Foraging is not allowed in New York City parks, unless you are plucking sage, squash, or serviceberries at the Bronx River Foodway, a quarter-acre food forest at Concrete Plant Park. Descended from a floating public art project, the Foodway is now offering up its sixth harvest along the Bronx River. While this fall, members of community gardens are reaping the bounty of a season of labor, the Foodway offers something else to anyone who comes there: a low barrier to entry in contact and connection with local ecologies. Besides the medicinal herbs and boon to mental health, the natural flood protection and the sweet and sour raspberries, Sabina Sethi Unni argues, the Foodway also paves the way for greater common ownership of Bronx assets to benefit local residents. Below, she spends a few days sampling the Foodway’s abundant offerings, significant triumphs, and liberatory possibilities.
“The red mulberry is native to the United States and bears fruit that are eaten by birds, mammals, and humans alike (though please remember that foraging is against the law in all New York City Parks, including Central Park).” – Central Park Conservancy
Concrete Plant Park is closed for the summer, but if it weren’t, I’d be leaving with arms full of cherries, crabapples in abundance, invasive bitter mulberries that cover the floor and sooth smoke inhalation and lower blood sugar, mugwort, anise, burdock, bayberries, chestnuts, tomatoes, cilantro (questionably, maybe, probably), tiny strawberries not quite ripe yet, three types of basil, white native raspberries, medicinal herbs that Sonyi’s mom uses to make tea (she loves making tea), small plants that you can’t find unless you know the right botánica, medicinal herbs to calm asthma in an area of the Bronx where four highways intersect and trucks headed to Hunts Point Market idle, four varieties of mint (mountain, chocolate, apple, lemon balm), gooseberry, sumac, catnip, and a full belly.
At least, that’s what Journei Bimwala and Nathan Hunter tell me, while sifting through germinating and grown cherries, pitting them fruit by fruit by fruit, crushing them, draining their juice, setting the pulp aside, and mixing the remedy with sweeter herbal tea so they can pass it out of their Hydration Station Float (which is less of a float and more of a repurposed shopping cart that two staffers are taping recycled plastic bottles to that Journie wishes was a wheelbarrow) at the Hunts Point Fish Parade tomorrow. They both work with Bronx River Alliance (BRA). Journie works as an artist-in-residence via Creatives Rebuild New York, a program that helps employ artists throughout New York State. Nathan serves as Foodway Coordinator, employed by the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation (Parks), which helps provide maintenance and funding for New York City’s first public food forest: 10,000 square feet of edible and takeable plants tucked into the corner of Concrete Plant Park, that’s been showering the South Bronx with chestnut and echinacea since 2018. You might almost miss the Foodway if it weren’t for the proud, green panel, which lets visitors in on the mission of “reconnecting community members to food, plant medicine, and land within the city.”
It’s pouring in the Bronx (and it also pours tomorrow, at the Fish Parade, and seemingly every day for the rest of the summer and fall), so I rush around Starlight Park (a ten-minute walk from Concrete Plant Park along the Sheridan Expressway) in the rain to find the Bronx River House, a building hidden deep in brand new vines and covered with a trellis designed to attract Virginia creeper. I run into: data collection sheets with today’s water quality sampling reports from the parks alongside the Bronx River taped to the building’s glass door, abundant signage from the Parks Department sharing “this area has been planted with native vegetation and serves as a natural water filter, it is left unmowed to provide a habitat for wildlife,” a blue pedestrian bridge with parks rules in English, Spanish, and Bangla, and friendly teenagers on bikes telling me to check out the view along the rushing river, just across the bridge.
