"Where do you live?"
"The South Bronx."
"What do you do?"
"I'm a farmer."
That seemingly absurd dialogue about the area that has come to symbolize urban destruction and despair will be spoken seriously not too many years from now if Irma Fleck and Jack Flanagan succeed.
Fleck and Flanagan propose to make compost, spread it around the South Bronx and create vegetable and flower gardens on up to 200 acres. They are even thinking of tree farming. Christmas trees from the South Bronx could be some New Yorkers' futures.
"We've been called crazies," admits Falnagan, a police detective who took a leave of absence to work on the greening of South Bronx.
It will cost $223,000 to get their composting and gardening operation going this spring, and enough foundations have taken Fleck and Flanagan seriously so that Fleck says "six months ago, the big problem was money. Now, it's time. We've got to be ready for spring planting." As she speaks, her car bounces over mounds of ice and litter on uncleared South Bronx streets.
The greening is a many-cushion shot. If it works, it will somewhat ease the city's solid waste disposal problems, solve suburban New Rochelle's leaf disposal problems, absorb horse manure from city riding academies, get rid of a huge pile of gypsum waste, provide jobs and a better diet for some South Bronx residents and create earth where there is only rubble.
The earth the South Bronx is built on is unreachable now under six to eight feet of bricks and rubble from demolished buildings. Bulldozers have leveled lots, filling basements with the debris.
But the rubble can be pulverized to sand and mixed with compost to make soil.
"We're in the recycling business. We're recycling land," Fleck said.
In the first year of compost production, Fleck and Flanagan hope to produce 14,000 cubic yards, enough to cover about 17 acres to a depth of six inches.
They had hoped to do more, but they were unable to get city permission to use a 14-acre site for their compost operation and instead will make do with 3.6 acres on the bank of the East River with a superb view of the Manhattan skyline, a long subway ride away.
Even so, their compost operation will be one of the largest in the country. Flanagan and Fleck foresee the day when they will be turning out so much compost that they will sell their product to Long Island farmers or the park service or in bags to the home gardener. Compost brings upwards of $12 a cubic yard, they said. No one can accuse them of setting their sights too low.
In about four weeks, compost production is scheduled to start under supervision of Curtis Suerth, who will monitor the recipe.
The key ingredient without which the Bronx Frontier Development Corp., as Fleck and Flanagan have off the ground is fruit and vegetable waste from the giant Hunt's Point Market adjacent to the compost site.
The market spawns as much as 75 cubic yards of such waste daily and has to pay to have it carted away and dumped. Now it can give a small portion to the composters, who will rake it with a huge $50,000 Scarab Compost Turner and mix it with New Rochelle's leaves to make it drier. Horse manure and gypsum wste, which is almost all calcium sulfate, will be added if needed.
Every five or six weeks a new bed of compost will be ready for delivery to South Bronx farmers.
Initially, Flanagan said, housing people worried that farming wouldn't leave enough room for the reconstruction projects they hope to carry out. But there appears to be room for both.
"Vacant land is very plentiful," Fleck said wryly. "There's more of it everyday as buildings burn or are demolished."
The South Bronx has about 500 acres vacant now. In the 41st Police Precinct, which is known as Fort Apache, about 50 percent of the buildings are down or beyond saving, Flanagan estimated, and 50 percent of the people are gone.
Fleck and Flanagan have their office in the precinct.
Last summer, there were 40 vegetable gardens in the South Bronx supported by the Cornell University Extension Service's gardening program. None was vandalized, Fleck said, but two were trampled because they were on lots heavily used as shortcuts.
"That's not vandalism, that's bad planning." Flanagan said.
This year, Cornell is unable to provide topsoil, which can cost as much as $12 a cubic yard, so the soil manufactured of compost and pulverized rubble will be the only South Bronx source of supply. Cornell, however, is providing expert advice and will do technical testing for the project - including checks on the levels of heavy metals. Where there are dangerous concentrations of heavy metals, flowers will be grown.
The Bronx Frontier Development Corp. dryly remarks in one of its reports that the precise value of the South Bronx vegatable production is difficult to predict, "because of the lack of experience with vegetable farming in an urban area." However, it calculates that each acre farmed should provide the annual vegetable needs of 40 to 68 people. A one-year vegetable supply in 1976 was worth about $75 per person, the report says.
"The South Bronx needs a lot more things than just vegetable gardens and composting, but there's so little else that can be done right now," said Anita Miller of the Ford Foundation, which helps support the project.
"We're usually more hard-nosed," Miller said of the foundation's decision to grant money to Fleck's and Flanagan's operation, "but if it contributes to a better self-image for some people and makes a more livable environment, then it's a fine thing."
"Even though Jimmy Carter was here," Flanagan said, putting it another way, "that doesn't mean that we're going to build a whole new city.
As an accomaniment to the gardening operation, the Bronx Frontier Development Corp. has converted a library bookmobile into a "chuck wagon" with a kitchen. The moving kitchen visits schools and other centers demonstrating how to grow vegetables and prepare them.
The South Bronx has the highest rate of health problems in New York City and a majority are caused by bad diets. Children who are 5 suffer from hypertension, high blood pressure and obesity that are nutritionally caused.
Joan pipolo, who runs the traveling kitchen program, introduced two "unfamiliar" vegetables, squash and eggplant, to hundreds of families last summer.
This summer she hopes to exhibit a cow to demonstrate where milk comes from.