ALI LAPETINA // Bengali Gardens Interview by Andrea Kaminski, DCCP Director of Online Media
AK: What drew you to photographing urban gardens started by Bengali immigrants near Hamtramck?
AL: I was volunteering at Burnside Farms (a community supported agriculture project) and I noticed two women dressed in traditional clothing walking around the alleyways collecting sticks. I followed them because I wanted to learn more about how they gardened.
AK: How many gardens tended by Bengali families did you explore for this series?
AL: I explored and learned about 3 gardens, cultivated by the same family. I started with the grandparent’s garden and they introduced me to their two sons families. (Two brothers, their families + their parents.)
AK: The neighborhoods in Hamtramck and surrounding area have quite small and compact parcels of land per home. During your time photographing the gardens, what did you notice about spatial constraints? How did they manage gardening in such a small area? Are the gardens simply limited to backyards or do they involve larger productions as well?
AL: I’ve never seen growers use land as well as this community. Trellises expand their space; it created layers for growing food and at the same time, shade to sit under. By cultivating vertically they have been able grow three to four times as much food as the average urban garden. Most families create their gardens in their backyard and sometimes you see a few plants growing in the front or behind them in the alleyway. This family also cultivated a vacant lot a few houses down.
AK: Where does the produce go? Is the food meant for single-family households or does the food help sustain the community?
AL: The produce is used within the family, but they do trade with one another; as well as with some of the American urban gardeners in the neighborhood. Many of the families live on minimum wage incomes, so growing food allows them to cut costs.
AK: Is there anything unique in the way these women tend to their gardens that perhaps differs from the tradition gardening crops and techniques we see in American gardening?
AL: Most of the crops are similar – they love to grow squash, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant + tomatoes, etc. The seeds are just from a different part of the world. It’s not just a place for growing food; the garden becomes their central space for entertaining, hanging clothes to dry, preparing dinner and a place for kids to play. It’s what brings everyone together. Each family has their own garden. The children help by climbing a ladder to collect squash from the roof of their garage. Within this community many of the women don’t really have another place to get together outside of there home, so the garden becomes a space for conversation.
AK: Were there any challenges in photographing the families and gardens such as language barriers with the individuals tending the gardens?
AL: I instantly connected with this family. The mother gave me a bracelet the first day I met her. The challenge was creating relationships with more families. Now that I’m working within this neighborhood on a community art project people have opened up to me. Their was and still is a language barrier but this has allowed me to really see the common points that make us all human.
AK: Have these gardeners taught you anything about the differences or similarities in gardening back in Bengal versus gardening in Detroit? How did these gardeners adjust to gardening with changes in climate and growing seasons?
AL: Back in Bangladesh they use every square foot for growing. I love how they have adapted to their backyards and the climate. They start growing food in their homes before transplanting outside.
AK: Why do you think this is an important subject to photograph and a worthwhile story to tell?
AL: So many stories within Detroit have been about urban gardening but I haven’t seen one that focuses on this growing community. I wanted to share this neighborhood’s story that has been going on for over 10 years. I want people to see the strong sense of community and self-sustainability that these families practice. I think these practices can help inspire other Detroiters and Americans.
AK: Is there anything else that you have learned in regards to gardening during your work on this series that you may not have known prior to creating these photographs?
AL: A reminder to save seeds. Families collect seeds each year so they can prepare for the next growing season.