Beyond The High-Rise Condos: Cultivating Culture at Evergreen Community Garden
By Brunilda Estrada
Amidst the hurried crowd of pedestrians and ubiquitous Chinese signage lies downtown Flushing, New York. Deemed by some as “The Chinese Manhattan”, Flushing, Queens is home to a thriving Asian culture. The sprouting skyline of high-rise condos cast a shadow on busy streets lined with vibrant displays of supermarkets selling traditional Asian produce. The distinct aroma of dried medicinal roots linger in the distance as Chinese herb shops, the Eastern pharmacy equivalent, sell highly coveted ginseng root and sea cucumber at around $300/lb.
The robust cultural overflow of Flushing is a reflection of a population that is nearly two-thirds foreign-born. Flushing, which extends past its downtown area, is according to the 2010 census, 69.2% Asian, 14.9% Latino, 9.5% Caucasian, and 4.2% African American. But the strong Asian influence is not just Chinese—North of the downtown area, Korean churches, cafes and restaurants line Northern Boulevard—a reflection of Flushing’s diverse cultural landscape. However, Flushing’s diversity extends beyond its ethnic storefronts and establishments.
Nestled in downtown Flushing, Evergreen Community Garden is a hidden gem where tireless congestion, noise and tall buildings are muted upon entering. The impressive 5-acre allotment-style layout of 300 plots makes it the largest community garden in New York City. Housed in a city where open space is a rarity, the garden acts as an incubator, an unintended social experiment. Now imagine a city-owned space with a long tumultuous history of exclusion resulting in a cultural homogeneity of sorts. What happens when inclusion is mandated by force and people are placed into a cultural pot? One thing is certain, strangers are turned into newfound neighbors.
Despite all the bad press Evergreen Community Garden has received over the years, its members share one thing in common: a desire to grow their own food. With dozens of supermarkets touting a robust selection of produce just a few blocks away, these gardeners prefer to know where their food comes from. Particularly with recent events like the FDA cilantro-recall, public health is often compromised in the hands of industrial agriculture, and growing food locally can be a vehicle toward greater quality control, a crucial step toward good health.
Beyond the production of food, the garden is a space where individuals can strengthen their connection to the homelands they left behind. Comprised of predominantly first-generation Korean tenant farmers, a stroll through the garden takes you on a cultural journey, where glimpses of rural Asia are unveiled through the farming techniques observed in plot layouts and the selection of crops grown. Eastern traditions have a rich history of medicinal plant use, and it is this rich knowledge that has much potential for exploration. With this in mind, we intend to learn from these traditions and take first steps toward creating a more cohesive community that engages in open dialogue. Ultimately, by working alongside the community, we intend to integrate research and design principles to create strategies that conserve and utilize this valuable biocultural knowledge to understand its impact on health.