Rob Stephenson: From roof to table. An essay

In 1917 the Mayor’s Committee on Food Gardens issued a report documenting the creation of nearly 12,000 gardens and 1,120 acres of large plots dedicated to growing vegetables in New York City. Nearly one hundred years later, many New Yorkers have no access to fresh produce and those that do often eat food that has traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles. Economic, social and environmental concerns have fueled a revival of urban agricultural in the city.

“Urban agriculture” project is an effort to create a visual document of the different approaches to implementing a sustainable food system. That there is still arable land within walking distance of a subway and that a rooftop can produce as much food as a field challenges preconceptions of urban and agricultural landscapes. The project looks at how traditional methods of agriculture have been adapted to succeed in an urban environment, examining the evolving relationship between a city and its food source.

Over the course of a little more than a year, I visited and photographed hundreds of gardens and farms throughout the five boroughs of New York City. The paradox of urban agriculture – that the city can be a suitable environment for growing food – is the central theme that connects the images in this project.

While I set out primarily to document the unique landscape of urban agriculture, I often found myself drawn to photograph the people I met during the project. Of the more than 100 sites I visited, I was always welcomed to photograph, and frequently was given a tour and sent home with fresh vegetables to eat. The farmers and gardeners I met had a myriad of motivations for farming, but they all shared a unique and deep connection to the land and to their food.

One of the last farmers I met, Dominic, tended part of a farm on Staten Island. Dominic is the grandfather of my wife’s hairdresser’s assistant – which seemed too good a connection to pass up. When I heard that he was willing to be photographed, I programmed the farm’s address into my phone and set out. Turning into the dirt-packed parking area, I felt as if had entered a different world. Dominic showed me around the farm, gently chiding his goats in Italian and occasionally rapping their heads with his walking stick as they ate their way through neighboring plots of kale and french beans. He pointed out two dozen newborn chicks huddled in a box under warming lamps, and introduced me to Cornelius, his pony. We walked through acres of squash, tomatoes, peppers and 10-foot-high stalks of corn. After an afternoon spent taking pictures, I said my goodbyes and within minutes I was stuck on the expressway in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The scent of dozens of Italian hot peppers wafting from the backseat served as the only reminder of where I had just been.

Urban agriculture is certainly a topical subject, but it is far from a recent phenomenon. Last spring, I went to photograph a new hydroponic greenhouse and garden on a school campus only to discover that like many of the sites I visited, it was surrounded by a 15-foot-high fence. A man across the street agreed to take me up to his roof for a better view. Before heading back down, he asked if I wanted to see his wife’s garden in the back of their house. We crossed the roof and when I looked over the side I could see a patchwork of backyard vegetable gardens laden with tomatoes, watermelon and callaloo, stretching down the block. While the new greenhouse was undoubtedly a great asset to the school and community, it was a revelation to see that the people in this neighborhood had been growing their own food all along.

Though New York City still offers surprisingly pastoral spaces to farm, the future of urban agriculture is in the adaptation of traditional growing techniques. These adaptations can be as simple as avoiding lead-contaminated soil by planting in raised beds to taking advantage of a stalled building site by implementing a modular farming system made up of 7,000 milk crate planters. A 100,000-square foot rooftop farm, expected to produce over a million pounds of produce annually, is being built in Brooklyn and a 200,000-square foot farm has been proposed for the top of a food distribution center in the Bronx. With the influx of people to cities and a continuing rise in the financial and environmental costs of shipping food, the widespread and large-scale adoption of urban agriculture seems inevitable. New York City, with its network of backyard vegetable plots, community gardens and rooftop farms, is at the forefront of this transformation.

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© Bleek Magazine. Text and all the images: Rob Stephenson. Translated by: Ksenia Gerasimenko, Andrey Belkov.