An organic market opened this summer in Bed-Stuy, behind the community garden on Marcy and Clifton Place. I’ve been going regularly when I’m in the neighborhood. I have mixed feelings about things like organic markets. In Fort Greene, the organic market that opened along the park in 2003, was pretty much the beginning of the end of Fort Greene as an affordable neighborhood. Going to the Fort Greene market now – and I say this as someone who has always enjoyed going to markets, of all kinds – is about as pleasurable as fighting your way through a crowded shopping mall. And cheap it ain’t.
Hattie Carthan Market hasn’t reached that point, though. The times I’ve been there, it has been pleasant, relaxed. The market is the child of Yonette Fleming, who rescued a vacant lot behind the Coummnity Garden which developers had been using to dump refuse from construction sites. She cleaned up the lot, mostly with volunteers from the neighborhood. She runs cooking classes every Saturday afternoon for a small audience, explaining what she is doing, then serving whatever she has cooked. Yonette is a community food educator, and the market is part of a larger mission of introducing healthy food into poor communities. From the press release for the market opening:
“. . . In New York City neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant in Central Brooklyn where a third of residents live in poverty, more than 12% of adults have diabetes, compared to 8% nationwide. . . . The farmers market is also a community’s effort to reclaim its agricultural heritage and contribute to the cultural, social and economic vitality of Central Brooklyn.”
The first time I went down, volunteers were painting the murals which now adorn the site and the next Saturday, Travis from ‘Band of Bicycles’ was down with his ‘blender bicycle’ serving fresh juice mixed in a bicycle-powered blender. The market takes food stamps, and prices are better than up in Fort Greene. I like going to the little market, having lunch from Yonette’s food stall – she cooks every weekend, with produce from the community garden – then touring the community garden next door. Most of the vendors come down from organic farms in Vermont, and there is a strong Vermont connection, with a lot of white people with the usual neo-hippie garb: t-shirts celebrating the Cuban Revolution, tie-dyed hair, beads, even sandals. It is amazing how little that basic style has changed in three decades. Last weekend, on the Oktoberfest celebration, there was even a bongo jam session, and spoken word poetry. Even if it is relaxing, even refreshing, this turn from a steets of barracks like brick housing projects with metal bars over the windows and the teenagers hanging out on the street into a slice of rural hippie Vermont is just a little odd.
The Hattie Carthan Community Garden is one of a network of small gardens which you see all over Bed-Stuy. I also remember seeing a few up in Harlem, and a couple down in the Lower East Side, and apparently there are a few really big ones up in the Bronx. The gardens are the work of the Green Guerillas, an early 90’s movement to turn vacant lots in poor, mostly black neighborhoods, into garden plots for local people, many of whom came from the rural South. In particular, activists wanted to get the kids involved, most of whom had been raised in the city and lost touch with the soil.
It is usually mostly old folks around when I tour the garden, who seem to have been around for years. They hang around in the shade at a BBQ in the back, next to the long greenhouse where Yonette gets a lot of her produce. Once, I met a young black guy from Belgium who was sightseeing with his wife and young daughter. He said they’d been to community gardens all over New York, that people were always happy to show them around, that they made it a regular weekend activity to go around the gardens in New York.
Last week, I talked to one of the old guys who was at the very back of the garden, trimming the hedges. He had a thick southern accent and I guessed he must have come from North Carolina originally, as do many of the old people in the neighborhood. Some of the hedges had been trimmed into little domes, others wound through the market like a garden path. He said when the garden had first started 17 years before, the hedges had all been wild, and he’d trimmed them into shape and kept them up every year. They’d planted the fig trees, which now stood fifteen feet high. At the back of the garden, overlooking Marcy street, was a Magnolia tree, planted in 1885. Hattie Carthan, a local enviromenalist, secured landmark status for the tree before she died in 1984.
I wondered what the area had been like when the garden had first started. Even a few years ago, the park across the street was a sort of blank zone of scrubby grass, drugs consumed in the corners. Several blocks of low-rise projects cover the area behind and around the garden. Except for the barracks-like front doors, they aren’t bad as projects go, but they have that slightly abandoned air of New York housing projects, and a few years ago, they were much worse. The garden must have been a curious oasis amidst the decay that was Bed-stuy in that era, and I wondered what the old folks thought of all the white people moving into their neighborhood now, if they’d ever thought it possible in the dark days of the early 90’s, when the garden first opened.