While the Bronx River Alliance’s Foodway was the first legal place to forage in New York City, people have been growing and gleaning things on public land everywhere, legally or informally, from Bangladeshi aunties planting lau shak around street trees in Kensington, to families growing eggplants near Department of Environmental Protection rain gardens in plastic pails off Junction Boulevard, to Wildman Steve Brill teaching foraging in Central Park and Far Rockaway and selling cookbooks and (unintentionally) drawing attention to foraging’s racialized enforcement. Regulations on foraging, which is now-associated with expensive restaurants in Denmark or white REI-clad self-taught mycology experts whom park rangers ignore in favor of harassing brown teenagers playing music, have roots in 17th century settler colonialism and anti-Black restrictions on access to the land and all it provides, which manifest in an exclusive shortlist of non-profits with special permission to harvest directly from the land. Baylen J. Linnekin, an attorney specializing in food law and policy, notes that Parks officials often fine New Yorkers (particularly Black and brown New Yorkers) up to $250 for foraging: an “uncaring, intrusive, arbitrary. . . vague” policy that should be reversed in favor of friendlier policies like ending the “museumification” of city parks or acknowledging that foragers are conservationists (“modern ginseng harvesters. . . see themselves as stewards of the forest”). The Foodway exists as a private-public partnership between the Bronx River Alliance, a Bronx-based environmental nonprofit largely responsible for the cleanup of the Bronx River (which recently reported sightings of dolphins and beavers), and the Parks Department, which is normally unsympathetic to foraging, but an ally to the BRA because, according to Nathan, a former Parks bureaucrat was sympathetic to the cause.
The Foodway does not want to feed everyone in the Bronx (despite the wishes of Mr. Louis, who plants peppers in the grass). More humbly, it exists to connect people to their land by accessing edible nature “as it is.” Instead of following the community garden model and constructing standard raised garden beds with soil from Home Depot as many community gardens do, Foodway staff and volunteers help people overcome their apprehension about wild plants and berries through strategic programming using gifts from the Foodway: tarot readings with tea, textile making with natural dyes, or mushroom identification classes. Instead of produce like tomatoes or carrots, the plants that line the Foodway are mostly native perennials planted by staff or anonymous harvesters (on clean soil that Cornell researchers regularly test), to be used for medicinal or ceremonial purposes. Instead of reliably sowing and reaping the same harvest each year, the Foodway is intentionally unreliable (or as Journei says, “nothing is guaranteed in our space, nature doesn’t wait”). Instead of demanding hours of significant volunteer labor in exchange for exclusive membership, like a community garden does, the Foodway strategically reseeds the landscape with perennial plants that don’t require significant maintenance, which helps in communities poor in free time, and also helps a river-adjacent neighborhood that floods and needs new (or to remember old) strategies for non-obtrusive water absorption.
Something about lanternfly discourse last summer made me feel guilty. I love native plants and pollinator gardens as much (or more) than the next wannabe-environmentalist, but encouraging people to steward their environment through targeted destruction of a helpless bug felt gross (isn’t there a more critical-ecological-radical-interspecies-coexistence-nonhuman-entanglements approach)? In his book The Accidental Ecosystem, Peter Alagona cautions environmental educators that “drawing a bright line between those that belong and those that don’t” can stoke xenophobia, especially because “one of the goals of studying urban wildlife is to engage a younger, more diverse constituency for conservation.” If the Foodway is capacious in its audience (all are welcome all the time!) and approach (including plants!), why use the othering, binary, white environmentalist language of “native” and “invasive”?
They don’t, and even though the Foodway does attempt to primarily plant native species, Nathan resists leaning into the racist categorizations of the plant world (like, what exactly makes a plant exotic?) in both his language and practice. Instead of calling mugwort “invasive,” even though ecologists warn against its propensity to displace native species by creating rhizomes and tolerating mowing and herbicides, Nathan says that “she doesn’t know boundaries, she’s wild, and she’s gotta be pulled in sometimes.” Journie adds that the word “invasive doesn’t tell me anything about a plant, just about how you see it,” and “robs us” of truly knowing plants: their utility, their fullness, their personalities. Because burdock is invasive to the Bronx, it was systematically removed from Van Cortlandt Park (Journie even came across a lady pouring vinegar on the plant). But burdock can help with eczema, psoriasis, and digestive disorders (plus, it tastes pretty sweet).
In 2018, at the beginning of Nathan’s tenure as a Foodway employee, Bangladeshi families quietly planted squash in the middle of the night. Their winding vines bullied other plants and, upon blossoming, squash overtook the entire Foodway. At first, it was frustrating (squash are all-consuming! Squash belong in a community garden, not a foodway!), but Nathan realized that squash-harvesters were tending to the plants and leaves to feed their families. I texted a couple of friends: what Bangladeshi foods use squash, while literally sitting at my grandma’s table eating squash subzi that she grew in her garden (last summer it ate the porch and wandered into our home). You might think that Hunts Point-slash-Westchester Avenue is mostly Black and Latinx (by way of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic), and you’d be right, but it’s also ten minutes from Parkchester, once a racially restricted planned community developed by the Met Life Insurance company in 1939, and now home to one-fifth of the city’s Bangladeshi population (according to my anecdotal data of being a South Asian with comrades clustered around the five boroughs and two counties and also Asian American Federation data from 2019). The Bronx is not historically Bangladeshi, but since at least 2010, Democratic politicians have been trying to court Parkchester’s growing population, hosting rallies inside New Jol Khabar or promising to hire Bengali speakers as outreach staffers, which is my indicator of a growing ethnic enclave (is pandering recognition?). The Foodway seems adept to navigate this constant negotiation, and Journie reminds us that “no landscape ever really remains the same.”
