Author Robin Shulman still remembers shoveling syringes into plastic bags while cleaning up East 4th Street in the early 1990s. A new resident of the block between avenues C and D at the time, she explained that drugs on the street were common and violence a regular occurrence.
Despite the dangers of the neighborhood, residents soon began to transform 12 adjacent lots into El Jardin Del Paraiso, the community garden that would, in part, inspire Shulman to write the book Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York.
“It very slowly began to dawn on me that the reason people were interested in producing this beautiful space, and other spaces like it in the neighborhood, was not just to create a pretty place but actually because people were interested in producing food,” Shulman said. “So that was something that brought people together and really transformed the neighborhood."
Annalee Sinclair, who has been the garden coordinator for El Jardin Del Paraiso for more than a decade, still remembers when she first started planting in El Jardin Del Paraiso. Part of the garden was still rundown and strewn with buttons from an old button factory nearby. Now a days, her 4 by 8 foot plot is overflowing with cucumbers and beans.
“What made me most interested was getting the chance to get my hands dirty and grow food,” said Sinclair, who also grows tomatoes, arugula and radishes.
(Photo: Robin Shulman/Beowulf Sheehan)
She explained that vegetables do so well in the small raised beds that some of her neighbors have found a shortcut to planting beans. “I’ve seen people grow beans out of a Goya bag — buy a ninety-nine cent bag of Goya lima beans, open it up, and just sow them into the ground,” Sinclair said.
The community garden, however, still faces its share of urban-centric challenges. In addition to battling the birds, like many suburban and rural gardeners, Sinclair explained that El Jardin Del Paraiso often struggles with a rat problem. Three years ago, the garden even held a rat workshop to learn methods to curb the rodent population.
While the rats don’t eat the vegetables (they prefer trash and junk food), they create problems when they burrow under the garden plots.
“We have these 4 by 8 sized raised beds because it’s the safest way to grow because there’s a lot of lead in the soil,” Sinclair explained. “So to avoid any lead content in your food, you plant up and you grow up. So with the rats running around and burrowing through... what they do is create these holes, and then your plot starts to sink.”
Since rats are creatures of habit and prefer to stay along established routes, they are trying to impede their progress by blocking their holes with bricks.
Despite urban pests, Shulmlan thinks New Yorkers have long shown their ingenuity by finding creative ways to grow food in the city.
(Photo: Annalee Sinclair/Joy Y. Wang)
“People like Annalee, and even long before Annalee, have been producing food in the city all through the city’s history,” she said. “There have been immigrants coming to this city who have known how to produce food from the places where they’re from and have grown things on their fire escapes and on their roofs... [They have] been able to create a taste of another place and kind of insist on their own vision of what urban living means — even in an inhospitable environment like New York City.”
Below, try Sinclair’s recipe for Country Green Beans with New Potatoes.
Country Green Beans with New Potatoes
by Annalee Sinclair
- 2 lbs fresh green beans
- 1 ½ lb ham hocks
- 4 strips bacon
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 12 small red potatoes
- 1 large onion, diced
- ½ stick salted butter
- Ground black pepper
- 2 tsps garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
Snap ends of green beans and wash in colander. Set aside to drain.
In a large pot (cast iron if available), cook bacon. Cut bacon into 1-inch pieces.
Put green beans in pot with chicken stock, bacon, ham hocks, onions, garlic powder, and salt.
Cook over a medium-low heat for an hour or until ham hock meat falls off of the bone.
Peel stripes from the middle of the potatoes, leaving some peal behind. Add the potatoes and ½ more broth to the pot. Cover tightly and cook until potatoes are tender, approximately 15 to 30 minutes. Check periodically to make sure a small amount of liquid remains. If liquid, boils away, add broth in ½ cup amounts. When potatoes are tender, place lid slightly ajar, leaving a gap so steam can escape, and continue to cook until beans are wilted, approximately 15 minutes. When done, add butter and season with pepper. Salt to taste.