Food for Thought: Part I

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Written by Elizabeth L. Carter of Urban Cooperative Enterprise Legal Center

It all began in the summer of 2014 when I was invited to an atypical birthday celebration; one that did not include drinks, music, or food. I take that back. It did involve food, but this food still needed to be planted!  I was interested in attending this birthday party because I wanted to learn how to grow my own food and thought that getting my hands dirty at this garden was the first step in doing just that. No, this garden was not a fancy botanical garden. Rather, it was a small community garden encircled by homes on its left and an old, vacant warehouse on its right. Across from this small garden was another seemingly vacant lot that temporarily housed a composting site. Raised beds laid atop of these lots in order to avoid possible contamination of the food, which is to be expected in an old industrial city like Newark. Nonetheless, this small garden was an oasis to this rustic neighborhood, providing fresh vegetables and fruits—at no cost—to community members where otherwise, fresh produce was not so accessible. An added bonus to this garden was the lone basketball court that provided kids some park activity right in the neighborhood. With all these benefits, the garden was undeniably a valuable asset to the community. However, the value of this garden was not realized by everyone in the city.

During the garden party, I was planting tomatoes in the raised garden beds when I stopped to ask the master gardener, who also lived nearby, the history around these lots. I learned that the city had an “adopt-a-lot” program where city-owned vacant lots were leased to the community for one-year for $1 a year.[1] These lots were used for many reasons, including local food production, education, and entrepreneurialism where gardeners created for-profit and not-for-profit businesses out of gardening and composting. I further learned that this program had been in place since 2004 and to the gardeners, seemed like a solid deal.[2]  I then asked the master gardener, what will happen to these gardens if, and when, the city decides to sell these lots for more lucrative development?

At the time, I was a dual law and urban planning graduate student, focusing my studies on community and economic development, and as such, a premonition such as this was not so uncommon for developing cities like Newark. However, the master gardener did not seem moved by this premonition, and why would he? The “adopt-a-lot” program was ten years old and a result of a city-wide effort that brought the city, community organizations, and neighbors together in an effort to make a more sustainable city.[3]  What these gardeners did not take into account, however, was the wishy-washy nature of politics.  Shortly after the garden party, the garden was shut down by the city in order to pursue more economic exploits through housing development.

In May 2014, the Honorable Ras J. Baraka became the next mayor of New Jersey’s largest city. Mayor Baraka promised the residents that he would make changes to “take back Newark”[4] and as expected with any new administration, changes definitely occurred. In February 2015, the City of Newark announced the unconventional “Valentine’s Land Sale Day.”[5] This sale made available to the public 100 city-owned vacant lots for only $1,000 in order to attract residents to the city.[6] Many of these city-owned vacant lots were the same lots previously used as community gardens, including the lot that hosted the garden party that I attended. In the end, my premonition turned out to be correct. There is an old saying that goes: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade out of them. For many, the sale of these lots represented a great opportunity for homeownership.[7] However, for the gardeners and the community members that relied upon the gardens for food, engagement, and overall community development, the sale of these lots represented lemons. Nonetheless, it did not take these gardeners long to learn how to make lemonade out of this lemon and it was at this time the idea of an urban agriculture cooperative within the City of Newark was born.

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[1] See Turkington, Christina, “City of Newark’s Adopt-a-Lot Program,” newark path, June 3,2011, http://patch.com/new-jersey/newarknj/an--city-of-newarks-adopt-a-lot-program.

[2] See “Newark’s Adopt-a-Lot Program Lets Community Members Beautify the City and Grow Food,” njtvnews, June, 18, 2013, http://www.njtvonline.org/news/video/newarks-adopt-a-lot-program-lets-community-members-beautify-the-city-and-grow-food/.

[3] See “Mayor Cory A. Book, Newark Municipal Council, Newark Environmental Commission, EPA Regional Administrator Unveil Newark Sustainability Action Plan,” city of newark office of sustainability, April 2, 2013, https://sustainablenewarknj.wordpress.com/press-releases/mayor-cory-a-booker-newark-municipal-council-newark-environmental-commissionepa-regional-administrator-unveil-newark-sustainbility-action-plan/.

[4] See Nix, Naomi and Ted Sherman, “Ras Baraka Claim Victory in Newark Mayoral Election,” nj.com, May 13,2014, http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2014/05/newark_voters_elect_new_mayor_to_succeed_cory_booker.html.

[5] See Steinbuch, Yaron, “Newark Offering Valentine’s Day Special for Home Buyers,” nypost, February 9, 2015,  http://nypost.com/2015/02/09/newark-offering-valentines-day-special-for-home-buyers/.

[6] See Id.

[7] Nix, Naomi, “Land for $1,000 Homeowner Hopefuls Flock to Newark Valentines Day Sale,” nj.com, February 14, 2015, http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2015/02/homeowner_hopefuls_flock_to_newark_valentines_day.html.