Revisiting Immigrant Gardeners

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.

immigrant farmers in boston ma

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.

immigrant farmers in boston ma

“Most people have no clue about the people who have to depend on home gardens because other food systems don’t serve them.”

immigrant farmers in boston ma

“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.”

immigrant farmers in boston ma

“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

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  1. Erin Frost says:

    I am VERY confused by this article. I have a garden in the Berekeley Community Garden in the South End. I also live in Chinatown and my son attends a public school with a very diverse community. We have gardened side by side with “immigrant” gardeners for over 8 years. I am also a horticulturist. I would be happy to help you finish this article. It is fantastic topic and one that would be very interesting to readers. I hope you will take me up on my offer. I think it is irresponsible to leave your readers with the impression that Boston immigrants are suspicious and uneasy around their neighbors. To be honest, there is some of that attitude in every city resident but it quickly falls apart once you work beside them. -Erin Frost

  2. Saurs says:

    Whereas I think it’s irresponsible that someone who has never experienced xenophobia in the US thinks she needs to counter the first-hand testimony of real people who are too nervous to have their names and faces linked to their words. Can we never have an open discussion about the pitfalls of even benevolent bigotry without someone needing to insert a NotAllAmericanGardeners strawman into the discussion? Rushing to silence people or contradict them is one of the reasons this problem exists in the first place because white people would prefer to keep their blinders on and not be burdened with a guilt trip. And I don’t understand the scarequotes around “immigrant.” It’s not a bad word or a pejorative. The experiences of “immigrants” matter and are markedly different from those of first- and second-generation Americans.

    Thanks for the food for thought, Rochelle. Since then, have you all made efforts to recruit people of color and multilingual people to work for you?

  3. Erin Frost says:

    Ok, Saurs I could take the quotation marks around immigrant off if that will make you feel better. But I am not certain it matters. We have many gardeners in our community garden. Not all of them are immigrants, many of them are 2nd and 3rd generation children of immigrants. They choose to garden in the style of their family’s heritage, they are often lumped all together as poor immigrant gardeners. They are not all Chinese either many of them come from other Asian and island countries. We have lots of voices in our garden. I think it would be great to talk about their gardens. I know that many are hesitant to speak to unfamiliar faces. I feel that way too. Often visitors stress what a great “deal” we have and how everything is “free”. It’s not. Our garden has been at risk of being developed by city agencies twice in the 8 years we have been there. Often after garden tours, people will return and steal any unusual or plants of value from our gardens. So no one feels particularly comfortable talking about their garden to a larger audience. I can understand the reaction Rochelle may have received in her efforts. I was trying to do the exact opposite, to offer an opportunity to bring their voices to a larger audience, not silence them. Hope that clears things up for you and other readers.

  4. Saurs says:

    Nope. You didn’t like what these specific people had to say and complained that it was “irresponsible” to report truth because it made white Boston look bad. You offered up standard weaksauce colorblind commentary about sending your son to a “diverse” school (here’s a cookie for that) and you’re now indignant that people from “island countries” are being “lumped all together” with the poors. Also, where the nonsequitur about theft comes from, I’ve no idea. There’s tonedeaf and then there’s dogwhistling, and you’re rapidly entering the latter territory.

  5. Saurs says:

    So no one feels particularly comfortable talking about their garden to a larger audience.

    Please stop putting words in people’s mouths. Rochelle’s interviewees explained in their own words how gentrification has hurt them, has priced them out of their own markets, and has made resources for gardening their way scarce. The thefts they were discussing were about food. And they were concerned enough about retaliation to ask for anonymity. Please stop being dishonest and trying to whitewash what Rochelle has reported, thanks.

  6. Erin Frost says:

    Saurs, I don’t think any of the things you suggested. I don’t know anything about you because you did not put a link or a real name on your comments. I did include accurate links because I am respectful of PV, it’s readers, and staff. I believe you are what they call an “internet troll”. I have no problem with commenters disagreeing or having alternative ideas. But if you were really interested in a conversation about immigrant gardeners, you would find a way to have it without insulting me or my family with unfair stereotypes and assumptions.

    “Internet troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.”

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