Abdon Barness founded the Jefferson Street garden more than fifteen years ago. — Photos by Jessica Aguirre
Despite the fact that Bushwick is relatively blessed in its allotment of supermarkets, the ubiquity of grocery-laden L train riders suggests a dearth in the diversity of local food options.
Looking for fresh vegetables in Bushwick, I obvously began researching the neighborhood’s community gardens. Having incessantly kvetched about the paucity of local food, I was taken aback at the relative abundance of gardens that my search unearthed.
Though there is only 0.2 acres of public open space per 1,000 people — almost the least of any of 59 profiled New York City neighborhoods — Bushwick manages to be home to 41 community gardens, according to the Community District profile on oasisnyc.net, an open-space database.
"There’s not a lot, but there’s a lot more than most neighborhoods," Zack Schulman of the Green Guerillas says of community gardens in Bushwick; which seems fitting for an area once considered "heavy woods" (the loose translation of the Dutch "Boswijck"). The community garden on Jefferson St. between Irving and Knickerbocker may be archetypal: thriving and cared for but easily overlooked by the casual passerby. The empty lot encountered on arrival is dissuasive in its seasonal inconspicuousness, but conversation with the caretaker conveys a rich history.
Abdon Barness, dubbed "Super" by the bemused teens who pointed his apartment out to me, started the community garden on Jefferson Street in the early 1990s, when the neighborhood was a very different place. "There were 7 dead people every day," he reminisces, still incredulous at the thought.
The garden, now replete with barbeque grills and a gazebo, used to serve as the squatting grounds for drug addicts and homeless people. "Little by little I took those guys out," Barness states matter-of-factly. He proceeded to build the garden with what he could scavenge from the street; a tactic that he still employs, evidenced by the deconstructed Ikea bed in the garden slated to become plot separators.
Slowly, Barness recruited community members to make use of the land. During the growing season there are usually 15 to 17 families that work individual plots, cultivating vegetables and herbs. Some of the produce gets sold in the neighborhood, including papalo, a popular Mexican herb similar to cilantro that doesn’t keep well. But Barness tries to discourage the sale of the produce, hoping that most will end up on local family’s dinner tables.
While the gardens’ official name is the Garden of Hope, mention of the title elicits disdained skepticism. "There’s garden of hope or hope garden everywhere," Barness says, with a sweeping gesture — "in all the projects and neighborhoods." But his propensity to hand out the season’s harvest to community members and friends justly warrants the title. Walk by in the summer or pitch in for an afternoon of weeding, and you may just be handed a bag full of produce, Bushwick grown.