Long gone are the days when, according to Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt, "The head of every family in Flatbush, with few exceptions, was a farmer...they cultivated their land in the most careful manner, and were among the best farmers in the state." Still, even in the 1880s, market gardeners of Kings County sent considerable amounts of food to the tables of New York City. But by 1900 a precipitous rise in development entailed a corresponding decline in the amount of available farmland. By 1924 there were 24 farms left in Brooklyn, by 1930 only 11, but the depression and World War II brought a temporary reversal of the trend in the form of WPA gardens and then Victory Gardens.
A sample of the first crop from a Brooklyn home relief subsistence garden as it was received by Miss Charlotte Carr, acting director of the Home Relief Division of the Emergency Relief Bureau. The bushel basket contains 17 varieties of vegetables. So far 1,500 Brooklyn gardens have produced 5,000 bunches of radishes, three tons of beans, 10,000 bushels of white turnips and quantities of lettuce, Swiss chard, cabbage, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, carrots, squash and corn. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 14, 1935.
Though divided into blocks and lots, Brooklyn's soil could still support an abundance of vegetables and fruits. On April 1 1935 Brooklyn Borough President Raymond Ingersoll urged all owners of vacant land to offer its use for the Subsistence Garden project. The plan announced that "the person who wishes to raise his own vegetables will be furnished the land, tools, seeds, provision for plowing and instruction in the art of agriculture." In spite of the date of the article, this was not a joke. In 1936, WPA gardens produced more than a million pounds of vegetables for the borough's poor. This did not include the produce raised in hundreds of backyard gardens throughout the borough. The produce reported in a Jan, 1936 Eagle article was raised by people dependent on home relief on six plots totaling about 106 acres. In the year 1936 only those WPA workers earning less than $60.50 a month were eligible for the program; in 1937 the limit was raised to $103.40. Applicants were obliged to sign an agreement to work their plot, sell none of the food grown, and keep their gardens in good condition.
In 1936 WPA supervisors tallied the weight of crops produced in lots located at Bergen Beach, E. 74th St and Avenue U, Remsen Ave and Avenue A, Utica Ave and Avenue I, Crescent St and Old Mill Road and 102nd St and Foster Ave. Topping the list in terms of sheer poundage were tomatoes, at 237,809 lb. Corn was a distant second, at 130,296 lb, closely followed by 108,852 lb of turnips; other successful crops included 88,362 lb of snap beans and 65,582 lb of Swiss chard. Either nobody liked parsnips or the crop had a wormy year: only 40lb were grown; 26,000 lb of summer squash made it to the table, only slightly more than the poundage of turnip greens. Onions too had a mediocre year (191 lb). (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 19, 1936.) The gardeners also received instruction in canning and were able to bring their produce to a canning center where they worked under the supervision of a nutritionist, a part of whose job was to banish microbes from the canned and bottled foods.
The canning of tomatoes grown in local subsistence gardens is shown underway at a canning kitchen at 1021 Crescent St today (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept. 17, 1935)
WPA era gardeners were also responsible for what might have been a grand show of tulips in a sunken garden at the south side of the Brooklyn College library building. We will never know for sure, because all the photos are in black and white.
Campus tulip gardens: In the late spring...the colorful Dutch tulips planted by WPA gardeners finally awake...
The subsistence gardens of the WPA era (also termed relief gardens) prepared the ground for an even greater effort to produce food from Brooklyn's fertile land--the Victory Gardens of the 1940s, to be the subject of Brooklyn Gardens Part II.
The information in the article comes from: Brooklyn Collection photograph collection; the Brooklyn Daily Eagle morgue clippings; the Brooklyn Daily Eagle via www.fultonhistory.com; Mark Linder and Larry Zacharias, Of Cabbages and Kings County.