Gardening and Garvey: a reminiscence of 1980’s sustainability in Hunt’s Point

McLymont w Zoo Doo posterAnchored in God and family, Fritz-Earle McLymont, business consultant par excellence, conducted this interview with us on Monday, July 21 at a midtown Manhattan office building. We were fortunate to be granted two hours between his many projects including waste-to-energy initiatives in East Africa. He shared memories of his time directing a once alive and thriving Bronx Frontier Development Corporation–a paragon of social, economic, and environmental sustainability in the late 1970s through 1991 or so. Background information came from an interview with another former Bronx Frontier employee (who still works in Hunt’s Point), the Bronx Museum of the Art’s catalog “Devastation/Resurrection: the South Bronx” dated November 9 [1979] – January 13,1980, and Jill Jonnes’ book South Bronx Rising: the rise, fall, and resurrection of an American City published in 2002 by Fordham University Press. Finally and potently, a contemporaneous account of Bronx Frontier dated 1978 lives on-line at Mother Earth News which proved invaluable. What follows is a summary of the McLymont interview with relevant notes for context.
Barretto Street Garden
Bronx River Sankofa followers may remember our summer 2012 photographer’s tour of three neighborhoods including Woodlawn Cemetery, West Farms, and Hunt’s Point. The last stop in that tour was the public art scene of found objects and folkloric carpentry, a fruit tree orchard, and traditional Afro-Caribbean music also known as Barretto Street Garden (shown above). At that time, our narrative focused on the way the Trust for Public Land under Andy Stone’s direction had orchestrated the legal transfer of that green patch into public park land with Henry Font (deceased) acting as coordinator. Font lived directly across the street in a brick apartment building where relatives remain. During that tour, we hadn’t talked about how all that rich soil—supporting herbs, flowers, veggies, and fruit—got there. This article seeks to address that omission…and more!
Fritz-Earle McLymont became a consequential upstairs neighbor to Mr. Font for almost three years in the 80’s after returning to his adoptive United States following groundbreaking economic work within the Michael Manley government of Jamaica. Once back in the USA, a friend’s call compelled him to revisit a project of Bronx preservationist Irma Fleck he had consulted to before leaving America in the late 70’s. On-leave police officer (Bronx 41st precinct) and Bronx businessman Jack Flanagan convinced him he should take over leadership as Flanagan made his exit from an enterprise much more than a start-up by then with a substantial staff and annual operating revenues worth several million dollars. Fritz related this story that shows yet one more way the green movement is nothing new in the Bronx and that people of African ancestry have made important inputs even environmental insiders often no little about. Because the more popular published accounts of the life and times of Bronx Frontier make no mention of him, it’s the perfect Sankofa moment to reclaim a fuller American history!

Zoo Do poster
Barretto Street Garden remains a monument to the work of many hands over four plus decades. When Font and McLymont were neighbors, along with Freddy Ruffin (a local civic pillar originally from Louisiana living a few blocks away), they gardened heartily. Each man hailed from different parts of the African diaspora and shared a passion for growing his own food and sharing with others. Freddy and Fritz shared a keen respect for the writings of Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) and enjoyed a powerful friendship. McLymont’s Bronx Frontier was making vast quantities of compost a few blocks away on the waterfront and was able to steer more than a little to this vest pocket park between Spofford and Randall avenues, very near the later-built Hunt’s Point Recreation Center operated by NYC’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Jill Jonnes’s book relates that Bronx Frontier went into partnership with the People’s Development Corporation (defunct housing group), the Green Guerillas (co-founded by Hattie Carthan of Magnolia Tree Earth Center), the New York Botanical Garden, and others to form the South Bronx Open Space Task Force. The Task Force was based at 1080 Leggett Avenue  on the same street as the Frontier very much on the industrial perimeter of the Hunt’s Point peninsula.  Bronx Frontier also had a teen-centered waterfront community garden a few blocks away within its composting complex where they processed the popular Zoo Doo organic fertilizer. It was no discreet success. Many papers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal promoted their visionary product and staff. On pages 321 and 322 of South Bronx Rising, we read:
“Bronx Frontier had an exciting summer in 1978. The Chuck Wagon program, a mobile kitchen in a former bookmobile [mobile library], roved the streets teaching cooking and nutrition. It was extremely well received and was incorporated as a regular feature at a few local schools [and places frequented by seniors in the memory of McLymont]. Over on the “ranch” on the Hunt’s Point peninsula, the giant compost turner was in its test period [shown in the second to last photo below]. Mountainous piles of vegetable waist were being carted over from the nearby Hunt’s Point Produce Market [as arranged early on by Irma Fleck according to McLymont], then laboriously culled of unacceptable debris, then churned and shredded with leaves [from Westchester] and zoo manure. Eventually, this mixture came to be marketed as Zoo Doo, although the veggie component was abandoned as too much trouble. To everyone’s vast relief, it worked. By the end of the first summer, two thousand cubic yards of compost worth twenty-eight thousand dollars had been created. Some was stored, and the rest was distributed to seven new gardens and three that were in their second season.
Bronx Frontier was now inundated by officials eager to see the notorious South Bronx—visitors from Africa, Japan, Switzerland, England, and France. The interruptions became so hard to handle that a weekly show-and-tell was put together, including a bus tour through the rubble to the gardens, those little oases of love and pride.
Bronx Frontier decided to purchase a windmill to generate its own power for use in its composting operation. This elegant machine, tall and slender, was to whirl majestically above the ranch, catching the winds whipping across the small promontory [above the waters of the East River adjacent to the Hunt’s Point Water Pollution Control plant according to McLymont].”

