Erica Cardwell

I meet Erica on a very hot spring afternoon in Long Island City. We meet at the Windmill Community Garden and I’m already sweating bullets. We both lament the heat, and decide to pop into Flux Factory to use the facilities, and secretly for a little relief from the sun. I share a cold seltzer with her as we reminisce and talk about our impending journey. On our way out, we meet Nate, the Executive Director of Flux Factory. He tells us a bit about the history of the garden, and its connection to the Growing Green Charter School nearby. The garden itself is only a few years old, he explains, but already host to an array of community events and activities. As the afternoon unfolds, we descend once again into the streets of LIC, looking for weedy friends and borderlands along the way.

Chris: Hi Erica, thanks for embarking on this walk with me! So we’re going to go up to 29th Street to start. As we begin to walk, tell me a little bit about your experience of Queens.

Erica: Well I love that you asked me about what does a border mean to me [before this walk], because when I moved to Queens, it felt so transient. I was really wanting to make it a brief time but I found this apartment through the Village Voice, and it wasn’t a place that my friends were moving to. I felt like a stranger and was always sort of an outsider as a black woman who grew up in a really suburban, white, rural community. And then when I found myself moving to Astoria, Queens after kind of escaping that community and kind of moving to another similarly white situation, I was sort of in conflict for the first five years. But I kept being flung into the uniqueness of Astoria, and Long Island City and the different communities and languages being spoken.

When I think of border, the concept, I’m immediately thinking of Gloria E. Anzaldúa because she wrote a lot about how the concept of borderlands is not just a psychological state but a place of power and a place of intersections. And you know, she didn’t use the word intersectionality, but she really conceived of borders as an opportunity less than something to move through quickly. And I ended up staying here for 15 years.

CK: So was there a turning point at which Queens felt like home for you?

EC: I think I encountered Queens to be home when it offered me a certain amount of privacy when I felt that I could come here and feel satiated by so many things. But I think when I say privacy, there’s something really specific about being an outsider and what that kind of privacy looks like. Because there’s like an obstruction of people always staring at you when you’re the only black person or the only gay person. And so that’s a unique privacy. But then it was a combination of no one really wanted to talk to me. But then I kind of needed that too. And then when that got to be too much, like a borderland or a place that I moved through identity-wise…that’s when everyone moved to Brooklyn.

CK: Right. So welcome to our first site. I want to invite you to peer into this half-developed landscape. Tell me what you’re noticing.

EC: I mean it looks abandoned? It looks like they’re not going to finish it. I notice all of the weeds, the plants growing and I just the remarkable ability for these plants to sustain themselves. They keep going amid this cement on top. Also whenever you get to see these guts, the skeletal parts of buildings, I get really nervous because I’m like, is this enough? Is the foundation going to sustain the building? I really think about it. When I teach my students, outlines, how to write an outline for a five paragraph essay, I always tell them: remember the outline is the blueprint for the essay and if you don’t have the blueprint, how are you going to build the essay? And so I said, do you want to go in a building that didn’t have a blueprint? I don’t think so. I think about that because there’s so much development constantly here. I’m like, how much planning did they put into it?

CK: Yes. We chose this particular site which we’re calling the Pinnacle Basin because we were really fascinated by this sort of left behind infrastructure as being kind of a support structure for the plants, ironically.

EC: Wow. Yes.

CK: This disturbance created an opportunity for life in a place it wasn’t meant for.

EC: I love that.

CK: I want to invite you to take a moment to notice the border.

EC: It’s so interesting the plants are growing here despite so much going on.

CK: Yes. Now this is called the Tree of Heaven.

EC: Really?

CK: Yeah, and you know this tree was popularized in the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And it’s here in Queens too. And right next to it, this is called the prickly lettuce or the compass plant. It’s actually got an amazing spine that gives you a slight indication of directionality – north and south and east and west. And then some pepperweed here.

Visitor: What are you guys looking at?

CK: This Tree of Heaven.

Visitor: Oh…Yeah this is a dump. It’s been here for three, four years. I always complain and call 311. Some developer probably, you know, is getting a tax abatement. It’s like fuck all of these people.