The Foodway may be a neologism (riffing on sketchy 1940s anthropologists), but food forests, or unnamed experimental public gardens with open access to berries and leaves for foraging, herbalism, ethnobotany, or education, are not new. The Allen Centennial Garden, a “teaching garden” on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, intentionally grows plants native to Ho-Chunk, Hmong, and Afro Diasporic communities, recently expanding to include a Latinx Garden with Central American plants (maize, fava beans, amaranth, wild leafy plants). Staff, or at least the former intern who wrote an interesting blog post, argues that “perhaps this garden will spark conversations around. . . the ways settler colonialism has transformed the significance of the distribution and use of these plants, and maybe even the interconnectedness between plants and humans.” Though the Foodway intersects with broader movements around food justice, foraging, and stewardship, that energy is stunted by NYC’s nervous policies around foraging; 1.9 acre Stuyvesant Cove Park on the east side of Manhattan, with beach plums, violets, and switchgrass, is the only other space that allows for legal foraging but it’s owned by the quasi-public NYC Economic Development Corporation, not Parks.
I asked Parks why foraging is illegal, and they pointed me in the direction of “one of 550 GreenThumb community gardens” instead. I like community gardens as much as (or less than) the next vacant lot transformation enthusiast, but they’re often locked, gated off from the public, with deeply competitive membership systems and high demands for labor and time. Plus, many neighborhoods don’t have community gardens, and when I try to fill out the Google Form on the GreenThumb website, it lets me know that they’re not currently taking submissions. Foraging is illegal in New York City, the Parks Department argues, because removing plants would “rob the other plants and animals of their benefits.” The Foodway didn’t originate with the Parks Department, but as a public art project. Swale, a floating forest on a 130-by-40-foot barge designed by artist Mary Mattingly, was moored along the Bronx River in 2016 and 2017 to tap into maritime law, because the rules that regulate the water do not regulate foraging.
Docking at Concrete Plant Park, then at Governor’s Island, then at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Mattingly’s experiment was constructed in partnership with other artists, with engineers who helped with landscape architecture, solar panels, and water pumps, and with Bronx-based organizations instrumental in the historic Bronx River cleanup, like Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ) and the Point CDC, whose youth leadership slept overnight and helped build the barge, working as stewards and docents during the day via NYC’s Summer Youth Employment Program. Swale perhaps redirected the broader arc of Mattingly’s art, which, she wrote in a 2015 manifesto, was in service of utopian projects that “work towards worlds where humans serve as caretakers rather than private owners. . . [and] help to recognize the reciprocity of commons and indigenous rights to land stewardship, while protecting it from being sold off.” Unlike the movements she referenced, whose power lies in their permanence, Mattingly creates temporary public art, which allows people to envision “imaginative workarounds for what could happen in NYC.”
This temporary project found new relevance when the Foodway settled alongside Concrete Plant Park. The site of a concrete factory active between 1940 and 1987, it was renovated to become a park and waterfront oasis in 2009 because young folks had no public access points to the Bronx River. Ed Mundo Martinez’s mom lives next door to the park, but never thought to walk inside until her son started organizing around it, through Friends of Concrete Plant Park. Mundo, who has been organizing with the Bronx River Alliance and others in the neighborhood for decades, argues that the Foodway was not originally a project connected to broader strands of activism, but a public art installation. Mattingly, when I spoke to her, would probably agree; she noted that projects like Swale can’t stand as protest on their own, but need to be open to the “collective potential” of an organization bringing a political agenda to the piece. As the founder of Friends of Concrete Plant Park, Mundo has organized activations like movie nights, park cleanups, breakfast in Starlight Park, community libraries, art installations, and infrastructural improvements like daylighting or opening the front fencing. Friends Of became a way to fill in the gaps that formal organizations, like the Bronx River Alliance, and agencies, like the Parks Department, couldn’t reach. Mundo, who has lived and worked by the Bronx River for decades, notes that “it’s great to have a clean river, but it means nothing if people feel like the park isn’t theirs.” Friends of Concrete Plant Park is not a reactionary beautification group, despite what the name might imply, but Mundo’s response to threats of displacement and gentrification after the revitalization of nearby Starlight Park.
