Rock-star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently announced her initiation into gardening in the form of a modest four-foot-square community garden plot.
On Twitter, she asked her 4 million followers for advice on what to plant, but before I could fumble for my glasses and compose an answer, she had received 8,300 responses. Even those helpful fans may have been too slow off the mark; she soon announced that she had gone to a Capitol Hill garden center and received sufficient guidance. The last post of the day showed the plot fully planted with an instant garden that included herbs, vegetables and blooms.
This may be a case of cramming things a bit close — we all do it, especially as novices — but the observation is of little matter. The larger point is that any time a person in power cultivates the soil, I have to believe we are all better off.
Now, maybe I’m naive, and AOC is in three tweets cannily signaling her solidarity with a suite of partisan environmental and social issues, such as addressing urban food deserts and climate change. But aren’t those issues lawmakers should be facing?
Recently described by Time magazine as “the second most talked-about politician in America,” the 29-year-old congresswoman from New York is out to shake up a system blamed for global warming, crushing student debt, ruinous medical costs and a gig economy, to name a few.
Whether a spot of gardening can address these issues is somewhat dubious, though the energized, ecologically smart gardener can help the planet by trapping storm water, providing habitats for animals and cooling the city. The greater benefits accrue to the gardener herself.
Over many growing seasons, you trade early sweeping ambitions for something calmer, wiser. The constant gardener learns patience, humility and the value of the long view — qualities that seem in short supply these days.
Eating food that you have grown from seed is pretty neat, too.
There is another reason to celebrate such a high-profile politician joining the ranks of community gardeners, even if AOC’s plot is located on the roof of her apartment building, according to her spokesman.
Urban community gardens are the Rodney Dangerfield of the cityscape. Disheveled, a little ridiculous, and often the domain of people with little power or wealth, the gardens barely register in the broader society. It wasn’t until I poured my heart into a community garden that I began to see the value of these urban oases beyond the very real benefit of cultivating the soil. They are places where a community of strangers can gather and find kinship. When I look at my gardening neighbors, I see a rich cross section of people from around the corner and across the globe, people of all backgrounds who have come together to raise plants in their own way.
I wonder about the gardeners’ backstories, and I know that whatever burdens they carry, they are eased with each visit to the garden. For an immigrant, the garden can evoke childhood and intergenerational experiences and help relieve profound cultural isolation.
There are times when these invisible worlds suddenly become painfully conspicuous. This is when real estate developers, property speculators and even urban planners see these ragtag gardens as disposable land in urgent need of exploitation.
In my community garden in Glover Park, there was serious talk some years ago of using the location as part of a sewer rehabilitation project. With about 150 plots, the garden is one of the largest in the city and has sustained generations of gardeners since its establishment as a World War II Victory Garden. This dynamic seemed to count for little at the time, although the threat seems to be caged for now.
One of the greatest dangers to community gardens is a booming real estate market that reaches into neighborhoods that have been ignored for decades. This is the dynamic in Philadelphia, which has one of the most vibrant community garden systems in the country, now feeling the threat of gentrification.
There are about 400 community gardens and urban farms in the city, almost half of them aided in some way by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Of those, about a third have an insecure status, said the society’s president, Matt Rader.
Many of them are found in poorer communities where parcels of land were abandoned by their owners, who may have died and/or stopped paying real estate taxes. Gardeners turn these otherwise blighted lots into vegetable and flower gardens.
A lot transformed into a vibrant garden provides “a significant impact on mental health, physical health, safety, the environmental benefit of wildlife,” he said. And the garden’s creation forges a neighborhood leadership structure that can be used for other civic improvements.
From a practical standpoint, each plot yields conservatively $400 worth of nutritious food per season, Rader said.
After many years of occupation, gardeners can secure legal title to abandoned plots, but the process is difficult.
Now, in Philly, speculators are tracking down heirs with the intent of clearing up the tax debt, securing ownership of the land and selling it for development.
“The challenge is getting more and more urgent right now as the real estate market picks up in Philadelphia,” said Jenny Greenberg, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Trust in Philadelphia. The organization has acquired and saved 45 gardens and aims to raise the number to 70 by 2022.
In addition to a high-profile loss of an urban farm last year — La Finquita in the city’s South Kensington neighborhood — “there are plenty of others, and we have a lot of near misses,” Greenberg said.
“People think of gardens as parks or happy accidents,” Rader said. “They perform a really important social function in the city. They should be treated as core pieces of neighborhood infrastructure.”