Fruitful fire escapes & bountiful backyards: city victory gardens make a comeback

This post was written by Museum intern Lila Norris.

A poster from the Minneapolis Defense Council.[Credit: Minnesota Historical Society/Getty Images via New York Times.]

It seems like everyone knows someone who is using their isolation to become a master bread baker or a vegetable gardener. It’s been harder to procure many of the foods we’re used to picking up easily at the grocery store and canned beans and frozen broccoli can only get you so far. So growing our own supplies has looked pretty appealing. But this isn’t the first time average Americans have turned to food production! One hundred years ago, citizens were rallying around “victory gardens” as a way to boost morale and pantries.

Victory gardens date all the way back to 1917 when Charles Lathrop Pack, a wealthy American businessman, organized the US National War Garden Commission. His goal was to supplement the decrease in food production caused by the war effort. During both world wars, a large percentage of available food was sent overseas to feed the troops – leaving domestic kitchens lacking. Additionally, many farmers had been drafted to join the war, so there was less labor available to produce food. During this time, Pack’s Garden Commission and other organizations encouraged citizens to pick up some of the slack, by growing what they could on their own land. Not only did this effort aid in feeding the American people, but it also boosted morale, instilling in citizens a sense of patriotism and sacrifice. Victory gardens were taken extremely seriously – President Woodrow Wilson is famously quoted for stating that “food will win the war!”

You don’t typically think of dense urban areas as good farmland, but even New Yorkers did their part in aiding food production. Tomatoes, carrots, beans, beets, and chard were grown within city limits. Gardens popped up all across the city, and like always, New Yorkers got creativity about finding extra space – using vacant Manhattan lots, rooftops, fire escapes and terraces. In the more spacious outer boroughs, yards and other open spaces were converted to food production. It was official city business, too – New York dedicated all vacant city-owned land to be converted into garden space during World War II, including the Lower East Side’s very own Seward and Tompkins Square parks. According to Edible Manhattan, “At the peak of the effort, there were more than 400,000 Victory Gardens in the city cultivating more than 200 million pounds of produce on more than 6,000 acres—the equivalent of seven Central Parks!” Check out this Urban Archive collection of victory garden photos from around New York City.

Boys working a victory garden on Ludlow Street. [Credit: Ephemeral New York]

City resources, such as universities and department stores took on the role of educating gardeners. Courses and seminars were held at NYU and Columbia to teach city folk the basics of farming. Macy’s department store became a garden center, selling supplies and also holding lectures and seminars. People and organizations all took on new roles to support the effort.

It didn’t matter how large or small your plot was, victory gardens turned into a movement. Neighbors helped neighbors, New Yorkers worked public land, and everyone came together to produce food in unlikely places. The gardens served a very distinct purpose, which was to feed Americans, but in turn, they also created a sense of patriotism and camaraderie during wartime. Producing food became a dedication and a duty for those who were not actively fighting. It was a way for ordinary citizens to support their country during a bleak time, even children played a key role – they were “recruited” by the Bureau of Education’s School Garden Army (USSGA) during World War I, to be “soldiers of the soil”.

Elka Israel, chairman of the West Flatbush C. V. O. Victory Garden Committee, and her husband, Abraham, working in a community vegetable garden. [Credit: Brooklyn Public Library]

After the war, gardens across New York mostly died out as they lost their urgent mandate. There was a brief campaign to keep the city growing food in newly dubbed “Freedom Gardens”, however it was not nearly as successful as the original victory garden idea. Real estate prices in New York City generally don’t support using space to cultivate crops, and in the years following the war, parks returned to being parks, gardens became lawns, and apartment dwellers took back their precious outdoor space. But the great success of the victory garden proved that even the urban jungle can farm with the best of them. Today, a network of community gardens provide training, educational programming and most importantly, fresh food, to residents.

And just maybe the victory garden is back! Recently, the New York Times published How to Plant a Victory Garden, Even on a Windowsill, and proved that all you really need is patience and light. Locate your sunniest window and start growing simple crops such as herbs, tomatoes, lettuces, and more! Even a few sprigs of fresh herbs could help spice up bland and boring frozen or canned produce. You’ll be connecting with a New York tradition a century old – and putting your green thumb to the test!

Lila Norris is a sophomore Anthropology major at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at the New School. 

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