(Photos: Marialexa Kavanaugh)

On the corner of Hancock St. and Marcus Garvey Blvd. is a small patch of earth called the Hancock T&T Community Garden. A wooden sign protrudes from behind its fence, displaying portraits of iconic Black change-makers like Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass. In large, bold letters are the words “The Gateway To The Ancestors,” which hang above these lines.

This project is designed to provide a public place to learn about the many sheroes and heroes that dedicated their lives to the betterment of others. 

Hancock T&T is one of many public gardens in New York City whose mission is rooted in the fight for food justice and the nourishment, support and protection of Black communities. Founded in dedication to Civil Rights activist Ella Baker, T&T was always intended as much more than a plot for raised beds. It’s been host to multiple Juneteenth celebrations, storytelling nights and political organizing events. 

Today, during a moment of sharp historical reckoning, a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests and a cacophonous rallying cry to defund the police, community gardens like T&T are closed to visitors. 

With stringent shelter-in-place rules in effect throughout spring, they weren’t able to reopen in April as usual. Garden members had to find ways to continue cultivating sustainable food systems in underserved neighborhoods that already suffered from glaring resource disparities— and now, disproportionate rates of Covid-19. 

Then, on May 25, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for close to nine minutes. In addition to igniting a global uprising, the incident underscored the longstanding need to uphold the health, safety, and autonomy of Black people. The community gardens that served them had to come up with ways to show protest solidarity from behind closed gates. 

Community garden activism today doesn’t look that dramatically different than it always has. Police brutality comes as no news to many garden members, who see its origins in the same systemic wounds as the food inequities that spurred their initiatives. 

“We were always, already trying to do this work,” said Alice Forbes Spear, a member of the garden at 462 Halsey St., just a few blocks from T&T. “We’ve had a Black Lives Matter poster on our gate since 2015. For a long time we’ve been connecting with farmers who were engaged with this struggle.” 

The 462 Halsey St. garden began as an effort to bring agriculture and organic food to a neighborhood that has been systematically deprived of such things. Having previously hosted organizing events and protested against migrant detention, 462 Halsey deeply recognizes the correlation between food equity and racial justice. 

“There are a lot of food access issues in Bed-Stuy,” said Forbes Spear. “A lot of it is exorbitantly expensive. Spaces like ours create an opportunity to learn about food. They provide so much produce. The spaces that prioritize people and food over profits are very important.” 

Much of 462 Halsey’s efforts now lie in donating produce to local food pantries and feeding the neighborhood. 

“Food pantries really need produce right now. A lot of them are running out of it. Right now all of our efforts are going into making sure that anyone in the neighborhood who needs food can get it.” 

With limited access to large grocery stores and affordable, healthy food, pantry supplies play a vital role in historically Black neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, where food insecurities are among the highest in New York. Lack of good produce is a link in the chain that connects food shortages to insufficient healthcare to the large-scale vulnerabilities that have caused communities of color to bear the brunt of Covid-19. A comparative report conducted by the ACLU and the New York Law School Racial Justice Project states that 8 out of 10 food stores in Bed-Stuy are bodegas. As of 2012, only six percent of those bodegas carried green produce. Unsurprisingly, consumption of produce was found to be dramatically low in Central Brooklyn. 

A community farm like 462 Halsey, which offers sizable fresh food boxes for $14, is in many ways the most affordable and efficient route to produce and green public space. In this sense, the garden’s decision to beef up its produce supply and distribute it as widely as possible is the exact same activism they’ve always carried out, now just on an unprecedented scale. As of June 12, garden members had delivered over 2,000 pounds of produce to the Golden Harvest food pantry. If each of their food box subscribers donated one more dollar a week going forward, they’d have enough funds to give the pantry a weekly wholesale order of produce for the duration of the pandemic, according to garden organizers and Grow NYC. 

Other community gardens are showing solidarity differently. Just one neighborhood away in Weeksville, the Imani community garden blasts music and hands out free kale to protestors. Like its Bed-Stuy neighbors, food equity and access has always been its ethos. Prior to the pandemic, Imani members operated a weekly farm stand from July to September. They also teach classes on agriculture and chicken-raising at the local middle school. 

Today, Imani is fighting to mitigate the impact of gentrification, which has metastasized across Central Brooklyn and residually affected community garden operations. Despite originating as efforts to help Black neighborhoods, many garden membership bases have become increasingly white. From a real estate perspective, members are pretty used to butting heads with gentrification efforts. In 2018, the city bought and built upon a significant chunk of the Imani garden, tearing down an 80-foot willow tree that graced Imani for over 50 years. It is the sneakier, human side effects with which they are now needing to reckon. 

Around the same time that the garden was downsized, Black membership began to decrease dramatically as a result of accelerated gentrification and lack of engagement in racial justice. 

“Leadership has been severely lacking in diversity and not representative of the community it is operating in for years, as it is currently,”  garden member Mireille Lemaine wrote in an email to Bedford + Bowery.

“The recent tragedies have shed a brighter light on this issue as it can no longer be overlooked and we are beginning discussions on tackling these inequities as other gardens have overcome theirs.”

Additionally, Imani will be starting a facilitator-led anti-racist training. To do so, they’re working with the New York Restoration Project (the not-for-profit that owns half of the garden land) to develop materials to promote more anti-racist gardens throughout the city. 

Uncertainty about reopening lingers over Brooklyn’s gardens, which are still closed to the public until further notice. At the moment, gardens have been granted discretion to decide whether or not members should be allowed inside, yet decision-making has been difficult, considering many of them are older and more vulnerable to the virus. 

Some gardens, like Imani, have taken initial steps to reopen their food scraps and composting programs. Efforts to reimplement a regular farmstand or cultivate more plants are contingent on the City Council, which will make budgetary decisions about garden funding by the end of the month. In prior years, Imani has received grants of up to $8,000 from the Citizens Committee, which helped spur the building of a greenhouse and water tank. They’d also typically receive a plethora of plants, woodchips, soil, raised beds and other gardening supplies. This year, any small donation would help. With reopening nowhere on the immediate horizon, members must prioritize keeping their garden alive and healthy enough to feed community members in need. 

For 462 Halsey’s Forbes Spear, reopening anxieties are often soothed by the simple act of being outside, farming and feeding her neighborhood. 

“There’s so much trauma in our community right now, we’re creating space for our members who need to breathe and grieve. We’ve had people lose family members, we’ve had people lose jobs. You can feel the palpable sadness in the air, so we feel really grateful to have work that lets us be outside and support our community. It’s like salve on the heart.”