Rethinking the Narrative at Evergreen Community Garden


By Brunilda Estrada

 
 

garden art

 
 

White canopies cast a shadow on the gardeners sun-kissed faces as they wait in line to be served traditional American and Korean dishes at this year’s Independence Day Picnic. Hot dogs, baked beans and kimchi were served by cheerful Asian and non-Asian gardeners. Yet the harmonious tone at the garden is a stark difference to the discord of years past. “This is the first year we didn’t have police present at the garden,” said one relieved gardener. Evergreen Community Garden has had a tumultuous history of violence and death threats, a menacing tension symptomatic of something deeper. While the media's negative portrayal of the garden may have dissuaded some from taking part in this seemingly disturbed community of gardeners, these reports have hyper sensationalized the symptoms and overlooked potential root causes. An untold story exists, that if unearthed would shed light on the garden’s complex dynamic and illuminate its full potential.

Taking a closer look at New York City’s largest community garden, one can see that beyond the vegetables produced, a unique story is revealed. The narrative, manifested in distinct farming techniques and the selection of crops grown, is a profound display of a tradition longing to remain alive in the soil. Comprised of predominantly first-generation Korean and Chinese immigrants, the garden is a cultural hotspot—a living library of biocultural knowledge—reflective of a distant memory of the homelands left behind, observed through patterns of plant knowledge and use. Crops represent a rich cultural identity, making community gardens an ideal space to unravel.

Community gardens play a vital role in urban settings to promulgate these cultural practices so that they can remain alive and vibrant. Without green spaces to grow food, we run the risk that people will instead opt to buy their food at supermarkets (devoid of a connection to the natural world), and thus lose these rich traditions which can invariably impact health. To begin to conserve this knowledge, it is important to understand the deep-rooted sociopolitical and historical influences that may contribute to the garden’s complex dynamic. Therefore, we are extending our gaze beyond the garden to ask: what are the social and political factors that make for such a contentious and explosive space?