By Steve Dwyer
You can’t miss the simple but powerful two-word calling card embossed on Gil Lopez’s email stamp: “In SOIL-idarity.” This speaks volumes about the way Lopez is hard wired toward championing environmental reform within the New York City urban infill.
An evangelist for all things environmental justice, Lopez, co-founder and president of Smiling Hogshead Ranch, was named the 2020 NYC Brownfield Partnership’s “Distinguished Service Award” recipient. “I moved here with determination and rigor to move the needle further on community greening,” declares Lopez. “Back then the community garden idea had really been stagnant.”
That sure has changed. The Big Apple boasts more than 450 community gardens, most a fixture of city living. There was a time they bordered on extinction. In the late 1990s, city officials, seeking revenue, planned to auction off vacant lots—including more than a hundred community gardens—to the highest bidder.
These days, every borough plays host to at least one urban farm—just two of many include GrowNYC (21,000-square-foot urban garden filled with vegetable beds made from recycled materials) and the Battery Urban Farm (one acre in the 25-acre Battery Park dedicated to growing more than 100 types of vegetables).
Nominated by NYCBP board member Laura Senkevitch, who had partnered with Gil while at Long Island City-based The Fortune Society, Lopez’s selection was unanimous—and for a host of reasons. “Gil envisions brownfields as a connector to the greater good,” says Senkevitch. “I’ve worked with him a long time and have understood his vision. He sees the urban/community garden as a future-forward concept—really a larger ‘macro’ vision and not just about brownfield environmental remediation, but about building connections for the future.”
The acclaimed environmental educator and landscape designer was the principal behind what at the time was dubbed a “guerilla urban garden” ensconced on a former railroad bed in Long Island City, and launched almost a decade ago. In that period, Lopez helped transform the green space into a bona fide community centerpiece that’s the fabric of LIC.
States Senkevitch: “Gil explained his vision for brownfield remediation and the role of the garden. He wanted to partner with community people, and over the course of 10 years so much has been accomplished—hosting interns to learn composting, establishing synergistic partnerships, engaging with students, and so much more.”
This complemented The Fortune Society well, as the community-based organization strives to strengthen the fabric of communities through education and advocacy to create a fair, humane and rehabilitative correctional system—and also trains their jobseekers in the skills needed to succeed in environmental careers.
These attributes—and others—are done as a common thread pervades the urban garden: That is, to build civic and neighborhood pride, offering LIC residents something to be proud of and to become invested in.
Multitude of Benefits
Establishing itself as a non-for-profit entity provided leverage for Lopez to generate funding and power up its engines. Today, the green space is armed with a multitude of returns: It serves as an instruction incubator for many New York City K-12 students; a job provider noted for hiring many individuals, including those who have been released from correctional facilities and crave a second chance; a vital destination for folks to compost food and other waste so waste material doesn’t see the light of landfills.
Lopez, who moved to New York City in 2010, mastered permaculture design concepts in landscape architecture school, establishing a keen interest in productive landscapes. In 2011, he along with a group of LIC neighbors established the guerilla garden concept on a set of abandoned railroad tracks—a shuttered line at the Montauk Cutoff and owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). He negotiated with MTA to secure a garden license agreement for the property around the time his outfit secured non-profit status. Previously, there hadn’t been a framework for leasing the property, but the not-for-profit stamp helped put everything in motion.
The footprint required environmental remediation, as one could imagine on a former railroad property laced with cadmium, arsenic and other trace material. Work commenced to clear, clean, design and utilize the lot. Lopez identified trace materials on the property and established a remediation course that encompassed removal, capping, in-Situ remediation and more techniques to address the pollution—also underpinned by a green and sustainable cleanup mentality. (The efforts have been heralded in a number of forums—recently featured in the Natural Farmer publication.)
All efforts occurred with a wave of historical inspiration driving Lopez, unwavering to recognize the local pioneers of urban and community gardens tracing to the 1970s. “Their names are not recorded in our history but they championed the community garden concept, and I stand on the shoulders of these giants that came before me,” Lopez says.
He singled out Hattie Carthan, who worked tirelessly from her Hattie Carthan Food Projects in Central Brooklyn, an educational herb farm to promote use of herbs for holistic individual, communal and environmental health—all within the principle of fostering food justice.
Another was the First Community Garden in New York City helmed by Liz Christy, a local resident who with a group of gardening activists were known as the “Green Guerillas.” They planted window boxes, vacant lots with seed bombs and tree pits in the area.
The coalition saw the large rubble-strewn lot as a potential garden, and petitioned the city to find a way to gain official use of the land. In 1974, the site was approved for rental as the Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden. Not long after, the Green Guerillas were running workshops and planting experimental plots to learn how a wide range of plants could be grown in hostile conditions. The garden became a site for many plant giveaways, where plants grown on-site, donated from nurseries and local gardeners, were bestowed to aid new gardens all over the City.
Senkevitch of NYCBP recalls how Lopez’s ranch was armed from the outset with a multi-dimension vision that transcended brownfield remediation, because this vision was about the long play: Potential uses of sites and imagining what they could be and establishing the ranch as a model for other community garden ventures. “Gil’s company went from being a volunteer-centric entity to non-profit so it could get access to loans, grants, establish a board of directors,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way he has gone about business. In regular times, Lopez hosted “Terrific Tuesday” events, sharing pot luck dinners and scheduling spring planting events in April.
His composting effort is a prolific one to be reckoned with, as it deploys seven different composting systems. But with the COVID-19 health crisis hitting hard in March, the dynamic shifted. The NYC Compost Project was geared to provide mega-composting capability for residents and more, handling and dispersing large amounts of material.
But since March, that service was interrupted. Stepping into to try and fill the void was Lopez’ operation, which suddenly became “inundated with composted volume. It’s hard to handle this deluge of demand,” he says.
Historically the non-for-profit designation also provided his outfit with an opportunity to better partner with schools: until the pandemic hit it was known to host field trips of 40 to 50 students from local schools, where they toured the farm to see demonstrations on composting and were introduced to the idea of what makes a successful community garden.
“We are education-focused, and hosted school groups to teach them about food. Now we have had to rethink how to do that in a different way, remotely,” he says.
Lopez remarks that there’s a keen distinction between the concept of “urban agriculture” and “urban/community garden.” With his involvement in championing the latter model, urban gardens are about reclaiming space, but urban agriculture might place an emphasis on pure agriculture and output—a more rigid approach. It capitalizes on using the space but does not pay a living wage and might even export foods, he explains.
As he sums up his journey, which—as Robert Frost so eloquently wrote, has many miles before he sleeps—Lopez states the obvious: “I am part of the working class. Over the years, there has been a slow creep to the community garden paradigm.”
Gil Lopez is seeing to it that the paradigm reaches a higher level, if not the pinnacle.