Reference material

The passage you just read filled my mind as Fritz and I began our interview. He had come to the United States after spending formative years in Jamaica and gotten his start in economic development during the federal War on Poverty wherein he helped preserve the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn and beyond. The Bronx was known to him from visits with family in the northern borough although he was living in a Tudor City penthouse at that time above Ralph Bunche Park with views of the river and United Nations. Professional contacts connected him to Bronx Frontier founder Irma Fleck who he remembers as a passionate visionary for the whole Bronx. He remembers successfully interviewing with her just several months shy of his fortieth birthday at her Prospect Hospital office (See building in final picture below) within the Longwood neighborhood. During the interview, she queried him on his knowledge of compost—he’d been composting since teen years. It was lights, cameras, action back then in 1976. This seed was so early in sprouting, Jack Flanagan had not yet been brought on by Mrs. Fleck who was a doctor’s wife, her life spanning the Bronx’s transition from Jewish to Latino dominance. Let’s contextualize this moment in Bronx history: President Jimmy Carter had not yet arrived for his world-famous visit (1977) and GreenThumb was not yet established as a city-wide technical assistance resource for community gardeners (1978).
Stewarding economic development and agricultural innovation was familiar to Fritz. He arrived at Bronx Frontier with credentials in the business of agriculture beyond American shores. He recalls spending a lot of time with Fleck who saw real world connections between the beauty of our cityscapes and the health of urban dwellers. For about one year, he developed a business plan, a list of funding options (some awarded during and following his term), and helped groom Flanagan in urban agriculture as a means of community economic development. He arranged and brought Flanagan on a field trip to Canada and another to upstate New York to observe established models. Upstate, a less efficient dairy cow waste composting model provided an important example. Bronx Frontier would go with the Scarab compost turning system captured on page 96 of a Bronx Museum of the Arts catalog shown below in the upper right corner.  Click on the image to enlarge it!
Bronx Frontier scarab machine in upper right corner
Beyond its better known Zoo Doo business, Bronx Frontier also sponsored nine parks (including Barretto Street Garden), ran nutrition programs (initiated by Irma Fleck), operated teen-age pregnancy prevention classes in public schools and community centers (T.A.P.P.), and operated a farmers market at the junction of Bruckner Boulevard and Longwood Avenue. Locals came to enjoy produce sold there sourced both from local community gardens and upstate farmers who would bring their product to the people. Fritz has long been interested in using fresh produce in the service of addressing health issues in the Latino and African-American communities.

Fritz-Earle S. McLymont
The ambition of the group may have been easier to manage because Fritz was deeply rooted in the community. He was one of the few staff members aside from first-line workers who lived in Hunt’s Point. What was his philosophy? “I can’t cook from the living room. I have to cook in the kitchen. If I’m going to work here, I’ve got to live here!” Spoken like a true Garveyite. When I asked what some of the highlights of his tenure (approximately three years) as Executive Director were, he said Zoo Doo and completing a fellowship at Pratt Institute in Community Economic Development offered to leaders like him. Always in good company, Fritz handed over power to his successor with a very stable national model of socially-responsible green business in partnership with major forces for good like Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Prospect Hospital
Prospect Hospital where Irma Fleck hatched Bronx Frontier.

Note: The author-interviewer, Morgan Powell, first learned of Zoo Doo as a teen summer participant in the Family Gardening program at the New York Botanical Garden around 1986.  His mother paid his tuition inspired by a neighbor’s child already in the program.

 

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