By Jaden Satenstein
In a city characterized by its tall, tightly-packed buildings, green space is usually not considered a defining feature of the New York living experience. However, one group is working to change that.
Harlem Grown, a nonprofit founded in 2011, works to mentor and empower youth in the Harlem community through agricultural education that teaches them to “lead healthy and ambitious lives,” according to the organization’s mission.
“Obvious and immediate impact is exposure to green spaces, which is generally hard to come by in a place like New York,” said Gabriella Rodriguez, who began working with Harlem Grown as an educator and now serves as the outreach and communications coordinator. “And not just green spaces, but urban agriculture spaces, especially in a place like Harlem that’s been historically red-lined and gentrified ... Living in the city, it’s hard to understand where food comes from because we’re usually not interacting with it.”
The organization began when its executive director, Tony Hillery, was volunteering at P.S. 175 on West 134th Street and began revamping an abandoned lot across the street. The lot is now one of Harlem Grown’s eleven sites, which include seven soil-based hydroponic farms throughout Harlem, as well as four spaces within partner schools.
Programs offered by Harlem Grown includes monthly cooking and gardening lessons with students at its five partner elementary schools, Saturday open volunteer hours and four large, community-wide events every year. Many students who work with Harlem Grown at their schools also participate in a yearly summer camp for ages seven to 14, which lasts seven weeks and is free to all campers.
“Our camp is actually a really good way to see the graduation and development of our kids ... This year is the first year, I think, where all of our [counselors in training] are previous campers. So a lot of the kids stay with us every year, every summer,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of kids develop better communication and leadership skills after being in our programming because a lot of the way that we work fosters that and is really meant to empower kids to feel that they have agency in their choices.”
Harlem Grown has had an exciting summer. Last month it opened its new Impact Farm, a two-story vertical hydroponic greenhouse, the first of its kind in the country. The greenhouse sits at the organization’s West 127th Street Farm location, and was funded by Juice Generation, one of Harlem Grown’s corporate partners.
Although Rodriguez emphasized Harlem Grown’s role in empowering and educating residents, she is conscious of how the creation of green space could play into the rapid gentrification that is underway in Harlem.
"I won’t say we’re contributing to gentrification, but we are kind of propping it up in some ways ... People want to live by green spaces, so having these spaces here makes it more attractive.”
Nevertheless, Harlem Grown continues to connect with and give back to the neighborhood. The farm sites, such as the 127th Street location, are often left open for community members to enjoy. Produce grown at the sites is also distributed to neighbors and visitors for free.
“We’re pretty grounded in the existing Harlem community, and we’re friendly with people who live in the buildings around all of our sites, and also the people who are just on the block every day,” Rodriguez said. “So by fostering those relationships and making sure people know that, regardless of how our surroundings are changing, we’re really still here for the community and for youth.”
Rodriguez hopes to see Harlem Grown continue to expand to more schools and reach more community members to foster “environmental stewardship” and continue to help young people develop important life skills.
“We like to say that we plant fruits and vegetables, but we’re growing healthy kids and sustainable communities.”