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CHAPTER 10 Fumbling for Community in a Brooklyn Community Garden dory thrasher The Brooklyn Community Gardenno longer exists.1 From its founding through its end, the garden was fraught with tensions between racial groups, between newcomers to the neighborhood and those who had been there for decades, and tensions surrounding leadership and decision making in garden governance. This discord is rare in the literature on community gardens. The common refrain is that such gardens serve as warm, generous spaces for activity, bringing together community members for neighborhood care and stewardship. For instance, Payne and Fryman (2001) write: “In diverse neighborhoods, an inclusive community garden program may be one of the few institutions that accurately reflects an area’s multicultural identity and works to build a united front to address the whole community’s needs” (7). But the Brooklyn Community Garden was not a place where diverse neighborhood residents came together and defused the racial tensions that arose out of rapid neighborhood change. Instead, the garden focused and reflected those tensions. This study provides a counterpoint to the idea that community gardening inherently builds community. Community organizations and other 160 production garden organizers have to consider the potential for conflict, as community gardens are not separate from the communities they serve. They import a neighborhood’s existing concerns and give those issues an arena in which to be discussed. The key to minimizing debilitating conflict is to think of community gardens not as apolitical, but instead as collective endeavors whose quality depends on governance (Freeman 1972). Careful attention thus must be paid to the construction of an appropriate governance structure, with clearly defined guidelines surrounding membership, leadership, and decision making, so that conflicts and tensions that may arise around racial tension or neighborhood tenure can be managed or avoided. An understanding of how a garden might fail makes it more likely that future community gardens will succeed. In this chapter I offer a review of the literature that suggests that community gardens are places for neighborhood cohesion, as well as an explanation of my ethnographic methods. I then tell the story of the Brooklyn Community Garden’s brief life, highlighting the participation of key players and some of the tensions that arose while they tried to build a garden from scratch. I then discuss the way conflicts over race and neighborhood tenure resulted in fraught and unstable garden governance and prevented the garden from becoming the idealized community-building space lauded in the literature. I end by offering some final lessons for those who hope to use a community garden as a tool for neighborhood cohesion and community building, and pose some questions about the standard narrative that has come to define community gardening. highlighting community Community gardens are thought of primarily as places to produce food in urban settings (Gottlieb and Joshi 2010, esp. chap. 6; New York City Council 2010; Ackerman 2011). They are also routinely promoted, both in the literature and in policy, as sites of community cohesion and well-being, as Twiss et al. (2003), for example, declare: “Community gardens build and nurture community capacity” (1435). Community gardens can function as havens for neighborhood residents by providing a connection to nature; they can also be sites of civic participa- Fumbling for Community 161 tion, as garden organizers necessarily navigate permitting, water, and other concerns of city bureaucracy (Schmelzkopf 1995). Gardens further serve as sites for cultivating democratic practice and civic engagement (Baker 2004; Glover, Shinew, and Parry 2005; Krasny and Tidball 2009). Baker notes that gardening “creat[es] an opportunity for people to dirty their hands, grow their own food, work with their neighbors, and generally transform themselves from consumers of food into ‘soil citizens’” (305). Armstrong (2000) writes about how community gardening facilitates community building and organizing and leads to other neighborhood issues being addressed. Her research includes examples of gardeners engaging in a fight to keep a supermarket in the area, coordinating a neighborhood watch, and organizing for physical improvements around the garden site such as sidewalk repair. A number of authors also focus on intergenerational and intercultural connections within community gardens, pointing out that developing relationships with other gardeners was as important to participants as learning gardening skills and growing food, if not more so, and that gardening together leads to sharing food and stories (Krasny and Doyle 2002; Saul and Curtis 2013). Gardens can provide a way for immigrants and people of similar cultural heritage to connect to their agricultural roots in their...


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