Oh Grant Me A Garden

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grantThe Grant Houses Community Garden Project is exactly what it sounds like. Columbia students want to help public housing residents just north of us build a garden for communal use that could become a sustainable and nutritious food source as well as a source of community pride. Liz Naiden reports on the saga of this unusual attempt to go green off-campus.

Twice a week, Rebecca Davies leads a handful of Columbia students up Broadway to the Grant Houses, a public housing development just 7 blocks from College Walk. The students currently lead regular workshops there for an after school program on all things green, sustainable, and nutritious. Well, all things green that kids could ever care about – in recent workshops they have explored worm composting (below), the water cycle, how to roast pumpkin seeds, and the journey that every element of a hamburger takes to get to your plate. The kids learn that everything they eat comes from the soil, and as a bonus “they love anything slimy they can play with, or anything they can taste,” says Davies. But that isn’t all the Grant Houses Community Garden project has always hoped to be.

davies composting

Over two years ago, Davies got involved in the development of the Food Sustainability Project’s on-campus Community Garden project. In the process of getting recognized as a university group, Davies helped gather professor endorsements for the project, including the endorsement of Professor Sudhir Venkatesh. It was he who first asked Davies what more she would do with the community garden idea if she had the support. She wanted to bring a community garden to “the community outside of Columbia,” she said.

Davies spent the next summer developing relationships with community leaders at the Grant Houses including the president of the tenants’ association, Sarah Martin. Over the academic year Davies and the other founding members of the Grant Houses group helped to organize several Thanksgiving-esque “community meals” and held meetings on the possibility of a building a community garden on the grounds. Resident interest was strong, so the group began fundraising, drafting plans with landscape design students, and submitting initial proposals to the New York City Housing Authority that fall.

A year later the site for the garden has been chosen, the plans have been drawn, but the garden remains unbuilt. In April NYCHA approved the project under the condition that Columbia signs an agreement to medically insure the students involved in the building process and avoid litigation against NYCHA if someone should get hurt (whether students will be allowed to build the garden fence themselves due to the safety risks is still unclear). But before asking for such a signature, the project needed university recognition. The Student Government Board rejected them on the grounds that the project wasn’t school-centered enough, Community Impact on the grounds that it involved too much risky activity off campus for them to oversee. Finally the group found itself a home under the umbrella of the Food Sustainability Project once again, and submitted the NYCHA forms for Columbia to sign. Davies doesn’t blame anyone at the university for the fact that the garden is still in limbo – “we’ve had a lot of support, a lot of deans and professors have tried to help us” she said, including Urban Studies Dean Kathryn Yatrakis, Professor Venkatesh, various people at Teacher’s College, Social Work, and several organizations inside and outside the gates that have donated money to the cause. But, says Davies, “it is ultimately Columbia’s fault that this has been held up as long as it has.”

But, it appears that the legal arm of Columbia seems to be moving close to signing a new version of the litigation agreement with NYCHA, meaning the garden may be just around the corner. Plus, Davies tells us that in the meantime and throughout the spring the group will also pursue an oral history project at the Grant Houses – Davies, her two co-coordinators Gracy Greenberg and Andrew Kim, and the rest of the participants have talked to a number of senior citizens at Grant who have fabulous stories to tell. Among other things, the students will ask seniors to compare their childhood experiences with food, land, and the urban or non-urban space they grew up in with the Grant Houses of today. Whether are planting in the garden or throwing full weight behind the oral history project, the group looks forward to getting its hands dirty in the spring.

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  1. becky fan  

    Becky is great! Good for her for doing this and trying to fight the absurdity of the Columbia bureaucracy. It seems to me that a project like this, with Columbia students venturing out into the community to make a real impact on others' lives, is exactly the kind of thing the university should be supporting.

  2. p-luck love  

    yo bwog- big ups for covering this fantastic project. Becky shows what persistence yields, and always with a smile on her face.

  3. k  

    Becky is possibly *the* most efficient, effective person I know. Besides that, she's incredibly passionate, humble, and a lot of fun. I'm happy to see this piece here, even as it focuses on what hasn't happened through Columbia rather than what has been successful off campus. This garden is about much more than just food.

    It's telling that even NYCHA is more responsive...

  4. ZACA  

    The lack of support for this project is truly staggering, as few projects or ideas have been as inspired and well put together as this one. Ditto the first few comments; there's no good reason that this project shouldn't have the University's full support, and no one better equipped to have the reigns of the project in hand than Becky.

  5. can anyone say omg I help youth in Harlem blah blah blah, way to put that on your resume

  6. can anyone say

    pretentious, like omg I help youth in Harlem, it's on my resume

  7. can anyone say

    pretentious like omg I help youth in Harlem, put it on my resume

  8. angry cu student  

    dear Columbia bureaucracy,

    you suck.


    angry cu student

  9. becky is legit

    she's the most unpretentious person
    glad you're getting some recognition!

  10. non commenter

    yo - i never comment, and i'm commenting to say +1 Becky love

  11. damn  

    i wanna join this...we at columbia usually talk the talk, but becky seems to be walking the revolutionary walk...

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