Fertile Soil

When certain people talk about the history of Brooklyn, their story starts and ends with the Dodgers. Invoking the legacy of Jackie Robinson and the diverse and motley crew that won the 1955 World Series championship barely hints at the central role that African Americans have played in the evolution of Brooklyn or the millennia of human habitation in this land that precedes the 1957 demolition of Ebbets Field. Even superficial reminders of the previous inhabitants of the New York, like place names, are endangered. If real estate developers had their unfettered way, Canarsie, named for a local chief, would become – let’s say – Citi-village – and the job of cleansing the Native American from Kings County would be complete. The last Native American aboriginal to Brooklyn died around 1810.

During my recent campaign for the New York State Assembly, I was amazed at how little I understood about Brooklyn’s place in American and world history and how much company I have in my ignorance. I began to wonder if any of the children who live in the Walt Whitman Houses knew that their namesake was not only America’s first great poet, but a fearless abolitionist, hounded more for his work to free African slaves than his vanguard homosexuality. Would this knowledge make the roots of homophobia harder to grow in their souls? And what would be the impact of the knowledge that their poor and uneducated black ancestors had built America’s first black church (Bridge Street AME) and America’s first free school? Would the barriers of modern racism seem more surmountable? To me, this is the power and promise of preserving an honest account of our common heritage. And it is for this reason that I blog.

For those who think of history as something entirely relegated to the past, consider this. History is the soil of our civilization: arid soil: arid civilization, fertile soil: fertile civilization. There is no better example of a fertile spot on the planet than the borough I live in and the street I live on: St. John’s Place. My neighborhood is fertile in every sense, from the robust thickly trunked trees that line the street, to the children from all nations who bounce off the sidewalks with energy and talent. So it is here, where I live, that I will cast down my first blog bucket.

The advancing glaciers that shaped this continent ten of thousands of years ago created the island of which the western shore became Brooklyn. In 1776, Brooklyn was the breadbasket of the new American nation. Kings County was the largest slaveholding county above the Mason-Dixon line. A third of the population of 3,000 was African slaves, exploited by English, Dutch and French Huguenot colonists. The soon to be obliterated Lenepe, Nyack and Tappan Indians round out the census. Tobacco and food crops grew in Brooklyn making her famous the first time around. Before we celebrated Brooklyn’s trees, we cleared them to plant crops.

The evidence of the rich glacial till that deposited minerals and nutrients from far and wide, abound in Brooklyn. Not only in the Botanic Garden and the Olmsted and Vaux-designed parks of Fort Greene and Prospect. A local artist tells me that inside the fence of his humble garden on St. Mark’s Place, the most exotic of plants grow as if indigenous. The very concept of a parkway – a road free of commercial congestion where families with or without vehicles could promenade on any given Sunday (or in Crown Heights -Saturday) was born in Brooklyn from the same fertile minds that gave us our parks.

Robert Moses extended the Olmsted and Vaux concept when he constructed the early great parkways: Palisade Interstate, Northern State, Southern State, and the Hutchinson River. But in many Brooklyn neighborhoods, you do not need to be one of the car-owning elite to enjoy a thoroughfare where trees dominate the streetscape. Once again, I invite you to St. John’s Place (but if you are coming on an apartment hunt, think twice, your good fortune will inevitably invite displacement.)

There are thirty six-trees on St. John’s Place between Washington and Underhill Avenues. When turning the corner, the canopy created by the growing life forms gives the impression of residential bliss, despite the fact that the avenue is loaded with tenement-style dwellings that bring the uber-urban feeling to any metropolis. How did these trees get here? Some trees are so majestic they seem to have preceded the buildings, but this is not the case. The residents of these tenements, calling themselves the Green Guerillas, planted these trees.

These Green Guerillas were organized in the 1960’s under the block association administration of Mike Jones, Sr. His son, Mike Jones, Jr. currently leads our block. Mike’s dad and his neighbors urged each property owner to pay the fifteen-dollar Parks Department fee to have a tree placed on the sidewalk. These trees grew prodigiously, thanks to our fertile Brooklyn soil, giving off shade, oxygen and a sense of ecological balance on one of the most densely populated streets in our borough.

There are at least five buildings on St John’s Place that have over 50 units. Typically, this kind of extreme density can lead to social discord (a la the burning buses of the modern Paris suburb). Research suggests however that greenery brings a bevy of benefits. There is a calming effect that explains how humans tend to wish to flee the city every time a weekend and our relative wealth allow for travel. Further, many of Brooklyn’s residents come from lands of verdant beauty: places like the American South, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Asia and Eastern Europe. In Brooklyn, everyone is on familiar soil.

The trees of St. John’s have brought an aspect of the bucolic to our corner of Brooklyn. Each year, our block party is a tribute to the notion that these trees grow for our children to play underneath. This is a special block because of these simple and ancient sentinels that arguably give more to the world than their human counterparts, unless those humans are planting more trees.

In addition to tree planting, the St. John’s Block Association had another pivotal program that involved wood. When dangerous elements appeared, the men of St. John’s would grab their baseball bats (minus gloves and ball) and walk the block as a homegrown security force. The bat squad was another important element in the stability of St. John’s, but I will leave that story for another day. My focus is on the environment we as humans create and must manage, not the social chaos that takes root in our society as deeply as an elm when we fail.

The benefits of St. John’s beauty are sundry and I invite you to our next block party. You will see a serpentine line of kids on bicycles, owning the middle of the traffic-blocked street: the eldest in front on twelve-speed, the smaller scurrying behind on banana seat models and the youngest clumsily pushing their scooters with the ambition of catching up with the older kids. From noon till nine all of the families come out and celebrate. The trees transform our block into a giant picnic ground.

But there are still trees to plant and blocks that need to combat the lifeless façade of what passes for development and architecture these days. We could look to the rooftops of Brooklyn for virgin acreage and begin to plant again. When any vehicle reaches the apex of the spans that connect us to Manhattan, they should behold an undulating green carpet of low-rise rooftop gardens growing in Brooklyn. Green roofs could make Brooklyn look more like its aboriginal self. Further, we now know that green roofs reduce energy consumption and protect our fragile and historic housing stock.

Maybe we as Brooklynites might remember the victory gardens that sprang up during World War II, when Americans sought to spare the food supply for the GI’s and grow our family vegetables from our own humble backyard harvest. Brooklyn should be able to grow 5% of our food supply. We have gone from the nation’s breadbasket to an empty cupboard. Yet, we have the greatest soil, and from the Caribbean, and Latin America, and Asia, and Eastern Europe and Africa the wisdom of civilizations built on the power of agriculture. This food would be cheaper, healthier and dare I say catalytic in our efforts to build a sustainable Brooklyn. It is up to those of us who love and honor Brooklyn to decide what will be built on or grow in her soil. As the county that fought the first battle for American freedom and democracy, that ultimate decision must remain in Brooklyn’s hands.

Hat Tip: Jacob Williams, Research