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Rebecca Martin and the Victory Garden by M.R. Smith

Victory Garden. To anyone under forty, this term will simply sound like some proud American is growing something . . . well, victorious. Whatever that is. But to those whose family has passed down experiences from the Great Depression and World War Two, the term has a deeper resonance as a symbol of self-sufficiency in a time of parallel personal and familial sacrifice, one of the few positives to emerge from the privation of the times.

Sometimes it’s difficult to believe we are currently involved with two wars, far away from our own shores, but it’s not at all hard to believe we are in the midst of what is at the very least a prolonged recession. And while Americans are evaluating what is truly important and essential to their lives, surely one of those things has to be access to good food and water. The Hudson Valley is blessed with excellent soil and currently good sources for fresh water, so why not consider starting your own garden—if you happen to have access to a spot of land to do so? organizer and city resident Rebecca Martin takes it a step further: shouldn’t your town or city make some space available to grow food for its citizens, and in doing so, teach the young people—and anyone else who wants to learn—how to work the fertile land, and in doing so, achieve a higher quality of life and community?

The City of Kingston eventually replied: yes, it should. But it took more than just simply asking to finally get this reply. It took a little—for lack of a better term—human feng shui.

Rebecca Martin admits she has always had a habit of rearranging furniture, until the room felt right. Having grown up as the daughter of physicians on a Maine farm, she applied her natural feel for arrangement to music studies at the University of Maine (Augusta). But academia seemed to have the wrong effect on her creativity, so she changed things up, re-locating to SUNY New Paltz to study film and philosophy, making her way toward the ultimate goal: New York City.

Rebecca finally made it there in 1990, securing a job as production coordinator—and later manager—for MTV. The music was always part of her life though, and a songwriting partnership with guitarist/singer Jesse Harris blossomed into both a new band and a romance. The duo formed Once Blue with Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Kenny Wolleson (drums), and Ben Street (upright bass), and started getting a lot of attention due to gigs around town, particularly a weekly gig following Jeff Buckley at Café Sin-é.

The sound of Once Blue blended elements of folk, country, and jazz into a warm and natural sound that later came to be popularized by fellow traveler and friend Norah Jones (which should come as no surprise as Jesse Harris wrote her first big hit “Don’t Know Why.”) A successful gig at CBGB’s Gallery was unexpectedly attended by EMI label president Davitt Sigerson, who offered them a deal that very evening. “It was ‘just like that,’ going from these (local) gigs to the tour bus, traveling across the country, it was too surreal . . . way too much money was spent. You’re 23 years old: this is what you think you should be doing.” The carnival ride lasted for four years, but things came to a full stop in ‘98 when, just as their second release was to drop, EMI (US) went bankrupt.

Rebecca was also going through a personal split with Jesse, so it was time for all to go separate ways. “I’m really more of a community person, more driven in that way and wanting more of a life. I had to leave New York (City). It was important for me to get out of there.” She had also met somebody new: bassist Larry Grenadier, and prevailed upon him to make a move upstate to the country. They found a good deal on a farmhouse in Middlehope in 1999, adjacent to 200 acres of apple orchards, and settled in. Unfortunately, the owner of the orchard land was looking to cash the land out to a developer, and Rebecca found herself at odds with the city of Newburgh, which had annexed the surrounding area. Powerless to affect or stop the sale, Rebecca and Larry opted out after two years, and headed for Kingston in 2002, where they felt they could have the right combination of rural and urban qualities.

After the birth of son Charlie James, Rebecca started to take things a bit more seriously—as new parents are wont to do—and taking a look around the neighborhood, she was unhappy with what she saw. The Citgo station at the end of her block had a large display case full of a wide variety of knives (not the cutlery type), in close proximity to both the high school and elementary school. She confronted the owner, who claimed the knives were legal, he could sell them to anyone over 18, and that they were “collectables.”

