Amid fears of gentrification in Harlem, this urban farm seeks expansion

A girl waters plants at one of Harlem Grown's. The urban farm will grow by one farming site in 2020 once Lenox Terrace's new development opens. (Photo courtesy Harlem Grown)

Lenox Terrace is attempting to rezone its property so it can build five apartment buildings and space for the farm.

Harlem Grown, a community-run urban farm that feeds families in need across six schools, is looking to expand its “farm-ily.”

The organization, which feeds almost 5,000 students with the produce it grows, has partnered with Harlem’s Lenox Terrace complex to open a new 2,000-square-foot farm and office space in 2020. The new location would allow it to feed more low-income families and their students, according to Tony Hillery, Harlem Grown’s founder.

“In a nutshell, New York City is New York City, and this is all the land we’re going to get,” Hillery told amNewYork. “We can’t scale our programming without new farms or growing sites. When the project is approved, it will allow us to get a new farm.”

Right now, Harlem Grown has 12 farming sites in Central Harlem and, so far this year, has produced about 8,000 pounds of produce — all of which was free to children and their families as long as they participate in some way at one of the sites, Hillery said.

While the program provides six elementary schools with nutrition, fitness and cooking classes, mentorships and actual food, there are still 33 more elementary schools in Harlem still not being served. That means that students are going without meals, Hillery said.

“For some students, school is where they get their three meals of the day — it’s the only food they get on a recurring basis,” he added.

When asked what vegetables Harlem Grown produces, Hillery said, “Name one, we grow it.” (Photo courtesy Harlem Grown)

According to Coalition for the Homeless, more than 110,000 New York City students were homeless at some point in 2017.

“We need to scale up our operations to accommodate more students,” Hillery added. “Of course I’m happy [about expanding] but I’m sad at the same time — we want to serve every child. We’re in New York City and talking about homeless, hungry children – there’s an irony in that.”

A few years ago, Harlem Grown made a similar move to expand when Riverton Square‘s developers asked that it bring its programming to the students and seniors who live there as part of a deal with the city, Hillery said.

Lenox Terrace, located at 484 Lenox Ave., right now is in the midst of a controversial push to rezone its property so it can build five, 28-story mixed-income apartment buildings, which would also include space for the farm. On Nov. 6, Harlem’s Community Board 10 voted against the plan, saying that it would disrupt the community’s African American plurality and the height of the proposed buildings would be out of character, according to Curbed New York. The current complex also has cultural significance — it’s where many big names like trumpet player Danny Brown, former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and former congressman Charles Rangel lived.

While the community board voted “no,” the plan could still move forward because community board’s vote is only advisory. The city’s Land Use Committee and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office will review it next.

Hillery, a Bronx resident, said he is not taking sides.

“I am obviously in the middle — not pro nor against,” he said. “Progress happens but you’ve got to be at the table. I’m always advocating for the community for below market-rate housing, jobs, and food. I understand the public outcry, but if you’re not at the table, you’re just an observer.”

Hillery got started in 2010 when he started volunteering at a Harlem elementary school. He said he saw how underfunded schools are and the malnutrition many kids experience, which shook him “to the core.”

“To come here and look at these faces and learn about their lives and embrace their families and then see this — it’s like, are you serious, in New York City?” he said. “There’s no silver bullet here, but we’ve stumbled onto a very meaningful approach.”

Shaye Weaver