The Foodway nestles within broader and interconnected organizing struggles for decision making power within the Bronx. I talked to Sonyi Lopez, a community journalist, who coincidentally wrote a college essay in 2017 about the Foodway before it found a permanent home in Concrete Plant Park. Sonyi, born and raised in Mott Haven, first learned about the Foodway riding on a bike tour of community gardens in the Bronx. Unlike community gardens Sonyi’s seen that belong to the city with temporary, limited, and superficial access for residents, the Foodway “is ours and we can have it.” The Foodway has its own set of restrictions (the park closes at 10 pm), but they’re much looser than the community gardens of Manhattan that open to the public on Sundays from 1 pm to 5 pm (if it doesn’t rain and there isn’t a private member event). Sonyi organizes with, amongst other groups, the Bronxwide Plan, which advocates for opportunities for collective ownership and people-powered change. The Foodway is part of a political orientation away from temporary access, but towards sovereignty and public commoning. The Bronxwide Plan proposals are for initiatives like this: a South Bronx community land trust (not just affordable housing); repurposing golf courses into public spaces (not just increasing access); a public food market in the West Bronx (not just a food bank); a People’s Credit Union (not just micro-lending); a Cooperative WiFi mesh network (not just free WiFi). Or, as Mundo puts it, “you gotta make it feel like it’s yours, that’s what makes the neighborhood.” Like any other movement, the Foodway is indebted to a generation of South Bronx organizers fighting for public goods (many of whom still organize: running community centers and Community Land Trusts and harm reduction clinics and painting radical murals and playing the pandero at rallies and reminding neighbors of rent strikes decades ago when the city cut off their hot water because “nothing has been for free”).
It’s autumn now and Concrete Plant Park is buzzing, and not just because it’s right off the Sheridan Expressway and thumping 6 train, but because it’s full of life and energy, even during the workday, with bikers, e-bikers on the wrong side of the path (who ignore the signs that scream “no motorized or electric bikes, scooters, and ATVs” but it doesn’t matter because they all wave hello), blaring sirens, noisy ducks, empty domino tables but full benches lined with focused readers, good Samaritans cleaning litter, muraled-out shipping containers, drawings in all colors of chalk, and brown people foraging.
The Foodway is open, but I’m too scared to eat anything. I have a folding pocket naturalist guide (that I paid too much for at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, with the intent to give to my cousin who moved to Wisconsin and got into foraging mushrooms which sent my mom and aunt into a tizzy), but I’m frightened of everything: ticks from the long grass (why didn’t I wear socks?), tripping on the soil (why did I wear platform shoes?), bee stings (I can hear them buzz to bite me — I mean to pollinate small white flowers), accumulating mosquito welts to add to my summer haul, misidentifying plants. I ask Journie why I’m scared, and she says it’s capitalism’s fault: it stops people from seeing our relationship with nature as reciprocal. Journie, who grew up homeschooled in France, started with the Foodway as a volunteer, but became invested when her daughter had the whooping cough. In the middle of the night, she harvested chestnut for pain relief: a foodway is free healthcare. She’s drawn to the Foodway’s ability to challenge pharmaceuticocapitalism (maybe not a word) by arming residents with tools and knowledge to forage for medicinal plants that help with respiratory and cardiovascular health issues in the South Bronx (or as she puts it succinctly, “plants follow us”).
A couple with backpacks, hidden in the brush, is picking off berries and eating them. I ask what they’re trying, and they say, “berries, they’re good!” We start to speak in Spanish to each other, but laugh and give up immediately (plus, I mostly use Spanish right now to talk about the differences between a limited equity co-op and a community land trust, so I can’t remember how to say raspberries until they’ve walked away). The sweet, small, almost white raspberries remind me of the fruits that grow in my grandfather’s backyard. I haven’t thought to try them in years.
All photos by Sonyi Lopez