Food justice and farming advocate Karen Washington shares some history of urban agriculture, favorite moments from her garden, what it means to be part of a community and what it means to be a New Yorker.
I grow food, I feed people, body and mind.
I’m from New York City, born and raised. I grew up on the Lower East Side, then I moved to Harlem, and now I live in the Bronx. “The other B,” I tell people.
In my quiet time I go to my garden and spend time with my chickens, and that’s incredible for me.
There are two things that a community can do: They can stay and let the garbage accumulate, or they can do something and take back that piece of land. And that’s what we did. We took back that piece of land, we threw out all of the garbage, and started growing vegetables and fruit and people and community.
That’s why it’s called the Garden of Happiness. Because when you’re there, you feel happy.
I try to tell people that we’ve been here from the beginning, so urban agriculture is not this new thing.
Yes, 22 years ago. I remember a little green truck, stopping in front of this empty lot and saying, “We’re the Botanical Gardens, and we’re here to help.”
Food is the equalizer. Food has no interpretation when it comes to color, race, religion. We all need it; we all must have it. However, the powers that be tend to use food to discriminate, so you have the haves and the have-nots.
In this country, in this great nation of ours, how can we really look at ourselves in the mirror, knowing that there are people who are hungry? That makes me really sad and it makes me really upset, because we have the means. Food should not be an item that has a price tag on it. There should be a way for everyone to get healthy, accessible, culturally-appropriate food.
I chose to ask the question, “Where are the Black farmers?”
Even though it was black people that came to this country not by choice but by chains and fed this country and yet it is the black farmer now that is losing land and is losing the ability to farm. As a person of color I felt it was my duty, as a human being, as an American, as a person in this country, to find out what is the cause, why is it. And I went to people and I asked that question and it was told to me because black people don’t want to go into farming.
And so the black farmers conference is something I personally have taken to heart to see doors open, to shut down and expose the racism that exists in the food system and across agriculture, and for people to start having dialogues and allow all people of all ethnic backgrounds into this food movement.
There was an inscription on the black liberation bookstore in Harlem and that read, “If you don’t know, learn. If you do know, teach.” And I’ve always kept that, that if you have the knowledge and you’ve been a leader in this movement, you must teach, you must teach others.
I think New Yorkers, in my experience, are the type of people that are so blessed, each of us feel because the city has been so good to us, that it’s part of being a New Yorker to give back and to share resources and ideas and food and housing and money and whatever we can do.
I’ve been interviewed and people have asked me, “Is urban agriculture a phase?” A phase for who? This is who we are. This is not new and trendy.
The bottom line is that these community gardens and urban farms exist because people needed ways to feed themselves, to grow food that was culturally appropriate, to grow food that had a connection to history and people’s culture, and to grow food that didn’t have chemicals and was fresh.
This urban agriculture movement is being made an elitist movement because if you talk about rooftop farming, then who has the access to it? Rooftop farming is very expensive. And if you think rooftops on 59th Street and Lexington Avenue are going to have a bunch of Latino and Black people from Brooklyn and the Bronx come and start growing food on their rooftops, it’s not happening. So let’s be real when we talk about rooftop gardens.
Vertical gardens are good, but we can do vertical gardens by planting fruiting trees. The original rooftop garden.
I stayed in the Bronx because there’s this community building and these people who may not have a lot of money, but they have rich stories and the history and they can cook a good meal without it being fancy and there’s an air of being comfortable, being comfortable within their own skin.
What I like about my community is what you see is what you get. You know, if you’re driving a raggedy car, you’re driving a raggedy car.
So you have different economics, but in essence, that community garden puts us on the same loving, level playing field. That community garden has brought us all together so that on a Saturday when it’s hot, and we’re in there barbecuing, anyone can walk in and break bread and get something to eat. And I think that’s so important, and that’s what community is all about, and food is the key ingredient.
Community gardens are now a part of the landscape of New York City.
I always tell people that if it’s a community garden, it belongs to the community. It’s a gift that we have for a very short time and then we give that gift to somebody else.
