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Food for Thought, Uptown

The Wall Street Journal

By Ralph Gardner, Jr.

There are a couple of tests I like to administer to cabbies, which they mostly fail, to see how well they know the city. One involves their strategy for getting to the Triborough Bridge. Except on rare occasions-for example at 4 a.m.-it’s always faster to travel up Third Avenue to 124th Street than to join the traffic backed up along 96th Street waiting to enter the northbound FDR Drive.

Taking this route has turned me into something of a student of 124th Street between Third and Second avenues. (I’m not the only motorist in on the secret, and congestion causes traffic to slow to a crawl down the block.) But the lethargic pace gives one an opportunity to enjoy the scenery. And lately it’s been improving, undergoing something of an urban revival involving new apartment buildings, a police station and, perhaps most significantly, Carver Community Garden.

On Tuesday Carver became one of 32 such gardens that the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, deeded over to the communities they serve. The Trust saved them from being auctioned off by the Giuliani administration in 1997 and has functioned as their stewards ever since. They’ll now be run by three new land trusts, giving local gardeners in their low-income neighborhoods greater control of their operations.

I’m told the Carver Community Garden has been around since the 1970s, so I don’t know why it started to attract my attention only recently. (Perhaps because I was one of those fools idling in traffic on 96th Street.) But there’s something about raised beds of tomatoes and green beans, and even an apple tree, that has a medicinal effect not only on the local community but also on passing motorists. And when I visited the garden Monday afternoon, it was buzzing with activity, and only partially because I’d come bearing free publicity. (Scott Keatley-who along with his wife, Gina, a James Beard scholar and Food Network “Extreme Chef” contestant, founded Nourishing NYC, a nonprofit that feeds those in need and maintains one of the garden’s more bounteous beds-admitted that he doesn’t always run around in a carrot costume; he has someone else do it for him.)

In the adjoining planting bed, Elizabeth Basurto, who comes from a remote Mexican village, was tending to her corn and cabbage while her sons Jesus, 5, and Luis, 3, played with the children of women from Peru and Guatemala who were tending their own crops. The family lives in the neighborhood but was introduced to the garden and its delights through Unidos Si Se Puede, an organization that tries to lessen the isolation many feel in the U.S. when they are unable to speak English or sometimes even Spanish, by affording them an activity that reminds them of home.

“They speak dialects,” explained Yolanda Guevara, who runs the group. “They fall into depression. This is what they know-they know how to plant.”

Ms. Basurto’s English is improving after studying the language for a year, but she switched to her native dialect to explain her relationship to the garden. “Everything she does over here is good for her and her children and reminds her where she was born,” Ms. Guevara translated.

In fact, Ms. Basurto pointed out growing techniques she’d learned in her mountain village-such as spacing cabbage plants a healthy distance apart and digging furrows between different vegetables. The women also grow plants exotic to New York but native to their homeland, such as verdolaga, which has a sharp and slightly spicy taste and, according to Ms. Basurto and Ms. Guevara, is combined with tomatoes and onions and can be made into a soup.

The garden, like much else in life, seems a bit of a hierarchy, with newcomers rating smaller beds in something less than full sunlight and old-timers such as James Smith, a retired tractor-trailer driver who has worked his plot and helped maintain the garden for 35 years, managing a bed to rival any of those maintained by the nonprofits. Odyssey House, the drug-treatment facility, which uses the garden as therapy for some of its residents, for the first time this year is growing vegetables-among them basil, tomatoes and Swiss chard-in a part of the garden shaded by an extremely healthy looking gingko tree.

Cutting it down would be considered sacrilege in the average city park or shade garden-I’m not a big fan of gingkoes, but this was one of the more attractive specimens I’ve seen-but Erica Packard, the executive director of the Bronx and Manhattan Land Trusts, the community garden’s new owner, didn’t seem adverse to the idea. “We cut five trees,” she said. “We could do with a few less. Trees are probably not the best thing in a garden.”

The garden’s only water feature is a hose, and about a half-dozen children belonging to the women weeding and harvesting their plots, none seemingly older than 5, were playing with it and splashing Mr. Smith’s crops, somewhat to his annoyance. “Tell them to put no water in my garden,” he shouted. “I don’t water until late at night.”

Mr. Smith, a 126th Street resident who has helped the garden survive both rat and cat infestations (it’s now free of both), could probably keep the entire block in fresh produce from his plot alone. It boasts various kinds of beans, zucchini, collard greens, cucumbers, mint, tomatoes and cantaloupes. All indications are that this will be a good growing season. “I had them last year that big,” he said of the cantaloupes, indicating something the size of a bowling ball. “It took three people to eat it.”

He turns his tomatoes into sauce, but wasn’t aware you can freeze tomatoes. I like to think I made a small contribution to the community garden, or at least to Mr. Smith’s well-being, by explaining that you simply run them under cold water and peel off their skins. They make an excellent tomato sauce, their full-bodied taste a visceral memory of summer.

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