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Aziz Dehkan | Lunch with New York City’s Community Garden Mastermind

Full disclosure: I am only having the honor of sitting here today because of my Uncle Bobby, who has been lifelong friends with Aziz and his incredible wife, Barb. Okay, here we go. Spending the afternoon with Aziz Dehkan was an absolute honor. This lovely man has significantly impacted urban agriculture, creating sustainable, nourishing gathering places in a megacity. But before we jump into that, let’s check out his roots. He went to Rutgers University and majored in biological sciences. His family’s originally from Iran; however, Aziz was born and raised in New York.

On the other side of the globe, his family grew grapes in Shiraz, Iran. Consequently, he always had a connection to the land, especially when they would vacation in Iran during the summers. As a child, he would always follow his father around on the farm and loved the whole idea of watching things grow to produce such delights. So naturally, young Aziz accomplished a horticulture degree, bought a property in Andover, and started one of the first organic farms in New Jersey. This put him on the map!

Today, Aziz is a pillar, advocates for 550 gardens in the city’s five boroughs. He is the outgoing Executive Director of the New York City Community Garden Coalition (NYCCGC), which was formed in the 80s when there was a lot of urban destruction happening in New York City. And by that, I mean that the economy was horrible then. Then many property owners were not paying their building taxes. So, they let the buildings rot, or they burned them down. This mainly happened in marginalized communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Lower Manhattan. The history of that is intertwined with Rudy Giuliani. The NYCCGC has historical evidence that the fire department in New York City let those buildings burn, and it was a coordinated effort to destroy neighborhoods.

Let’s back up here a bit, folks – Urban gardens have been around like forever, right? Some of the earliest ones are World War Two Victory Gardens. People were growing in patches that they had in their backyards because the food was super scarces at that time. In the 80s, as NYC burned down, people living in these neighborhoods started to reclaim them. They made gardens out of the rubble.  Giuliani did not like this, so he started pushing back, destroying some of the gardens there. At the time, the city really wanted to take that land over and profit selling to developers while gentrifying the burbs. 

Up lunged a significant resistance, and that is how the New York City Community Garden Coalition was formed. Although it took decades to build up NYC’s urban horticulture infrastructure, today it thrives! Aziz loves the diversity of these gardens, cultivating edible and nursery beauties. However, he feels that “We are living in an age of a climate crisis and community gardens are carbon mitigators in a city that’s all cement. Often, they still are under threat.” Gentrified neighborhoods, marginalized communities in the Bronx, and Brooklyn. They have had wealthy developers come in and throw up million-dollar apartments advertising ‘you can look out your window and see a community garden.’ A minor problem that the NYCCGC faces. 

The people and the gardens have a unique, symbiotic relationship. After Hurricane Sandy hit, the Lower East Side got inundated several feet deep with water during times of tribulation. Some of the streets flowed like rivers. However, because of the community gardens:   
• The water receded faster   
• Buildings had less damage   
• People came together  
Unlike the surrounding asphalt areas, those plots were like sponges and absorbed copious amounts of water. Aziz chuckled, “Well, they didn’t necessarily save the city, but they became gathering places for people who had been in the garden communities.”   

That circles us back to another important piece about community gardens. Especially in urban areas, it brings people together in ways that you usually don’t see. For example, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Compost Garden was run predominantly by Caucasians. Then a large contingent of Bangladeshi people came into that neighborhood and started to plant plots there, growing their own vegetables. Immediately, everyone could see the difference between the Bangladeshi plot and the local neighborhood white folk. Aziz goes on to express how “food is the great equalizer. When you see the two ethnicities coming together and then growing together, that’s pretty damn amazing.”