Understanding the Complex Dynamics at Evergreen Community Garden


By Brunilda Estrada

 
 

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Two years have passed since a man went on a hunger strike at the Evergreen Community Garden. According to a Wall Street Journal report, while in the garden shed the man clenched a lighter and container of gasoline. Threats of self-immolation prompted the NYPD’s Hostage Negotiation Team and the FDNY to respond and lock down neighborhood schools. The man, a 75-year-old former 7-11 shop owner named Sun Ok Kim, was no typical gardener and this was no typical garden.

Political Transition at the Garden

For over 30 years, the garden was managed by a group of Korean seniors (Korean-American Senior Citizens Society of Greater New York) of which Mr. Kim was a prominent member. But in 2012, the NYC Parks Department turned control of the garden over to its internal initiative, GreenThumb (a network of 600 city-wide community gardens), causing outrage. A steering committee, composed of mostly non-Korean civic association members, replaced existing management. The political transition precipitated a sequence of events tantamount to a lush battlefield - with violence, protest and death threats enveloping the garden’s seemingly serene atmosphere. Mr. Kim’s aberrant behavior was in response to what he claimed was a “city-led coup” for which he would take his life if his group did not regain control of the garden. 1 The term “coup” strikes a militaristic cord, with warlike underpinnings not typically associated with a community garden, and Mr. Kim’s extreme antics were a reflection of the Korean seniors’ vehement opposition to the regime change.

Mainstream media paints a narrow view of the problems at the garden, failing to address the internal and external forces at play. In evaluating the conditions that may have contributed to the heightened state at the garden, one may ask: why would someone go as far as threaten to take his own life for a city-owned garden, no less? What is it about this particular garden that incites such a combative and fragmented environment? Can we say with certainty that this is solely a cross-cultural or language issue? One thing is certain however, a greater understanding is necessary given the unique dynamics at the garden.

Our aim is to take a broader view of the garden’s complex dynamics, assessing the influences that caused the eruption to manifest in the first place. It is with this understanding that we can begin to unlock the garden’s cultural value and its potential for community health.

 
 

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Photo courtesy of Ramsay De Give
 
 

Prior to the Parks Department take-over, the city-owned plot had been widely referred to by people in the Flushing community as “The Korean Garden”. There were numerous complaints from non-Koreans, including other Asians, about the exclusivity at the garden. In fact, NYC Parks Department partially attributes the political transition to the numerous complaints it received while it was run by the Korean group. 2 Dorothy Woo, the Chinese-born former president of the Holly Civic Association told the Times Ledger that she “recalled complaints of some gardeners being denied plots, while others were intimidated and harassed.” 3 Chuck Wade, former Executive Director at Queens Botanical Garden and the garden’s current President stated,"Many of them [Koreans] think this [garden] is for one ethnic group, but it’s a community garden under the auspices of Parks and it’s mandated to be open to people of every ethnicity.” 4

If these claims are indeed founded, then these gardeners are not only bringing their biocultural knowledge to the garden but a culture of exclusivity from their homelands as well. This raises the question: what are the conditions in South Korea that may have prompted these xenophobic tendencies? Although issues of racial and cultural norms are a complicated and challenging undertaking, a brief look at Korean society today and Korean history may help us  get closer to demystifying the complex dynamic at the garden.

Korean Ethnic Identity

Korea’s ethnic national identity has been underpinned by the commonly-held belief that Koreans “share a unified bloodline and distinct culture” strengthened by the peninsula’s homogeneity. 5 This strong nationalistic sentiment has been ascribed to an older generation, in particular, who in attempts to maintain purity of race, resists foreign influences. This ideology is seen by some as “driving prejudices against those who are not seen as ‘pure Koreans’.” 6 Although Korea is in the midst of social change in becoming a “multiethnic Korea”, according to reports, much work needs to be done. 7 The tenuous racial dynamics led the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to issue a warning in 2007 saying “Korea has to embrace the multi-ethnic character of contemporary Korean society, and the image of an ethnically-homogeneous Korea is a now a thing of the past.” 8

