From Built to Grown: Justice in Agriculture

Farm field with plants sprouting in the foreground and rolling hills in the background

Photo Credit: Christine Ashburn

Close-up picture of a person wearing a hat and glasses.

Demetrius James; educator and writer, was born and raised in the Bronx, New York. Currently living in Orange County, Demetrius is an aspiring urban farmer and is developing Project Oasis: an agricultural education program that strives to rebuild communities.

Being a city slicker, I am always awed when I see vast expanses of green land. Now living in the Hudson Valley, I start my commute in New Windsor and make my daily trek to Manhattan for work. Descending Storm King Mountain, continuing straight through the town of Highland, I travel towards the Bear Mountain Bridge. Gradually I can begin to see the rolling green slopes of the Hudson Highlands. The serpentine Hudson River steals my eye to the left. Further east, Breakneck Ridge straddles the coast of Putnam County. The Bear Mountain Bridge links these metamorphic ridges of the Appalachian Mountains where they cross the Hudson River.

Rolling hills with trees and a field

As I take in the beautiful sights, I can’t stop thinking about the environment where I grew up. Born and raised in the Bronx, I am the product of built environments—the concrete and steel mountains of project buildings and skyscrapers. As a city dweller who is now passionate about green spaces, I believe agriculture could be used to bridge the gap—not the inequalities—between the Bronx and the Hudson Highlands. I have started Project Oasis to explore ways of redefining agriculture, bringing it to built environments, and advocating for the reclamation of public space for agriculture in New York’s urban food deserts.

In juxtaposition, the histories of the green pastures of the Hudson Valley and the built environments of New York City illustrate a colonized repurpose of land. Agriculture has been practiced in the Hudson Highlands for thousands of years, beginning with the native people in this region, the Lenni Lenape. Lenape means “the People.”1 They are of the Algonquian-language family who first lived in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The Lenape people sustained their communities with the land they lived on. They farmed corn, beans, and squash, and harvested wild fruits, nuts, and berries native to the region.2

These days, the Hudson Valley is better known for apple orchards. Apples came to the Americas with the first European settlers in the 1600s, along with other crops. These early settlers had different ideas about life in the New World. Europeans brought imperialistic ideals for industry, and African slaves to implement them. The Dutch West India Company imported eleven African slaves to New Amsterdam in 1626; and by 1655, slave auctions were being held in New Amsterdam.3 From there, slaves were distributed across the state, used in farming on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley. By the middle of the 19th century, abolition of slavery was gaining steam in our region as the Industrial Revolution was losing steam. Finding jobs and housing for free men and immigrants became a serious problem. By the early 20th century, urban centers where people once converged for factory work became slums. In the 1950s, rehabilitation programs began in New York City and the NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) began building public housing units.4 Designed in oppression, they became a tool for segregation.

Field surrounded by trees
A hilly field on an overcast day

These poorly constructed high-rise buildings were often separated from other neighborhoods. As a result, neighborhoods around NYCHA complexes became unhealthy environments, often without access to fresh food or green space. The ruination of these city blocks—littered with produce-less bodegas, fast food chains, and over-processed restaurant dishes—is manifested in high rates of diabetes and cardiovascular conditions among its denizens. These kinds of neighborhoods are called “food deserts.” Yet, unlike traditional deserts, there is nothing natural or organic about them. The desert reference merely evokes a sense of scarcity, signaling a lack of nutrient-rich fresh foods. It also signals the lack of sustainability.

This is what I think about every day when I drive through the plush, green scenery of the Hudson Highlands, a landscape that symbolizes opportunity and good health—I think about neighborhoods like my childhood home in the Bronx, where low-income residents do not have access to affordable, healthy foods.5 Author Leah Penniman calls this disparity “food apartheid” in her book Farming While Black: Food Apartheid. Lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables has dire consequences to overall health. Over time, people living in food apartheid become predisposed for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Plainly speaking, there are higher rates of obesity in low-income neighborhoods than in those that have access to land where fresh food is grown and available.

The green pastures of the Hudson Highlands have inspired me to develop a sustainable solution to food apartheid. My image of a proper intervention is Project Oasis, a program that would involve three strategies: nutritional education, the reclamation of public space for agricultural purposes, and restorative justice replenishing what is harvested—a reinvestment. Through Project Oasis, I would like to develop partnerships in communities within built environments, like public housing complexes, to produce organic vegetable gardens. The plan is to rebuild communities—through the reclamation of public spaces—by building sustainable environments. My goal is to redefine the significance of agriculture within urban areas despite the history of oppression evoked by black and brown people cultivating crops. Project Oasis is not just about creating an oasis of healthy, green, sustainable food within urban public spaces; it’s about being able to build up the health of any built environment or urban community.

Field with mountains in the background with clouds in the sky

Project Oasis is very much like GrowNYC in function: an initiative with food access programs, dedicated to increasing health and quality of life on multiple levels. While NYC has many programs like these popping up, there are opportunities to expand this work and address the food inequalities of outer NYC urban environments. While my vision for Project Oasis was conceived as an intervention starting in NYCHA developments, being a new resident of New Windsor, I have noticed that the nearby City of Newburgh could also benefit from a food intervention. Currently, I am reaching out to future project partners in the Newburgh area in hopes that we can get Project Oasis or a similar initiative started in this area soon, and perhaps create a model for bigger communities.

As I leave Manhattan after a long day, I snail my way up a congested West Side Highway to the George Washington Bridge. The mountainous skyline of buildings always draws my attention—far from the expanses of green I see in the Hudson Valley, yet there is opportunity for agriculture in these more urban spaces. From public parks to roof tops, to those grassy areas within housing complexes, these spaces can all be converted to places that sustain organic food farms, making urban areas a little greener and healthier for future generations.

1“Frequently Asked Questions about the Lenape or Delaware Tribe.” Official Website of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, 2013. June 26.
2“Brief History.” Stockbridge Munsee Community, 2021. January 1.
3Harper, Douglas (2003). “Emancipation in New York”. Slavery in the North.
4Mireya Navarro. “Facing Suit, City Agrees to Remove Mold in Public Housing More Quickly, New York Times, December 15, 2013.
5Cynthia Gordon, 2011, 696.