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

michael jhon

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 […]

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.

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.

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.

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

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