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A Tree Grows in Bed-Stuy—and Organic Stuff Too

The FDA has confirmed that the recent report of a salmonella outbreak in tomatoes may have been linked to other foods, highlighting growing problems with produce safety in the United States.

On July 19th, The Chicago Tribune reported that the tomato scare has cost the food industry an estimated $100 million.

Ryan Roi is a twenty-one-year-old body-piercer and environmental activist. He stands a little over six feet tall and has a buzz cut, revealing a large tattoo on his head that reads “Going Nowhere.” Tattoos cover his body like a colorful (and sometimes vulgar) rash. Piercings which weigh down the lobes of his ears, sprout from his nose, and hook into his lips that spread open to reveal a charming smile. In June, Roi decided to fix up Red Gate Garden across from his home.

On the border of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick, where Roi lives, there are a number of low-quality grocery stores, fried chicken spots, and fast food Chinese take-out places, but definitely no community gardens that offer fresh, organic produce. In fact, the organic and urban gardening crazes that have swept through the area’s fancier neighborhoods seem to have all but passed these communities by. The gardens that the neighborhood does have are neglected and run down, at times covered in garbage.

Roi, determined to see a change, decided that what his neighborhood needed was better gardens; something beautiful and functional for the grey world of concrete and neglect he and his neighbors share. Red Gate Garden can be easily missed behind a bleak chain-link fence and hidden by the waterfall of leaves coming from an enormous willow tree. Roi spoke to his neighbor who lived next door to the little garden and found earnest support. The neighbor informed him that he could plant in the garden whenever he liked. Roi decided to do something beneficial for his neighborhood and began cleaning, weeding, and planting in the space.

Roi believes community gardening and other forms of environmental activity are great ways for young adults in Brooklyn to be active in their communities. “With all the things going on today with, you know, gasoline prices and global warming and everything, you know we can’t eat tomatoes? We’re gonna get sick from tomatoes?” he says. “I mean it’s ridiculous! I’m out to change things, to help things in my neighborhood, I’m not going to just talk about it saying, ‘Well damn, I wish I had more trees around here,’ I’m going to actually put my hands into the ground and make that tree happen.”

And Roi is making it happen. Not only is he fixing up a neglected garden, but he hopes to grow organic fruits and vegetables to sell to the community, almost like the Farmer’s Market in Union Square. He wonders why Bed-Stuy residents are forced to make unhealthy food choices and is angry that he and his neighbors have to put up with low-quality food suppliers. It incenses Roi that finding fresh produce means a forty-minute train ride to Park Slope.

For these reasons, Roi sees it as crucial for people in the neighborhood to get involved in his garden project. He is clear that volunteers don’t have to be professional gardeners or even have green thumbs to help out. “I wouldn’t have considered myself a gardener. I’ve always had a very strong appreciation for nature. I used to go with my family up to Maine, and we used to go out in the woods and I loved it. I was a Boy Scout,” he says. He continues in one exhale: “‘Boy Scouts: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, brave, clean, irreverent.’ Yeah…I was a boy scout.” He laughs and blushes slightly.

Roi’s optimism is infectious. When asked if he is worried that his hard work in the garden will be negated by late night drug use or vandalism, he still remains positive. The garden is locked except during posted hours when someone can be there to oversee the space. “We obviously don’t want to be ‘supervising’, but we want to make sure that there aren’t negative things happening that are going to bring the garden down. I want little kids to be able to enjoy this garden. I don’t want little kids to be in there if there are beer cans thrown around and stuff like that. Even though this program aims towards young adults in their early twenties or late twenties and such, I also want this to be enjoyed by a whole neighborhood.” He admits, “We’ve had some tools left in the garden and some of them got stolen…things like that,” but adds, “we’re doing our best to keep it safe.” He plans to raise money for a tool shed so that he can lock up his tools and keep them safe from sticky fingers.

In order to increase funding for the garden, Roi organized a music event, which he held there on a beautiful day in late July. It was a fun-filled summer day of barbequing, live music, and relaxation. They sold hot dogs and hamburgers for two dollars each and there was lemonade. People of all ages, races, and backgrounds attended, which is surely a triumph and step forward in bringing the community together. Seeing that this event was a success, Roi plans to have more of them in the future. He mentions that he looks for even the smallest contribution to help his cause, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be money: an old hammer, unused wood for park benches and garden beds, or even seedlings from others’ personal gardens would be welcomed. Roi’s earnestness makes you want to roll up your sleeves right away, don some flip-flops, and start weeding.

To become a part of the Brooklyn Botanical Coalition, e-mail Ryan at:
The Red Gate Garden is located at the corner of Marcy and Willoughby Avenues. Take the G Train to Myrtle-Willoughby, walk 1 block to Marcy.


Haley Bell


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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