For many city dwellers, the concept of urban farming seems contradictory. For others, it provides a way to grow fresh food in their corner lots, backyards, and windowsills. But for the people living at four supportive housing residences in Brooklyn, NY, urban farming has come to represent a new lease on life.
The four residences in question are operated by Services for the UnderServed (SUS), a non-profit founded in 1978. The ultimate aim of their efforts is to help New Yorkers achieve independence by providing supportive services and housing to the city’s most underserved populations: people with developmental disabilities, people living with HIV-related illness, people with mental illnesses, and people at risk of homelessness. Following examples set by other city non-profits, including Added Value, a farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that offers long-term skill building to teenagers, SUS opened up its first urban garden in June of 2010.
Dan Lohaus, 41, Director of Green Initiatives at SUS, helped breathe life into the urban gardens with his previous experience working with a similar program. “I did this project in Berkeley, CA, before, in the ‘90s, called ‘Fresh Start Farms.’ It worked to create jobs on urban farms for homeless individuals,” said Lohaus. “I was trained for a year on how to set up an urban agriculture model, and luckily enough, the guy who trained me was kind of a guru.”
The combined support from Lohaus and SUS and the dedication of the veterans living at the SUS Knickerbocker residence in Bushwick resulted in the building of a small vertical tomato garden behind the building in 2010. Despite their efforts, however, the harvest was sparse: only about 50 pounds of fruit matured on the tightly packed A-frames. Undeterred, the gardeners decided to continue on and build a series of raised bed gardens for the 2011 season.
Many urban farmers struggle with finding space to grow food; luckily, SUS owns over 25 buildings which host supportive housing programs – and they also own the land that many of these buildings sit on. Lohaus inspected each building site to determine which were best suited for agriculture. “I went and looked at which buildings had the biggest space to use, which had the best sunlight, and from there, we decided where to put our gardens,” Lohaus said. They elected the Knickerbocker, Dewitt, Chester and Marcy residences, spread across Brooklyn, to host their urban gardens.
This time raised beds were extremely successful, producing a combined 1,200 pounds of produce last season.
But the victory of these gardens extended far beyond the physical yield. Having an urban garden in their backyard provided residents – many of whom were dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues – with a peaceful, therapeutic green space. “When I got frustrated,” said one Dewitt resident, “I would just take a walk through the garden and I’d feel myself just calming down. The garden is a place where I stop thinking about my own problems and just concentrate on what’s growing.”
According to residents themselves, the most important benefit these gardens bring is the pride and responsibility earned through stewarding the spaces. “The garden gives me something positive to do,” said Fred, a resident and employee at the Knickerbocker building. “When you don’t have something positive to do, the negative finds you. Having this responsibility is the reason I’ve stayed clean.”
Fred is one of the eight fully trained staff members working at the SUS Urban Gardening Program, but each week anywhere from ten to 15 additional volunteers from the buildings lend a helping hand. “All in all, between 70 and 100 people were involved with the program last season”, said Lohaus. “It created a place where we could reach more people and in different ways than we had before.”
Building a sense of community, according to Lohaus, is what urban gardening is all about, and that can begin in the neighborhood, garden to garden. “The people at [the nearby] Phoenix Community Garden at Fulton Street and Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn gave us a lot of support. Some of the old time gardeners from Phoenix came and gave us a lot of help getting started,” said Lohaus. Phoenix Community Garden, founded in 2007, produces 2,000 pounds of produce each season for the people of Brownsville.
Lohaus sees last season’s 1,200 pounds as just the beginning. The next step is expanding production to provide produce to neighboring communities and restaurants as well. “There’s not a lot of access to healthy organic produce in Brownsville, East New York or Bushwick,” Lohaus reminded me. “We’d like to start our own farmers’ market or latch onto a green stand nearby on Rockaway and Livonia.” The ultimate goal is to expand the gardens to allow more residents to find independence through employment.
This season, Lohaus hopes to build more raised beds, train more staff members, and bring fresh produce to these four neighborhoods in Brooklyn. You can help make that a reality by clicking here.