In 1985, when Karen Washington began gardening in the back yard of her small house in the Bronx, there were four things she wanted to grow. Collard greens, she says, “because that has been a staple in the African American community and culture.” Eggplant “sounded funky and different.” Peppers, “because I liked peppers, and then I wanted to grow a tomato, because I hated tomatoes.”
The tomatoes were what changed her world. The taste was nothing like the grocery store tomatoes of her childhood.
Washington, a physical therapist, did not come from any kind of farming background; nor had her parents nor grandparents. She was born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, and then moved with her parents and brother to Harlem.
But in 1985, when she was thirty-one, she moved uptown to the Bronx. Several years later, to reclaim vacant lots and encourage middle-class settlement, borough president Fernando Ferrer started giving tax breaks to developers to build single-family homes – homes with a bit of land attached. I jumped at the chance. “I decided that I wanted to grow food, and so I had to go to the library, I had to buy books, and then speak to some people.”
When the development project foundered for lack of money, vacant lots were left, including one right across the street from the house in which Washington and her family were now living. “I know what it means to live across from a vacant lot,” she says, “they become full of garbage, and then I know what people say about you living in areas where there’s garbage.” Washington was not going to let that vacant lot sit there. She turned it into her first community garden.
I wanted to grow a tomato, because I hated tomatoes.
Before 1998, things went smoothly. Washington explains, “People took these community gardens and turned them into oases, so that beauty and hope, strength and resilience was brought back to communities that for so long had been suffering … from these garbage-filled lots.”
But then things changed. “I got scars,” she says. As land values increased, the city started to see the community gardens as potential developable property. In the middle of one night in 1998, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to auction off one hundred community gardens. It felt like a betrayal, and a huge blow to the movement. But in retrospect, Washington says it was the best thing that could have happened, because people woke up to their need to fight for the gardens. Washington had never really been political, and she hadn’t thought of gardening as being political. But she realized that growing food in a city does have political consequences. The gardeners pushed back. They gathered allies: churches, restaurants, people from all five boroughs. “You’re told you can’t fight city hall,” she says, “but yes, we did. We fought city hall.”
Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general at the time, paid attention, issuing an injunction against the bulldozing of the gardens, and the land was officially ceded to various public trust and private nongovernmental organizations.
The experience gave Washington a realistic sense of what it takes to garden in cities. “It’s always about development,” she says, “and we have to have a say in how that development looks, we have to make sure that within cities, there is green space, that we’re not surrounded by concrete jungles.”
So she’s continuing to garden, but she’s also continuing to organize. Every time there is a new administration up for election in New York, she has a candidates’ forum, letting the hopefuls know that if they want a shot at office, they have to protect the community gardens.
You’re told you can’t fight city hall, but yes, we did. We fought city hall.
What started as a few neighbors banding together is now part of the urban agriculture movement. And that movement is not small. “That’s primarily because in low-income neighborhoods, and especially neighborhoods of color,” says Washington, “we don’t have local healthy food options. … It’s not rocket science: when you’re living in an area where you don’t have access to healthy food, and you don’t have access to culturally appropriate food, people will do something about that.”
Food justice, she is convinced, is part of racial justice. In 2010, she and some friends started the first Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners’ Conference, now called Black Urban Growers (BUGS). At the farms and conferences she visited to discuss food justice and sustainability, she didn’t see people like herself. “And I could feel my ancestors just saying, ‘Karen, you know, don’t forget who we are.’ For so long, African Americans have been leaving the land, and … we’re getting all kinds of diet-related diseases. Now you see so many young black men and women who want to farm; there’s a rebirth of knowledge about who we are as African Americans and as agrarians.”
But relearning that connection, and learning to trust it, is not always easy. Washington recalls an organic growing program at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, in 2008, which included training on a nine-acre farm: “The first day that I went out to the field, I didn’t want to go. I was fearful.” She hadn’t realized what it would be like, in a sense, to go back: it was as field hands that so many of her ancestors had been enslaved, and she could still feel that oppression and trauma. Yet, reconnecting to the land itself was what healed:
I literally went to the soil and put both my hands in that soil, and I felt that belonging, and I’ll never forget that, because now I understand my true connection to the land. At the end of the day, we come from the soil, we’re going to go back to the soil. Understanding that gave me a sense of power.
Six years later, in 2014, she retired from physical therapy, and with several friends, formed Rise & Root Farm on three acres in Chester, New York. The farm is organized as a cooperative, with all decisions made collectively. Their land abuts several other farms, all of which abide by a general common vision. “We share infrastructure, ideas, and tools,” she says, “and follow the mission of food justice and social justice.”
Washington sees the land as a trust from God, and the story of her own Christian faith is intimately tied to her work. “I grew up Catholic,” she says, “and then I went away from the church for a long time, and didn’t find a direction.” But then she started working with Father John C. Flynn. As well as a priest, he was something else that she recognized: a community organizer. They were both part of a neighborhood group called the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition. “He was a guy who would walk the streets reaching out to youth who were lost in their way. … He was some man.”
At a protest in Washington, DC, with Father Flynn, Washington copped to him that she didn’t go to church. “Karen, the church isn’t a building,” he said to her.
Whatever I get, I share with people.
“No one ever spoke to me like that. And I said ‘You know what? You’re the priest who goes from the pews to the streets, and I’m going to meet you half way, I’m gonna come from the street to the pews.’” So she did. For the past fifteen years Washington has been a parishioner at St. Martin of Tours, where Father Flynn was pastor before his death in 2012. She’s also a lay Eucharistic minister.
St. Martin of Tours is just a few blocks away from her house, and from her first vacant-lot-turned-community garden. “When you think about these vacant lots,” she says, “you have to think of the word community.” But the work of creating community does not stop at gardening. Washington tells a story about one of the many recent Mexican immigrants in the neighborhood. The woman had a tumor growing on her neck, which she covered self-consciously. Yet she gradually began to drop the covering as she felt more and more at home among the gardeners. “And so, what we did, as a garden,” Washington recalls, “we reached out to our community people … because she didn’t have any insurance, she was undocumented, and we found a doctor who was able to perform surgery to remove the growth, for free. The community put their arms around her, with that deformity she had, and then here was a group of people who gathered together to work behind the scenes. This is what community is.”
Washington now splits her time between her community in the Bronx and the farm in Chester. Her children are grown and thriving, and she has two grandsons. “I’ll be sixty-five this year,” she says, “and I want to be able to say, at the end of my time, that I made a difference in someone’s life, that God is proud of me. I never, never take my life for granted. Whatever I get, I share with people. We have one life to live.”
Photograph courtesy of Karen Washington