More than just green space: Deep in Brooklyn, two farmers reinvent the notion of a “community” garden

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On a recent Sunday afternoon, people gathered on the sidewalk outside Bushwick City Farms to rummage through bins of vegetables, rescued from grocery store dumpsters, and clothing, donated by local residents. Periodically, people would walk right into the farm to greet and feed the chickens. Children dragged their parents in off the street. Locals conversed loudly in sharp Puerto Rican Spanish as they picked up seedlings that were being given away for free, and Masha, one of the founding farmers, replied fluently.

There was a time when community gardens were new, daring, sites of interchange between socioeconomically diverse urban dwellers. During the 1960s and 1970s, as cities all over the U.S. increasingly filled with middle-class former suburbanites, urban gardens popped up in rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods as people attempted to make cities greener and more sustainable.

Today, however, community gardens are closed-off to many, as their plots hold long waiting-lists and involve annual fees, and their “communities” are often made-up of recent additions to neighborhoods rather than more rooted families.

One duo of farmers in Brooklyn, NY is determined to reinvent the notion of a community garden by involving residents in the day-to-day operations of their urban farm, including maintaining the harvest, feeding the chickens, and composting.

Vinny Olsen and Masha Radzinsky set up Bushwick City Farms on an abandoned illegal dumpsite in a brash, busy section of Brooklyn, under an elevated subway line, where the population consists largely of Puerto Rican families. Using almost exclusively repurposed castaway materials, they worked side-by-side with locals over the course of three years to build a chicken coup, composting bin, and vegetable bed.

“It’s more eco-friendly and environmentally responsible to use recycled materials,” explained Masha. The only items Bushwick City Farms requires money for are soil and chicken feed – and their only revenue comes from individual donations or community fundraisers. They currently have a campaign on environmental crowdfunding site ioby to raise money for a new farm site, also in Brooklyn.

In their mission to become a true community farm, Masha and Vinny  have reached out to the neighborhood through various educational programs. They hold free English classes, taught by volunteers, on a regular basis. They work with a public school, where they constructed a garden with the kids during science class, and grew vegetables that go into the kids’ lunches, providing a rare opportunity for kids to experience the connection between production and consumption. A local high school has volunteers come to tend the compost every Thursday. There is an ongoing workshop series that educates locals on composting and gardening. Local families stop by the visit the chickens, which they say remind them of life back in Puerto Rico, where it’s common to own chickens.

“We focus on community empowerment in addition to food justice,” said Masha as she looked out over the abandoned lot that she and Vinny will soon be converting into their next farm site. “We’re reclaiming what ‘community garden’ means.”

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