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.