Q&A: David Vigil of East New York Farms

Illustration by Zach Meyer

Q&A: David Vigil of East New York Farms

East New York Farms is a flourishing network of community gardens, agricultural programming, and farmers markets in the heart of a neighborhood that’s had its share of hard times. Most importantly, though, it’s a community hub, its spokes extending through different cultural groups and across generations. On a recent Saturday at the market on Schenck Avenue, beneath the elevated 3 train, we spoke with Project Director David Vigil about the organization’s role in the neighborhood, farming’s social aspect, and how East New York’s recent history informs its urban agrarian legacy.

There are more community gardens in East New York than in any other neighborhood in the city. Why is that?

Part of it is the legacy of vacant land that’s here. After the ’70s and ’80s, there were a lot of abandoned lots, stemming from the history of white flight and disinvestment here in East New York. The area was hit really hard — probably the only comparable neighborhood in New York is the South Bronx. What followed was waves of immigrations of people coming from places that had agricultural experiences — the South, the Caribbean — and now current waves of immigrants coming from West Africa, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. A lot of people bring deep agricultural roots with them. They see vacant land as an opportunity to plant.

Along those lines, it seems like there’s a greater diversity of agriculture here than in many other neighborhoods. Can you speak to what that diversity represents or indicates for the neighborhood itself?

We see gardens as a great forum for bringing people together from a lot of different backgrounds. We all have to eat. The gardens and the markets have been a great tool for working across difference in a way you don’t see very often in New York City. Community gardens aren’t without their struggles, but at the same time we’re seeing a lot of great relationships come out of the gardens — people working together, sharing food traditions, exchanging knowledge and seeds and labor.

What are some of the difficulties you’ve experienced here?

So many people have put in a lot of volunteer hours to make this happen, so as with any project like that, people feel a deep sense of ownership. Sometimes it can be hard to let in new gardeners or share leadership. It’s particularly a struggle here where there are a lot of aging gardeners, people who started their gardens 25 years ago. We try to work specifically with older adults who are garden coordinators to get them to let in new members, because we see that as the key to the longevity of the garden, as well as the key to continually justifying their existence, because if East New York has a lot of underutilized gardens, the city’s gonna look at that as potential development space.

So is one of the ancillary benefits of maintaining a strong network of community gardens to ensure that the land is kept for the people who live here? Otherwise, outside developers might see it as a tabula rasa that they can come in and build over?

The gardens are currently serving a really important role in the community, but in addition to that, they have a great symbolic value of how East New York has recovered from some pretty hard times. I think East New York residents for so long have had to fend for themselves. The city hasn’t always been there to provide the services; the free market didn’t come in to provide the food people need. And so people took to growing their own food and taking over lots.

They’re performing a service, as well — most of these gardens are on city-owned land, which otherwise would have to be cleaned and maintained at great expense. But there’s room in East New York for more gardens and more housing. They’re not mutually exclusive endeavors.

Do you think it’s especially important to have farmers markets in neighborhoods with lower health indicators and less access to fresh produce in supermarkets?

Yeah, definitely. We aren’t under the illusion that East New York can grow all its own food, but at the same time we see the gardens as really key to bringing people together around food. Gardens really help to establish the food culture of a neighborhood. Twenty percent of the food at our market is grown here in the neighborhood; the rest comes from upstate farmers. We couldn’t have a successful market without urban growers doing the outreach, nor without upstate farmers bringing the volume. So it’s mutually beneficial.

Can you talk about the youth internship program? How is it structured? How do youth get involved? What do you hope they get out of it?

We employ 33 young people, who have to live or go to school in East New York to be part of the program. They’re 13 to 15 when they start. We recruit from local middle schools and through word-of-mouth. They work with us through the length of the growing season, March to November. It’s a paid internship. They work on our farm sites, at the market, and assisting other gardeners.

We also have a food justice curriculum that is taught by the older interns. The goal is that they learn more about themselves, their community, and the world at large through a lens of food and food justice. We look at East New York and ask, why are there so many vacant lots? Why are there all these diet-related diseases? Why are these waves of immigration coming from the global south? We can use food as a great medium to discuss those things.

What are some lessons you’ve learned over your eight years here?

One thing that I think is great about East New York Farms is that we’ve been able to grow steadily and consistently since 1998, when we started. We’ve been careful to only take on initiatives we think we can sustain and that there’s a need for in the community. We won’t take on every grant opportunity that comes our way — only the ones that will support the kind of programming we believe in. That’s allowed us to gain quite a reputation over time.

I think we’ve run into limits in terms of our physical space; at our office, we can’t have many more youth interns than we do, for example. Although there are still some lots that could be developed into farms, for the most part the available land is being maxed out. We have seen that there’s an infinite need for more community education and engagement, so we’ve been having school groups visit and done more with community educators, which is sort of a training-of-trainers program wherein community residents learn to give presentations and cooking demos. Programming has been a big focus for us as we’ve hit physical limits. There’s a lot more we can do to bring more people to our work.

What are some of the project initiatives you’re particularly proud of?

Something I’ve been really excited about recently is forming a partnership with NYCHA residents — we’re working with the Louis Heaton Pink Houses now. In the past we’ve focused more on community gardens, but we’re starting to connect with NYCHA gardens, too. There’s a lot of NYCHA housing in East New York, and there are already a lot of gardeners in NYCHA houses. There’s a lot more potential there for community engagement. At the same time, NYCHA is recognizing the power of gardens and agriculture, through some of the work it’s done with Green City Force and through the Red Hook farm it’s developed.

Gardens cut across ages and backgrounds. The Pink Houses are a great example: there’s folks from Puerto Rico, the South, Bangladesh. In a place where it’s hard to foster a sense of community, gardens can do that.

Phillip Pantuso is an editor at BKLYNR and a writer at Brooklyn Magazine. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Pacific Standard, and Popular Mechanics.

Eric E. Anderson is a web designer and front-end developer at Squarespace. A resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he is also a freelance photographer.

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