Rebecca didn’t accept that answer, so she contacted her Ninth Ward alderman, which got nowhere. She kept at it, finally getting the attention of several other public officials. Kingston Mayor James Sottile and the Chief of Police became involved and when Rebecca called a Ward Nine Community meeting, one hundred concerned citizens gathered. Meanwhile, a police raid on the Citgo station turned up a sizable portion of illegal weapons, so the owner finally backed down. The mayor invited Rebecca to his office the day after the community meeting along with the then owner of Citgo, and within a week the knife case was gone.


Flushed with the success of their endeavor, the group formed into in 2006. “This is part of my feng shui. How do you approach a difficult topic, and get a good result, get everybody working together?” It started as a single discussion group, and a monthly meeting, with special topics and guests, “discussing issues relevant to the city.” All nine city aldermen are invited to attend—to help let them know what’s going on in their communities and be better representatives—and some actually do. “We need to understand how our city government works [and] have some transparency. We need to know what [our representatives] are all doing.” And not doing.

Good things have resulted from the association, including fresh alderman candidates, a local co-op that’s now one of the biggest buying clubs in the country, and the Kingston Land Trust, which helps set aside and preserve local properties for public use. But one idea stuck out for Rebecca as a way to tie in working together out-of-doors for the betterment of the community—the Victory Garden.

Kingston city government wasn’t initially too keen on the notion of community gardens, for whatever reasons, so instead of direct confrontation, Rebecca came at it from the private side: nurturing victory gardening at home. Last spring she organized a gardening presentation for anybody interested, featuring Brook Farm’s Dan Gunther (“Farmer Dan”), which was well attended, despite a downpour that day. Yard signs were handed out, signifying membership and solidarity, and a Yahoo discussion group got people talking about it.

Later in the year, Rebecca read a newspaper op-ed piece that was asking why doesn’t the White House put in a victory garden? (It was well before the recent “Eat The View” campaign that collected a hundred thousand signatures to get the White House to do so.) Rebecca wrote a letter to Mayor Sottile asking him for municipal space to grow a token garden, a simple symbolic gesture. The mayor said yes; having seen how helpful she was with local projects such as the recent Land Trust benefit featuring Pat Metheny, he could trust her to follow through.

Through the mayor’s office and the city clerk she connected with Kingston Beautification Co-ordinator Evy Larios, and gardeners from the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Then she approached the high school across the street, writing to the principal, who connected her with Joann Dayton, ecology/biology teacher at Kingston High School. Joann provided 70 students to assist digging and maintaining the beds, and things came together quickly.

For the City Hall victory garden, it’s been decided to organically grow the “Three Sisters”—squash, maize (in this case, popping corn), and climbing beans: staple foods historically grown in the Esopus River area by Native Americans. These are crops that would have been harvested four hundred years ago, when explorer Henry Hudson first visited—an anniversary New York will be celebrating all year with the Quadricentennial. Seeds are from the Hudson Valley Seed Library, and a pathway through the middle, made of local bluestone, is planned. The resulting harvest will be assembled and delivered to local food pantries by the students.

With the groundbreaking on Earth Day, the project has been a big hit. New gardens are being dug by the Boys and Girls Club, the Everett Hodge Center, and the Darmstadt Shelters. The concept has a bonus of creating a bridge between the older folks who remember the original Victory Gardens, and young kids who simply enjoy learning how to grow things.

This particular project has its own momentum now, allowing Rebecca more family time, and a return to making records and touring, with her most recent recording The Growing Season garnering rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She has just returned from Tokyo and is preparing a trip to Europe in the fall.

And it’s interesting how things come full circle: the owner of the Citgo station back in 2006 was able to recoup much of his investment in the knives when he sent them back, and started a taxi service. He later donated free taxi service to the Ward 9 community group, so that handicapped and elderly citizens could attend their monthly meetings. This represents the kind of progress in the community that Rebecca was hoping to achieve, where everyone wins.

Sometimes the proper arrangement of people helps the energy to flow in the right direction, to make positive change. Sometimes it takes just a little human feng shui.

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