Knee High in Trenton

July 27, 2009

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director


In mid-July I took my grandmother out for a ride through the rolling hills and farmlands of central Pennsylvania. She was anxious to see if the corn was knee high (by the 4th of July – just to finish the old adage) and concerned that the record June rains might have delayed the growing season. As we drove, her field assessments were mostly positive and she felt quite content knowing that she would soon being buying corn from a nearby farm stand. This has been the pattern of her life – connecting farmers, weather, and growing seasons to available fresh (delicious) food.

Today, thanks to organizations like Isles, residents of our urban centers are starting to identify with “knee high by 4th of July,” as well as other notions of gardening and farming as vehicles of neighborhood transformation and community and personal health and wealth.


Isles, whose team focuses on Trenton, is mashing ideas of old and new, of agrarian and urban, of hands-on and virtual, of traditional and innovative, and of evolutionary and revolutionary change. This year’s annual Isles garden tour enabled participants to see a rich and representative sample of the 33 community gardens and 8 edible school yards that Isles supports. We started in the “Old Trenton Neighborhood,” which is basically Isles’ backyard. The plot of land pictured below used to be a hot spot for drug deals; now, rows of vegetables, towering sunflowers, and a touch of community art claim victory in this neighborhood. Isles has also added significant units of affordable, energy efficient housing in the adjacent blocks. When combined with their green jobs and YouthBuild training programs, you start to understand the Isles tagline of “fostering self-reliance.”


The next stop was the Escher SRO Project Garden. Here, I was struck by the name plates on the garden plots.


This is a transitional housing facility, and it is clear that the gardens are a symbol of hope, joy and accomplishment. Marty Johnson, founder and president of Isles (pictured on the bridge) is particularly proud of the Isles mini-grant that enabled the residents to design and build gateway that ushers you into this urban oasis.


One of the more surprising spaces was Bellevue Garden, which is situated along the picturesque D&R Canal. It signaled that open and green space can be combined with working urban lands. The garden, started by a number of residents who came from Jamaica, included vegetables like Callaloo, a popular leafy green used in Caribbean cooking. There was also a big cooler of incredibly refreshing homemade ginger beer, reminding us of the signature things that give communities identity and pride.


Our next stop heralded the future of school yards. What was once an asphalt jungle at Washington Elementary School is now home to an inviting outdoor classroom and a series of raised-bed gardens.


Meredith Taylor, Senior Project Manager for Community Gardening and Nutrition at Isles, beams as she talks about the emerging focus on school-based programs, including preschools (Ready, Set, Grow).


Also pictured below are Liz Johnson, Isles COO, and Elyse Pivnick, Isles Vice President for Environment & Community Health – they represent a dynamic duo in the community garden movement.


It seems hard to top the examples of garden types thus far, but when the tour stopped at the Chambers-Locust garden, it was hard to not to be impressed: first, by the sheer size (11 city lots large), then by the diversity of produce and flowers (one tour participant exclaimed, “They have it all here!”), and finally by the story (the garden almost became a parking lot, but thanks to local advocacy it is now a part of the state Green Acres program which protects open spaces and city parks).


We concluded the tour at the Roberto Clemente Park & Isles Children’s Garden. This is also Green Acres project, and one that sets a new design standard for urban parks. The space inspires imagination, discovery and learning. It offers adventure and exploration, and it is a place of storytelling (the chain link fence has become a canvas of photos that depicts the triumph of people connecting with nature, gardens and each other throughout Trenton).


The Dodge staff is interested in your urban farming and gardening stories, and we hope you will share some in response to this blog post. We’ve also been documenting related field visits (see my colleague Laura Aden-Packer’s post about the recent Camden Children’s Garden tour, as well as my earlier post about the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and their trip to GreensGrow in Philadelphia). In addition, to see a more comprehensive photo tour of the Isles trip, please follow this link.

There is an important post script to this tour. You should know that Isles builds on its success through careful research. The team is committed to urban soil testing and reclamation. They are also assessing the amount of produce coming from their community, institutional and school gardens. The cutting edge of their research involves a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania wherein the study focus is on the distribution patterns of informal economies (so far, Isles knows that each gardener touches approximately 4 families and 15 people – now that’s some leverage).

Domenic Vitiello, associate chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at Penn leads a group that is working on “quantifying the production and documenting the distribution of food from community gardens and farms in Philadelphia, Camden and Trenton, NJ” – all in an effort to “understand the economic and health impacts of formal and informal urban agriculture.” A big part of their food system work is associated with economic patterns among immigrant communities (see the migration project).

The Dodge staff is grateful that Isles weaves together research and social action, and we are excited about the positive changes in Trenton.

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