Inwood boomed with the thump of heavy equipment at the dawn of 1905. The newly arrived elevated subway had ushered in unprecedented development. Apartment houses were erected at a dizzying pace. The chaotic environment grated one’s nerves. Early residents, lured uptown with hollow promises of “Country Quiet and Pure Air,” found themselves living amid a dusty construction site. Work gangs hammered and dynamited away inconvenient rock formations. Horses, hitched to heavy wagons, snorted and whinnied under the strain of impossible loads.
There were no parks. No playgrounds. No places to gather.
For new residents the situation was worrisome, but a homegrown solution lay around the corner.
That spring the students of Public School 52, on Academy Street and Broadway, became part of a pilot program that introduced urban students to gardening. The experiment took root in a wonderfully unexpected manner and soon the new arrivals, often under the tutelage of their sons and daughters, transformed empty lots across the neighborhood into impromptu community gardens.
“This spontaneity, this mixing of rewarding work and play,” wrote sociologist Sanford Gaster “must have made these gardens prized features of Inwood indeed. One imagines men in shirtsleeves, women in house slippers, children barefoot—all chatting, arguing, joking, perhaps eating and drinking—enjoying their new homes, far from the urban clamor…” (A Study of an Urban Community and Its Children, City University of New York, 1993)
Bureau of School Gardens
In 1902 reformer Frances Griscom Parsons established the first “farm garden” in De Witt Clinton Park on the west side of Manhattan. Parsons, who answered to “Fannie,” believed that all children, even city kids, should be instructed in the practices of agriculture. After approaching city officials, she was granted three-quarters of an acre to begin her experiment.
Dividing the allotment into 360 miniature plots, Fannie, herself a mother of seven, gathered the children around her in this unlikely oasis. There, in the shadows of tenement buildings, Parsons taught her tiny field hands how to cultivate crops that included corn, radishes, peas, cabbages, turnips and spinach.
“The contact with nature,” Parsons would write, “the learning to use Her ways for himself is a wonderful educator for the street boy, whose knowledge is limited to stone pavements and one small room in a tenement house.”
Parsons’ first garden proved so successful that within three years the program had expanded to include several schools around the city—including Public School 52 on the northern tip of Manhattan.
Inwood’s First School Garden
In 1905 the Bureau of School Gardens deemed P.S. 52 “favorably situated” for a gardening program.
That spring some 200 students worked the soil of the initial 150 square foot plot. Parents were encouraged to become involved in the program and were considered vital to its success. This was to be a community project.
“From the outset,” wrote P.S. 52 Principal Van Evrie Kilpatrick, “the children prepared their plots individually, and used tools which they brought from home. The work of the first year was, however, nearly destroyed by cattle, which broke through the poor fences. But the teachers had watched with great interest the development of a new expression of childhood in education. They had seen a little child and a growing plant—his care for it—his love for it—his new life and intensified interest in his schoolwork and things about him. So, out of the seeming failure of a first year, the teachers planned early for a new garden the next year. The Board of Education was induced to repair the fence and prepare the soil. The ground was laid out into beds about five feet wide and eight feet long. Each child in school who wanted a plot was given one, and the interest was such that almost every child took one.” (The School Journal, Vo. 74, 1907)
The children of the neighborhood took pride and delight in their Broadway farm.
“As early as eight o’clock in the morning the little gardeners came, and each tended to his little plot,” wrote Principal Kilpatrick “his radishes were first to appear, then lettuce, beans, beets, carrots and tomatoes. The older children were given flower seeds. All the work was performed before and after school hours, and during the noon recess.” (The School Journal, Vo. 74, 1907)
The Program Expands
When the Isham family donated land in the Park Terrace area in 1912 for use as a public park part of the property was set aside to expand the children’s gardening project.
By 1914, as evidenced by photographs, students of P.S. 52 tended to crops in a idyllic surrounding removed from the construction and traffic of Broadway. Inside the new park this next generation of farmer tended to corn, potatoes, cabbage, beets and lettuce atop a hill with commanding views of the city.
In 1917 students raised $564.28 selling surplus produce from a stall attached to the Isham Park garden. Adjusting for inflation that equals slightly more than $10,000 in today’s economy.
Other Inwood Farms
The children of Inwood, who established their farm sixty-five years before the first Earth Day, were not the only area residents with green thumbs.
During World War I , when President Woodrow Wilson urged that “food will win the war,” community gardens became a common sight around the nation. Several photographs, captured in 1917, depict members of the Inwood Community Garden Association cultivating a plot on the east side of Broadway just south of Dyckman Street.
There were also commercial ventures that included the Benedetto farm on 213th Street and Broadway. The family farm, located on the site today occupied by a mini-storage facility, is considered to have been the last working farm on the island of Manhattan.
While support for the Children’s School Farm movement diminished in the years following World War I, there is evidence that gardening continued in Isham Park through the late 1940’s. Longtime Inwood residents recall a gardener’s cottage and potting shed. There are also descriptions of a large greenhouse that burned down in a “terrific” fire. Shortly after the greenhouse fire, according to one oral history, the Parks Department “came with bulldozers and took down the potting shed and cleared the place.” (A Study of an Urban Community and Its Children, City University of New York, 1993)