This weekend was my birthday and celebrations began on Saturday morning with brunch at Pier 6 in Charlestown, MA. Pier 6 has great views of Boston across the harbor that you can enjoy from their rooftop patio – and the food is pretty good. But to get there, you have to navigate what was, at one time, a pretty rough neighborhood. It struck me how different this place feels every time I am there. The last time was just a bit over a year ago when I set out to write a piece about immigrant gardeners in Boston for the print issue of P+V. Charlestown at that time felt mixed, and street by street you could feel it was the neighborhood of a vast array of people representing a huge diversity of ethnicities and economic levels. It felt a little uncomfortable to me then (and even moreso the year before that) but this weekend the change was obvious. I was more at ease – it is becoming less outwardly rundown. I felt safer and that made me wonder if the residents feel safer. And what does that mean for the people I spoke with 18 months ago. I wondered if what felt good to me, was the same thing that made it more inhospitable to them. I hope not. Gentrification is a controversial topic and understandably so – and I really don’t know that I have a whole lot to add to that conversation as I’d rather try to grasp a better understanding of all sides.
As I think about all of this – I thought I’d re-share what I wrote then (originally titled Immigrant Gardeners in Issue #3 of P+V):
As gardeners across the region started to make their way back outside this spring, we set out (as we have in previous issues) to meet gardeners and chat with them about their aspirations, plans, and projects for the season. This time we had a very specific goal in mind, and to say we struggled to achieve it is an understatement.
Last fall, after presenting the first issue of PITH + VIGOR to a Boston-based group of women designers, we heard some feedback that criticized our editorial focus. We seemed “too white,” and it was suggested that we were not fully representative of all the gardeners in our community. While I am not sure the criticism was entirely fair, (after all, we had only published one issue) it is a comment that has stayed with us (me). It has always been our intention to cover all communities, not just our own, and if others don’t see that reflected in our pages, then we have missed our own goals.
Our challenge this spring was to follow up on a group of gardeners that are largely not covered in mainstream garden media and who aren’t part of the overall American conversation—immigrant gardeners.
We wondered if we would learn about new varieties of vegetables (we did), perhaps some new (to us) wisdom, and maybe even some techniques that have been passed down through generations but perhaps haven’t been written about. We wanted to meet with people who garden to live (literally) and whose gardens often serve to maintain a connection to a culture and way of life that would otherwise be lost in a new country.
To be blunt, we were not successful. As we visited community gardens in Charlestown, MA, (populated by 100 percent immigrant farmers) and other areas of Boston, we quickly realized our goal would not be so easy to achieve. We spoke with immigrants from Brazil, China, and Cape Verde, but we struggled with language barriers, some distrust of our motives, cultural differences that made it hard to photograph people, and worries that perhaps we were there to cause trouble. Sometimes we experienced outright hostility. We worked hard to make inroads and build relationships, but the reality is that we didn’t get the story—at least not for this issue. We did learn a few things, however, and we (I) believe we will be able to build trust and relationships over the long haul.
Many of the people we talked to did not want to be identified by name, nor did they want to have their name associated with their words or their picture. While we did learn about some new vegetables and observed some interesting trellises and barriers that were being built, the most important lessons came in the understanding that this will be an ongoing challenge, and that we need to understand the truths buried in the quotes we did get.
“Most people have no clue about the people who have to depend on home gardens because other food systems don’t serve them.”
“The people who benefit from farmers markets are not the poor – they don’t have enough money.”
“People steal stuff here. I’ve been here <gardening> for 12 years. Before, there were no people who came here, but now they come here and take the food–it’s so sad.”
“The Chinese supermarket in Chinatown has some—but it is difficult to grow those seeds. They are many years old—too old.”
“We grow bok choy, snow vegetables, beans, watermelon— but not watermelon—it’s different. We save our seeds sometimes. But sometimes we bring them from home.”
Honoring their request, the sources of these comments and their images are not being shared. But we think the words have their own anonymous power. We hope you agree.
images by Kelly Fitzsimmons for P+V