“I want to stay here forever…I’m not kidding.”
In the best of archives, voices from the past are preserved, but this was not a voice from the past. Nor was it my voice as I sat at the table in the middle of the library looking though folders of pamphlets and correspondence and publications from the past of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Instead, it was the request of a young girl whose mother was asking her to leave the library to go back out into the garden on a warm, sunny Tuesday afternoon in October. I sympathize with her struggle. “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” Cicero said, and I might have to agree.With the generous support of the Kohlstedt fellowship, I spent the month of October excavating the history of community horticulture programs and their precursors at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG). Along the way, I became better acquainted with a pair of Ellens—Ellen Eddy Shaw, the first director of BBG’s children’s garden, and Ellen Kirby, the first director of BBG’s GreenBridge community horticulture program, both of whom are essential subjects of my dissertation research, despite the fact that only one of them falls within its temporal bounds of 1970 and 2000.
From 1913, Ellen Eddy Shaw was the director of the children’s garden at BBG, the first children’s garden in a botanical garden in the world. As one of the first employees of the garden and one of its longest tenured, Shaw developed and maintained a strong community and public education focus at BBG with the help of the Garden’s first director, C. Stuart Gager, and her successor, Frances Miner. With a background in botany and pedagogy, Shaw maintained a tight ship in the children’s garden, where secondary students grew their own vegetables in self-maintained plots each summer. Today, the children’s garden remains much the same—including tools that have been so well cared for they have lasted over a hundred years.
Image 1: BBG's early outreach extended beyond children too, with programs like the one advertised in this lovely letterpress-printed pamphlet for victory gardens during WWII. Image of document from the collections of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Ellen Kirby joined the staff of BBG in 1993 as part of the GreenBridge program. Envisioned together with BBG’s then president, Judith Zuk, GreenBridge supported community gardening programs in the Borough of Brooklyn as the community-outreach arm of BBG. Between looking through Kirby’s files in the archives and googling her (because this is obviously one of the best advantages to working on recent history), I discovered that she had no formal horticultural training prior to working at BBG and instead had over twenty years of experience working for women’s rights within the Methodist church and a master’s of divinity degree. It is clear to me from this that Kirby’s primary expertise was in community advocacy and organizing, skills she used to build programs like the “Greenest Block in Brooklyn” competition, which encouraged neighborhood groups in Brooklyn to both horticulturally and politically enhance their streets.