September 27, 2020

How This N.Y. Island Went From Tourist Hot Spot to Emergency Garden

This was supposed to be the busiest summer yet for Governors Island. After 15 years of careful redevelopment, a semi-abandoned isle off the southern tip of Manhattan had blossomed into a lush day-trip destination.

There were plans for a new tram, ferries designed to shuttle in a thousand people at a time, and field trips for hundreds of city children to scramble around a one-acre teaching garden on the island’s southeastern shore, one of its last unrenovated parcels. Then the city shut down.

“Now it’s crazy quiet,” said Shawn Connell, who manages the seven-year-old garden on behalf of the environmental organization GrowNYC. “You can hear the water and the boats.”

It was just before noon one recent weekday, and his three seasonal staffers were packing pints of berries, tying beets into bunches and cooling down several hundred pounds of just-picked greens in the shade of a gazebo. All it of was headed to emergency food distributions in the Bronx, Harlem and central and eastern Brooklyn.

Those staffers were hired to wrangle students on field trips from April to November, but during lockdown they became farmhands. And they say the farm transformed them. If they couldn’t use it to teach, they would use it help the one in four New Yorkers who now need food.

ImageShawn Connell picks potatoes at the farm.
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

Mr. Connell and his team reimagined their mandate and converted their land — with its fruit trees and its 50-foot demonstration farm rows — into a victory garden for New York City.

Six months on, their shift has been so successful that it has changed their whole approach, and it even has the potential to alter the future of this piece of the island, perhaps to the dismay of any developers still hoping to turn it into a Hudson Yards in the harbor.

“We were so preoccupied in past seasons by the work of engaging with these young people that we never gave much thought to producing food,” said Mr. Connell, 37, one of a handful of people who ferry to work on the island year-round.

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Updated 2020-07-23T10:30:23.915Z

Most of what they grew was eaten by students, Mr. Connell said. Some was left to wither and die in order to show the life cycle of a plant.

“We knew in past seasons we’d been able to grow 10,000 pounds of food, and we thought, You know, that’s a good number to shoot for,” he said. “We’re certainly on track to produce more than that — twice that,” he added, and that’s not even factoring in the extra beds planted this spring with squash and potatoes.

His staff also put out feelers to the network of organizations already connected to GrowNYC — which also runs greenmarkets and builds community gardens — to find neighborhood groups that were giving out food.

The Black Feminist Project in the southeastern Bronx, for example, was eager to work with the farm. Since June, the group has been taking deliveries every other week from the teaching farm — 400-pound parcels with red-leaf lettuce, hand-tied sprays of basil, freshly picked eggplant. All of it goes to the free or low-cost coronavirus relief food boxes the group has been preparing for families in the area.

Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

There is plenty of free food from other sources, said Tanya Fields, the group’s founder, but it usually arrives in cans or boxes, lacking in both nutrients and in dignity. “There is this belief that when we provide things to working-class people,” Ms. Fields said, “they should just be happy with what they get.”

The quality of the produce from the garden on Governors Island, she maintains, is better than the food you find at a farmers’ market.

“The collard greens are big and beautiful and abundant and green and not full of holes,” said Ms. Fields. “The mint was like — I’ve not seen mint like that except when we’re growing it. People, particularly older people, they recognize how fresh it is as well. It triggers memories for them of being in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, or folks who did subsistence farming down South.”

Margaret Chin, a city councilwoman whose Lower Manhattan district includes Governors Island, has seen similar reactions from her constituents when they’ve received extra produce from the island.

Some have even grown their own at a public garden run by Earth Matter, a composting organization on Governors Island that is also donating everything it’s growing this year, most of it to Lower Manhattan soup kitchens in Ms. Chin’s district.

“The city really needs to look at, how do we look at this, how do we use urban agriculture?” said Ms. Chin, who also sits on the board of the Trust for Governors Island, which manages the land.

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“There’s money for emergency food,” she added. “How can we use some of that money to support fresh produce?”

The United States Department of Agriculture has already made a move in that direction: In May, it announced $3 million in grants to support urban agriculture projects this year.

Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

That urban farming is being considered as a way to feed large numbers of New Yorkers is a big shift, even to urban growers like Mr. Connell, who has been able to hire an extra employee this summer through city funds for emergency food distribution.

Until the pandemic, he always believed the best use of large city farm projects was education, because that reaches the largest number of people.

“This kind of turned that on its head,” he added.

Everything has changed for Mr. Connell: When students do return, he has decided that his staff will continue to produce as much food as they can on their acre, which still has room to expand. And in addition to lesson plans built around an appreciation of the environment and where food comes from, Mr. Connell is also going to teach students how and why to grow produce.

Before the pandemic, the future of Governors Island looked a lot less agrarian. In addition to hosting a growing glamping scene and huge parties like Pinknic, the Trust for Governors Island has been actively searching for income-generating real estate developers for its last two undeveloped parcels.

One of those is the half-empty 26-acre plot with a row of crumbling old residential buildings once called Brick Village. This is where Earth Matter and GrowNYC lease about three acres of space.

James Yolles, a spokesman for the Trust for Governors Island, said that both organizations — which share a crescent-shaped piece of land the trust calls the Urban Farm — will be a part of the island’s future. “We are committed to providing space for both of them on the island for the long term, regardless of any development plans,” he wrote in an email.

Last week, the trust finally reopened Governors Island to the public. People can tour the garden in small groups at set times on weekends.

After months alone in the fields, Mr. Connell and his farmers at last had a few curious visitors to show around. But he still misses his kids.

“One of my greatest regrets about this season,” he said, “is that as the teaching garden literally blossoms in ways it never has before, our students aren’t able to be here with us to see the impact that this little sliver of New York City soil is having.”