Confucianism and Collectivism

At the bedrock of South Korean society are Confucian principles that emphasize an individual’s duty to place elders, family and community before the self. Although the prominence of its teachings have faded, its legacy still continues to influence the collective fabric of South Korean culture today. For example, Confucian rhetoric has been used in government and business to encourage people to place the needs of the group above their own individual needs. 9

A Brief History of the Korean Experience

Korea’s 5000-year history has been marked by 900 invasions from outside groups, the earliest of which were tribal people from Central Asia who brought with them distinct cultural beliefs and spiritual practices (i.e. shamanism). China invaded a region of Korea in third century B.C., impacting its culture for 400 years. Later regimes brought Buddhism and Confucianism to the peninsula. The Yi regime - the longest regime in Korea’s history- reinforced the hierarchical societal structure, with elders, the monarch and China given the highest reverence in society.

Although this mountainous peninsula neighbors three powerhouse nations - China, Japan and Russia - the region was perceived as remote by Western societies because of its isolation from the western world. Until the nineteenth century, the Korean peninsula was referred to as “the Hermit Kingdom” by its Western counterparts because of its “closed door policy toward non-Chinese foreigners”. Japan later occupied Korea for 35 years (1910-1945). Despite Japan’s modern influence in farming practices, many Korean farmers were forcefully withdrawn from their land. Koreans were “forced to worship at Shinto shrines, speak Japanese in schools and adopt Japanese names.” Several formed guerrilla groups to combat Japan’s “oppressive” rule.  During the end of WWII, Japan surrendered and relinquished control over Korea. Soon after, the Soviet Union set up a provisional government in the North and the United States followed suit in the South, and the 38th parallel became the border that demarcated the two distinct governments. Tensions between the North and South eventually led to a bloody, 3-year Korean War that resulted in a ceasefire. 10

Korea’s long history of oppressive occupations and its collective societal framework are factors that should be considered when assessing the Korean Diaspora lived experience. With this context in mind, we can begin to understand with greater clarity the potential influences that led up to the eruption at the garden. However, discussion of the Korean experience without a retrospective of the garden leadership’s influence would be insufficient for a comprehensive analysis.

Powers at Play: Past and Present Leadership at the Garden

The Evergreen Community Garden was once a repository for trash until a cohort of tenant farmers transformed the space into a working garden in the late 1980s. The Korean American Senior group managed the city-owned plot for decades until the NYC Parks Department relinquished their authority in 2012 due to claims of fiscal mismanagement, illegal selling of produce and exclusivity toward non-Koreans. Control of the homogeneous garden was then transferred to GreenThumb, a division within NYC Parks that oversees a network of community gardens. Soon after, Korean management was replaced by an appointed Steering Committee, many of whom are active members in the local civic association. Comprised of mostly non-Koreans, the Committee is not representative of the garden’s nearly 80 percent Korean demographic.

The dust is still settling after the garden’s 2012 political transition. The Committee has made a valiant effort at lessening the homogeneity at the garden, and although ethnic diversity has increased, cultural barriers still persist because diversity itself does not define inclusivity. Moreover, the Committee’s internal struggles further exacerbate the problem, casting an opaque haze on their ability to set their gaze beyond the surface. For instance, there are new architectural renderings posted on the garden’s bulletin board to install a flagpole waving a U.S. flag (see image below). Although the garden is on U.S. soil, how would a Korean gardener perceive this move by a predominantly non-Korean Committee? Given our assessment so far, one may start to wonder if from the vantage point of a Korean, their interpretation may be of yet another colonizer posting their flag and imposing claims on their land.

As issues at the garden continue to mount, the Committee should consider taking these factors into careful consideration. Transformative solutions must recognize the Korean experience - taking into account the historical, social and cultural norms projected onto the garden. There is an urgent need for leadership to take a broader look at the cultural divide to promote an inclusive environment where no cultural group is alienated, Korean or otherwise.

 
 

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Architectural rendering for the proposed garden entrance