New York City’s famed Central Park wasn’t always just a park. In the 1800s, it was mostly farmland before becoming the predominantly Black neighborhood known as Seneca Village. Brooklyn Grange founder Amber Tamm wants to turn part of Central Park back into its farming roots. She may just succeed.
Tamm’s interest in Seneca Village was spurred by her mother’s fascination with its history. “There would be these excavations where they were finding bones of our ancestors and my mother would always be moved to tears and be investigating how she can go see it, how she can go experience it on her own,” says Tamm. “Once Seneca Village became a thing and once they started to find the walls and the teapots, she was deeply invested in talking about it.“
Like a growing number of New Yorkers growing on rooftops or balconies, Tamm is no stranger to urban farming. Her passion took it a step further than most, though. She runs the Brooklyn Grange’s six-acre rooftop farm operation. Her plan, which she’s dubbed “Seneca Village Farm,” includes turning part of Central Park’s 55-acre Great Lawn into a community farm. The food would help to feed underserved communities in Manhattan.
The farm would also offer classes and educational resources for locals interested in urban farming.
“I think calling out Central Park is powerful, because it’s the biggest park in New York City and it has the most flatland,” she told Fast Company.
Farming In Central Park
Under Tamm’s plan, there would be 14 one-acre plots available. One person or family would farm on each plot, allocated via an application process. Tamm and her team would train the plot awardees how to farm their acre, or match them to a mentor who could help them.
“But also what does it look like for [the plot owner] to exercise creativity? Does she want to grow in rows? Does she want to grow in circles and spirals? Let her flesh out what her vision is and let her work through what it’s like to revitalize soil while also supporting community through what she yields,” says Tamm.
New York City’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables was hampered during the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown. But it’s never been a hub for locally grown produce. At least, not in the last century. Compare the city to places upstate or across the country and it’s not difficult to see why: Manhattan is a busy concrete island. Farmers markets in the city are populated by some vendors traveling three or more hours, some from neighboring states. It’s why operations like Brooklyn Grange and Gotham Greens are seeing such success; they’re innovating local food systems in one of the most population-dense areas.
Now, Tamm is looking for support for her vision from the Central Park Conservancy, a nonprofit founded in 1980. It helped restore the park after years of neglect. But it’s proving difficult. Not impossible, but difficult due to zoning permits and the recreational nature of the park.
“The undergirding philosophical approach is as much land should be available to all people,” says Sam Biederman, systems commissioner for community outreach and partnership development at New York City Parks. He works closes with the Conservancy. “Turning a significant amount of that space over to agriculture that’s a significantly different use—it’s a tall order.”
But the city and the Conservancy are aware of the park’s history and the legacy of Seneca Village. They want to continue to honor it. Tamm is aware of the complications. She’s already raised more than $100,000 to fuel another farm project even if the Central Park vision doesn’t come to fruition. But she’s hopeful. “It would be there to pay homage to the ancestors of Seneca Village—that’s the number-one goal.”