of African Americans in the leadership of the Garden, Market and Farm is central to Yonnette.
‘The project here is an African-American led one,” she asserts. “It always has been for the 40 years it has existed. The older garden ran a kind of sterile narrative about who they were as though all things were equal. They did that for a long time. It’s a traditional community garden where everybody gets a plot. It is like everybody is there, we are all here, there is no racial justice narrative going. But when gentrification came on the community they got to the level that they realized the sterile narrative, although it seems like a friendly thing to do, is not how you cultivate community. We are a diverse community, naturally, and there are various power structures. Everything is different for everyone. So in 2009 we began to clearly say that we are a people-of-color led project. That our work with the youth is on youth of color, to heal and repair themselves. Everything that we do has that sort of narrative.
“Our community is being gentrified currently,” she continues. “This is one of the last African American gardens left standing with African American leadership. That is a fact. How the leadership is dealing with that are internal strategies, some are ones I can share. One idea is adding a voluntary component to our membership so there is not a right-of-way into the garden. It serves as a speed bump. We ask for a year of voluntary help before you actually join the garden. When I added that to our bylaws (smiles) that was the winner! Many community gardeners come to meet me and the one thing they want is to keep it the way it is, how to keep the place African American, how to stack it without, yeah… We have a few whites who have earned membership now.”
Fleming’s concern with African American control may seem discriminatory to outsiders, but she feels that keeping her community in charge of the Garden they created is vital.
“It is important for historically oppressed communities” she states, “to have resources for healing and rights to land and territory. Every community needs resources and space for the production of fresh, clean, nutrient dense foods and to recognize the central role of land in culture, society and healing. Our gardens and farms are not just food production mills but serve as places that humanize and cultivate diversity.”
To that end, she argues, it is important to stress the strengths and assets of your community, not its weaknesses and needs.
“The work of community building and reconnecting to land,” she says, “like every process, begins with a desire to want something better for one’s community. Assessing the assets of one’s community is essential. Instead of using a needs-based only frame, every community should be able to map its assets and create change through establishing common ground and democracy. Engaging and educating using popular education pedagogy helps us recognize each other’s function in community. Music and Art defies the trappings of language and are important to our collective healing.”
Also important to community education about what needs to be done, Yonnette suggests, is a recognition of the problems they face and an appreciation of the traditions they come from.
“People need to have a race/class analysis,” she says, “when they are trying to be a part of creating a more equitable and sustainable future. The food system is so bad in so many ways – unhealthy food, people profit from it who are far away from producing it, lots of waste, issues of race and equity… The kinds of classes we run help you understand all that and create alternative ways of farming – local, organic, collective.
“At the farm,” she continues, “we raise a consciousness of deep reverence for the Earth and respect feminine based leadership and values. We center black women’s knowledge and radically lift up the work of women around us. We redefine our relationships to the land; healing creatively with the land; ancestral honoring/remembering and community self-esteem, determination and liberation. We describe our Farm as a healing place. Our Farm has a wild patch where we bury our wounds, sing ancestral songs and recall stories of our environmental icons like Hattie Carthan who way back in the 70s, thought she was working to save a tree and in so doing created the backbone of this community.”
I asked several people at the Garden/Market/Farm how they would like to see the programs grow in the future.
Veronica Crevino, a volunteer staffer, mentioned their desire to function throughout the year.
“This area,” she said, “is open July through Thanksgiving. We’d like to go year round. Right now we own four generators, is how we get our power. We want to get permanent power through a meter. We are drawing up plans right now for electricity to be installed for the market area. That would enable us to be here year-round. It will mean lots more refrigeration and food preservation. Come back and see us in 3 years!”
One other consequence of year-round operation would be that the market could attract upstate farmers with winter crops, root vegetables, and preserved food. It would be an opportunity for them to reach a large urban market and a chance for the market to earn significant stall fees.
Yon is currently planning on building a classroom and herbal preservation structure on the farm and will be launching an indegogo campaign to raise funds for it. Large teach-ins and herbalism intensive courses are among the programs which would be taught there.
Another goal Yon has is to install a solar electrical tree at the farm. Also to have a rainwater barrel system there and a pump to activate it so the water can be brought anywhere for use.
Mike works with the food justice program which takes care of policy and makes sure things are running correctly. Fleming envisions him coordinating letter writing and door-knocking campaigns generating support for the program. That could pay off in several ways:
Longer leases – not the 3-year type currently used for the market, but more like the 40 years, which the Community Garden has. That would enable significant investment in the sites.
EBT support – the city requires every single community-based market to have an EBT operator. If that could be changed, or a system set up to pay for such an operator, then SNAP benefits and other such programs would be easy to use and the vendors could all function easier.
School programs – Yonnette would love not to have to chase down the schools for teacher awareness. The children are already coming to the site for services and teachers would benefit from such exposure themselves.
Health programs – Yon would like to have health professionals come at least one day a month to the farm. Her dad did that in Guyana. He had every public service program bring people to help on the farm – ministries of education, health, timber…
“I think what we want to do,” she says, “is build up this project here, and the other herbal one, in terms of growing more, developing enterprises to use it and benefit people. We want to get people to build their skills while increasing community economic activity. It is great to grow your own food in your backyard or a plot here, but also help us build the community and cooperative economics.”