“The Garden Seems to Draw People Together”

Across New York City, community leaders are turning vacant lots into food-producing havens for people and wildlife.

Starting as early as the late 1960s, New York City residents, largely Black and Latino in low income neighborhoods, came together to clean up vacant lots. These lots had been abandoned by profit-centered landlords who simply walked away from their decaying properties, or in the worst cases, burned them down to make a greater profit from the insurance money than collecting rent. At the time, the city did little more than bulldoze the remaining structures and install locked gates around the vacant lots.

Community-minded residents, tired of living with abandoned spaces, took initiative to transform them, cutting open the gates, pulling out rubble and trash, planting vegetables, flowers, fruit trees, and shade trees, and inviting their neighbors to join them. They transformed these trash-filled spaces into verdant, welcoming gardens. This movement continues to this day.

Community gardens play an outsized role in providing culturally-relevant food security, local gathering and social space, and community-led neighborhood greening. Recently, the traumas of the pandemic have heightened the value of these unique spaces as resources for fresh food, fresh air, and places to relax and connect with friends and neighbors.

The benefits of community gardens extend beyond the sociopolitical. These gardens also offset the city’s heat island effect, retain stormwater, sequester carbon, and create wildlife habitat.

Since 2018, when I began producing these images, I have sat down and spoken with 47 gardeners in 26 community gardens throughout all five New York City boroughs. While I made solo portraits, each garden is a group effort of volunteers coming together in a multifaceted web of motivations to build and sustain these spaces.

Prior to working as a professional photographer, I spent 14 years working directly with New York City community gardeners as a community organizer, program manager, and as part of direct action campaigns to support and defend gardens from destruction. I’ve also been an active member of various community gardens. I’m proud to share these images and stories of people who created and sustain these dynamic spaces. I believe that these images and quotes convey the importance and value of community gardens through the voices of people leading them.

These images and stories offer a New York perspective on a global experience of finding safe haven — a need heightened by the pandemic — as well as joy, community, mental health support, and fresh food, all through community gardening.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

Amid Pledges to Reverse Deforestation, DRC Auctioning Oil Blocks in Protected Areas

At the same time, Indigenous tribes are being violently expelled from their land in the name of conservation, report says.

Rebecca George

Textile Company Misled Regulators about Use of Toxic PFAS, Documents Show

Thousands more New Hampshire residents may be drinking tainted water in a region plagued by health problems thought to stem from PFAS pollution.

Tom Perkins The Guardian

Past the Salt

In San Francisco's salty South Bay, an ambitious wetlands restoration project is attempting to balance a return to the ecological past with the realities of a changing future.

Skylar Knight Photographs by joSon

Fast Fashion’s Dumping Problem

The industry has long come under fire for tossing unsold clothing. Is it finally evolving?

Cameya Martin

Call for Hippos to Join List of World’s Most Endangered Animals

New classification would mean a total ban on international trade in the animal’s body parts, as climate crisis and poaching hit populations.

Patrick Greenfield The Guardian

Fishing Gear Are Killing North Atlantic Right Whales. A Slew of Federal Bills and Rules Seek to Protect Them.

Fewer than 350 of these critically endangered cetaceans remain and they are dying at faster rates than they can reproduce.

Charles Pekow