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  • Cultivating CitizensThe Children’s School Farm in New York City, 1902–1931
  • Marie Warsh (bio)

In 1902, on a small plot of land overlooking the Hudson River on the lower west side of Manhattan, a crowd watched in wonder as twenty-five city children began to create a farm. First, a teacher gave the children a group lesson in seed planting. Then boys and girls proceeded to their farm plots and waited patiently for seeds to be distributed. Upon receiving seeds, children planted rows of beans, peas, radishes, turnips, lettuce, and corn. At the end of the day, the teacher blew a whistle and children marched to the head of the garden, where they began raking and clearing pathways between their plots. At completion, they lined up and left the farm.

This orderly farm—and the children’s disciplined behavior within—created a spectacle that contrasted dramatically with its surroundings. A century earlier, this part of Manhattan had been farmland, but by 1902 the streets and waterfront were crowded with tenements, shanties, factories, slaughterhouses, rail yards, and docks—the products of decades of unchecked urbanization and industrialization. The area was also teeming with people—predominantly Irish immigrants—who had traveled from rural homelands to New York City, where they faced a new way of life in the chaotic, modern metropolis. Overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions bred disease; lack of economic opportunities resulted in social unrest and crime. By the end of the nineteenth century the area was considered one of the worst slums in the city, so notorious for squalor, disease, and vice that it had earned the nickname “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Fannie Griscom Parsons, reformer, educator, and philanthropist, aimed to introduce radical change by creating the farm for children. She hoped to beautify the neighborhood and reintroduce nature—or at least something natural—into the lives of Hell’s Kitchen’s residents, particularly its children. Urban life, she asserted, had made children “hard and unfeeling” and “easy victims of vice and crime.”1 Parsons hoped the farm would open their eyes to a world beyond the slums and engage them in wholesome and healthful activities that would be beneficial to their well-being and development. She called the project the “Children’s School Farm” to underscore its educational aspect. Although an urban child did not necessarily need to learn gardening as a practical skill, Parsons believed the act of gardening taught lessons applicable to and necessary for urban immigrants. Parsons aimed to teach civic virtues such as cooperation, industriousness, and self-respect—values that she and other reformers believed would increase a child’s potential for success and happiness in urban society. She emphasized that she did not start a farm simply to grow vegetables and flowers but planned to use farming as a way to “grow” children into urban citizens.

The Children’s School Farm, which lasted until 1931, was the first children’s gardening program in New York City. Parsons created the Farm with funds from well-known philanthropists, on land borrowed from the New York City Department of Parks.2 According to the annual reports of the Department, approximately three thousand children participated during the first three years. This attracted the attention of reformers, educators, journalists, and public officials from all over the city.3 Neighborhood children gardened in their own individual plots with the help of Parsons and her assistants. School groups visited the [End Page 64] Farm, receiving lessons in the natural sciences that were correlated to their classroom studies. Although the individual plots were the exclusive domains of children, adults visited the Farm to watch the children at work and enjoy the more natural surroundings.

The Department of Parks viewed the Farm as a success, and after three years as a temporary, privately funded project, the agency gave the Children’s School Farm a permanent home in the newly constructed De Witt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen and began funding the work (Figure 1). With municipal support, Parsons was able to promote vigorously her ideas about children’s gardens: she wrote numerous articles, made presentations, and created the International School Farm League in 1910.4 She created similar farms in other...


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