First of all, I remember when there was a glimpse of a hope that Obama would be president. As an African American, I never honestly thought there would be a Black president when I was alive. When you’re around your family, and you talk about my parents, grandparents, my grandparents, we talked about there never being a black president. We once thought it would be Martin Luther King, if it would be anyone, but when he got assassinated, it was an afterthought. All of a sudden this person, Barack Obama, with this funny name, and no one knew who he was. And then I started listening, and I said, “Wait a second, he’s a community organizer, he knows what community is all about. He might have a chance.” I remember when the votes were coming in, and I said, “Look, we’re going to 125th Street, the heart of Harlem, and we’re going to wait there for the votes to come in.” And I called my son and said, “Come on, Brian.” So many people of color gravitated towards 125th Street, and they had big screens. We were there listening to the votes, counting them, and all of a sudden, and when the electoral votes were counted in, and he had the majority votes… oh my God. The elation that I felt, the tears, the hugs, the kisses, the screams, I wondered if it was real, if we really had a Black president. It was the most unbelievable feeling as a Black person, to feel, “Finally, we have arrived.” When Martin Luther King said, “I might not be there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land.” I always had those words in my head… and we arrived at the promised land.
And so, to get this phone call from the Botanical Gardens, and have them tell me that they’ve been nominated for an award from the Institute of Museums and Libraries, and that they have to pick a community member who has made a difference, and that they had chosen me, I was speechless, crazy speechless. And when we found out that we were going to the White House, and that Michelle Obama was going to give the award, it made me shake. I was shaking and shaking. Going to meet her, I literally felt all of my ancestors, all of my family, in that room—my parents who are deceased, my brother who is deceased, all of my family—just applauding. I could just feel their spirit, just applauding that I was there, and that they were there to see it. I can’t explain it, but it was the most amazing thing, something that I will take with me for the rest of my life. I just felt my whole family in that room, just clapping and clapping. The spirits and the ancestors were definitely there that day. I really feel honored and I will take that with me. That made me feel that I had finally arrived.
The Bronx got its name because it was farmland at one time. Yeah, Jonas Bronx was the family. See, there’s a little tidbit, a little history.
Hopefully, this city won’t be based only on concrete and steel, but based on greenery and the environment. That’s my vision for New York City, that it’s a metropolis for greenery, that it will have gone back to the beginning, and that is the Earth, with our hands in the dirt, where everything begins, where New York finds its roots.
La Familia Verde is our community garden coalition, and I have this elder group there. I love them so much. And they’ve been doing this for seven years. Twenty-two weeks, from July to November, rain, hail, sleet, or snow, those women are at that market each and every week.
We were told farmers didn’t want to come to our markets because we were in the Bronx and farmers were fearful of the Bronx or they said it was too far. I remember telling them, “You have to pass through the Bronx and Harlem to get to 14th Street!” Instead of just throwing our hands up in the air and saying, “Well, they don’t want to come;” we said, “We grow the food, let’s start our own farmers’ market.”
The chickens. Chickens! The chickens get me up early, I love those chickens. I have 15 gallenas. Let me tell you, those chickens are so great. Chickens, that’s what gets us up in the morning!
If you start early in the spring and you manage, get all the hard work done, then come June and July you can sit back and just weed and water, weed and water.
Something about the bees is spiritual. Something about them — I don’t know what it is — the sound they make, the fact that they work cohesively together. I didn’t keep them for the honey; I cared about providing a place for the bees, a place where they could feel safe. I looked at them as part of the ecosystem, as pollinating my fruits and vegetables, to provide a safe haven for them. When they left I cried like a baby, but then I figured that was their nature, and it was best for them to do that if they had to do that.
Sometimes I think, when I was maybe an egg or a spirit, God said, “Okay, it’s time for you to go to Earth,” and I said, “Okay.” He said, “You have a chance now, Karen, choose your parents, and choose where you want to live. Choose your neighborhood.” I must have said to God, “I want these parents, I want this sibling, I want to live here, I want to do these things.” I’ve lived a great life. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the world.
That’s my life, to give back, to give to the new leadership that’s coming up.