Photo: Tracie LeeJust last summer, Broke-Ass was invited to speak on a panel at the New York Horticultural Society with such luminaries of the environmental architectural movement as Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of WORK Architecture Co.; Fritz Haeg, artist, Edible Estates; and the esteemed James Wines of SITE. Broke-Ass was supposed to be there to make intellectual distinctions between Baby Boomers’ self-aggrandizing revolutions and Generation X’s more practical, local movements, since this is thought to be one of her areas of expertise.
But as she sat there listening to all the ideas about how it might be a solution to move everyone out of suburban New Jersey and convert that terroir into sustainable farmland; how it would make sense to build skyscrapers that would house crops on every story; and how irresponsible it is for people to devote their yards to anything other than growing vegetables, she found herself getting extremely grumpy. Shit, she thought, am I the only person here who is actually hungry?
It was like being the scholarship kid at the prep school all over again. Was Broke-Ass the only one who took umbrage at the proposal to build rarified eco-structures that would be prohibitively expensive — and likely be enjoyed only by yuppies interested in taking their kids there for an educational weekend field trip? What about the rest of us who live next to vacant lots full of trash and drug dealers and who stress the fuck out just thinking about how we’re actually going to be able to afford fresh vegetables for dinner this week?
Cut to: The first several months of this new year, during which Broke-Ass found herself vomiting uncontrollably for weeks on end and spending an eye-wateringly expensive amount of time at the hospital, where she was poked by three different flavors of IVs and treated to every invasive and non-invasive test in the ledger of Western medicine-culminating in tubes being ushered down her throat and up her bum. Total out of pocket, courtesy of her shitty health insurance? Three thousand dollars. Cause of illness? Stress. Three grand worth of stress.
One hears things like “stress kills” and “you need to take care of yourself” and “do yoga,” but one often hears such things from people who can afford to do something about stress. Broke-Ass suggested to the very thorough and smart gastroenterologist that if he were willing to support her through medical school so that she, too, could earn a kick-ass living, her illnesses would be cured! The doctor chuckled and wrote a prescription for Clonazepam and Zofran.
Other medical professionals had different notions. “You don’t eat right, that’s your problem,” said an emergency room nurse’s assistant named James McCrae, a fit, lean dude in his 50s with a vibe no one would mess with. Broke-Ass protested self-righteously. She’s got a chicken coop, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees — all in the goddamned ghetto of Red Hook, Brooklyn.
“Oh, yeah?” said McCrae. “I grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, I raised my kids in East New York, Brooklyn, I got a farm on Fountain Avenue on a vacant lot that I’ve been working on for 16 years, I teach the young kids in the neighborhood how to help out, and I give all the fruits and vegetables away for free to anyone who brings over a brown bag.”
And thus Mr. McCrae revealed himself to be possibly the most awesome man Broke-Ass has ever met.
Here’s the story: McCrae always loved gardening and farming, but he never had any land of his own to grow anything substantial. In the ’90s, McCrae got sick and tired of the trash heaped up in the vacant lot across from his house in East New York, and got in touch with New York City’s GreenThumb division, the country’s largest urban gardening program, supporting over 600 gardens reclaimed from abandoned lots throughout the city.
Between help from GreenThumb and donated supplies from people he just happened to meet, McCrae got the Green Gems farm up and running over the course of about five years of hard work. The only money spent out of his pocket has been the few bucks he pays the “drunk guys playing cards on the street” to work the soil while he’s working at the hospital. “A lot of them are from the islands, so they grew up farming, and they do a good job — and they like it.” During the spring and summer, he teaches anyone under the age of 11 to farm: “Any older, and they can’t get it in their blood.” He’s also got a small playing field, where kids can blow off steam to play ball. Today, the farm is home to about every kind of bean, squash, green vegetable, fruit tree, whatever you can imagine.
And McCrae gives it all away.
“How are you going to tell someone working 12 hours a day for nothing they should buy some nasty red pepper for $3 at the Fine Fare when they could go to McDonald’s and buy a dollar meal?” he says.
In 2003, a similar premise motivated the founders of Added Value, in Broke-Ass’ and McCrae’s stomping grounds of Red Hook, Brooklyn, to transform a city block from a run-down playground into a working farm, where neighborhood teenagers raise the crops and can eat fresh food for cheap. Plus, just about every hipster restaurant in Red Hook buys its veggies from Added Value. Broke-Ass can see the whole operation if she stands on her tiptoes in her backyard.
So, while McCrae and the IV-ed Broke-Ass were shooting the breeze about the finer points of raising chickens in the city — which is McCrae’s next project, one he’ll embark on after checking out our humble operation in Red Hook — Broke-Ass wondered what his reaction to such projects as farm skyscrapers and moving suburban populations out of their environs to make room for farmland might be. McCrae’s response was at first one of astonished expletives. Then he folded his arms and sighed.
“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to grow food in the city, and spend a whole lot of money — you just got to find the open space, ask for it, and do the work,” he said. “People think, ‘No one’s gonna let me do that, no one want to hear from me,’ but they don’t ask! People get depressed, they get lazy.”
Broke-Ass still has no idea where she’s going to get three thousand clams to pay for her gastroenterology escapade. She doesn’t know how she’s going to get un-stressed. But meeting a buddy like McCrae gave her a nice kick in the spiritual pants. Things can happen, you can ask, you can do the work — even if you seem like you’ve got nothing to work with.