DSA Community Garden Program
At 9 a.m., Maggie arrives at the garden with a cart containing homemade gardening supplies. She opens the gate and our day begins. Six of us from DSA are there to paint a supply shed and mount it on a brick foundation. Front to back, the 4,956 square foot community garden is incredibly well-kept. Even the bees politely stay in a small area designated for honey collection. Knowing Maggie provides much of the labor needed to maintain the garden, we know she could probably handle the shed too, even if we’re not quite sure how. Then again, we’re in “Maggie’s Magic Garden.” Some things here may just be a mystery.
As the day progresses, however, we see why we’re here. In the morning, tenants from buildings surrounding the garden stop by in their pajamas to drop off organic waste for composting. Maggie’s friends periodically visit to talk about preparing for the fall. Parents stroll by with their kids, marvel at the greenery, and ask when the garden is open for a future visit. The garden is a hub of community activity. We’re here in the middle of it all, laying bricks.
In June 2017, the Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch of NYC-DSA began coordinating action days at community gardens in Harlem and the South Bronx. Using the maps and contact info in NYC Greenthumb’s citywide community garden directory, we emailed numerous gardens in Harlem and the Bronx to introduce ourselves, describe DSA’s purpose, and offer assistance with their work. From the responses of garden stewards, we focused on four candidates comfortable with DSA politically and interested in hosting us to work. Next, we arranged in-person meetings with the garden stewards to learn their backgrounds and programs. Finally, we set Bronx/Upper Manhattan: DSA Community Garden Program16mutually agreed on dates, and promoted it to our members as an opportunity to engage with our communities. We’ve been continually scheduling action dates ever since.We chose to organize around urban gardens for four main reasons.
First, community gardens demonstrate the real-world practice of socialist principles. Over the past three decades, the capitalist class has advocated policies which increasingly incentivized the construction of luxury residential properties. Simultaneously, the capitalist class has also promoted the individual, rather than the collective, as the dominant force in politics, economics, and culture. Through these efforts, the capitalist class has isolated, disempowered, and displaced residents in New York City’s working and middle class communities.In contrast, community gardens endure as communal spaces in a rapidly gentrifying and hollowed-out urban center. Neighborhood residents frequently provide most of the labor and materials required to operate and maintain the gardens.
This unifies the community in a collective effort for everyone’s benefit. The result of these efforts is nutritious produce, which starkly contrasts the unhealthy food typically sold at privately run stores in many lower income neighborhoods. As socialist organizers, supporting such positive real-world examples of our principles in practice is indispensable for political education.
Second, community gardens offer an opportunity to build the power of underserved and vulnerable communities. Our most frequent partner is Maggie’s Magic Garden, which has been primarily operated since 1993 by Maria Magdalena Amurrio, an immigrant from Bolivia. Another of our partners, La Finca Del Sur, is a cooperative owned by Latina and Black women in the South Bronx. As women, people of color, and immigrants, the stewards of these gardens belong to some of the most exploited groups under racial capitalism.
Further, because the gardens mainly answer to the long-term residents of these communities, who are primarily in the working class, they can play an integral part of the fight against high-cost housing developers. By supporting these gardens, DSA is not only strengthening working class communities, but also building the power of particularly vulnerable groups within those communities.
Third, community gardens offer a critical way to build DSA’s organizational power. Our task is to organize a mass movement which restructures society around socialist principles. Although garden work may not help us immediately recruit hundreds of new members, we are building the trust in DSA necessary to develop meaningful relationships with other local organizations and residents. In the long-term this trust will allow us to recruit the larger and more diverse membership DSA needs to credibly act as organizers of the working class.
We have already seen success in this area with the gardens 18themselves. The longer we’ve worked with each, the more they’ve been willing to offer the use of the gardens for meetings, flyering, and other events. As time goes by, we aim to maintain a consistent on-the-ground presence that enables us to continue growing our relationships and our membership’s diversity.
Our belief in the importance of this trust also underscores our preference for this type of work over electoral work and certain canvassing projects closely associated with certain officials. Every election, political actors sell promises to working class communities, especially those of color. Because these promises frequently go unfulfilled, these communities can be understandably wary of such actors.
Instead, through direct action in gardens, we can immediately demonstrate palpable solidarity with those we hope to organize. If DSA doesn’t support these populations where they live and struggle, how can we or they expect our electoral efforts to lead to anything different? We see our community garden program, and other community work, as a foundational crux for building a credible, diverse, and genuine working-class movement.
Fourth, we’ve found garden work is a nice shake-up for members! The hands-on activities and outdoor setting are a refreshing change from the formal meeting-and-trainings focus of more professional DSA events.
Organizing a mass movement to implement socialism will be a long, complex process. The first step is laying a durable foundation able to support the tremendous burden imposed by our struggle for liberation from the catastrophe of capitalism. In Harlem and the Bronx, we’re building that foundation from the ground up, brick by brick.