CK: Yeah… I mean there’s such a diversity of life and also this kind of resistance to the sidewalk. So we’ve got some mugwort here. It’s got an amazing smell to it. It can be made into a tea.

EC: Oh yeah, that’s great.

CK: So you have this kind of evidence of the human and the nonhuman. And it’s good for dreaming. And this is called Lamb’s Quarters and its nickname as wild spinach.

But tell me your about thoughts on gentrification. Especially in NYC.

EC: I used to think when I was living in Queens that I was really fortunate to not have to deal with gentrification as much, but I was kind of naive because it was a lot more gradual I should say in Astoria. Because I was around in, in Long Island City in particular, and in Astoria there’s a lot of houses so your in a more suburban situation. But they would just sell the houses and demolish them and build a condo. So I thought I was only really dealing with gentrification in Brooklyn at times because you know for awhile it had a specific identity. It was like yoga studios and fancy coffee places and overpriced things and Kale.

But I wasn’t really seeing that in my neighborhood. So when three or four buildings popped up on my street after demolishing different houses, that’s when I started to understand gentrification as a kind of removal of histories. In my mid twenties I was also traveling a bunch and I was in Berlin and saw these giant awful buildings near the Holocaust memorial. And the first thing that came to mind was like, wow, it’s happening everywhere. It did take a little bit of seeing is believing, you know, to understand. But I think one major moment in Astoria that kind of drove it home was when this 24 hour fruit and vegetable market, which was somewhat local, had been outsourced by a giant organic market a few blocks away. People stopped going to this place, this staple. And it just was one of those obvious things where it proved how gentrification is such a rejection of what is already there. And that development institutes some kind of palatability and decency and a level of status. It really was profound.

Now that we moved, as two women of color in Brooklyn in a neighborhood that is diverse like  Ditmas park it has its own complexity. And there was a friend of mine who called me a gentrifier when I moved to Astoria and I was like, listen, you know, I’m paying very little for my rent and I’m a waitress. And even if there was some $3 coffee, I couldn’t buy it. So I didn’t understand it. I felt like I was moving there to be able to live in New York, not to kind of change what was around me. So I think even the concept of development in addition to gentrification is what is really dangerous.

CK: But what does it feel like in your daily experience?

EC: It feels like having having fancy things, but I don’t know, there’s no Starbucks in my neighborhood. In my old neighborhood there was a Starbucks. So there’s this trickiness of access at times that complicates things.

CK. Yes. Let’s pause here for a moment. This is a plant called a Japanese Knotweed and it’s edible, but it’s also considered to be one of the most blacklisted and unwanted plants in North America because of its root system. If you come down a little bit lower… you can see it has an affinity with Bamboo because it’s roots are rhizomatic. The entire plant is often one organism that’s connected. Even if you dig it up or put chemicals on it, it still comes back. So we’ve talked to a lot of community gardeners and people who’ve said that if a developer sees this plant, they will not develop on the site.

EC: Wow, because it’ll never go away?

CK: Yeah. So it’s like an anti-gentrification deterrent possibly.

EC: How do we plant that everywhere?

CK: We just have to take a little piece of its root. And its actually a very nutritious and medicinal plant ironically. The young shoots you can boil and it has the same effect as wine and resveratrol and is also good for your kidney function and nervous system.

EC: I can see that. I mean, yeah isn’t that ironic?

CK: I’m curious also how some of this intersects with your work as an educator? As an organizer and activist in various ways?

EC: You know, leaving Queens, that situation changed a lot of things in my life. Moving to Brooklyn, felt like moving closer to my community. It felt like a nuanced identity for me to be a Brooklynite. It just kind of charged my role as an educator I have to say. It made me feel like I had a little bit more equipment to move around, and people and resources to work with, to do some organizing, to do some of the things that I had to work a little bit harder to do.

But I have to be engaged and continue to make smart choices. I really try hard not to participate in certain kind of Brooklyn brand culture. We do our best to not do that. We try to be really conscious of the businesses on Flatbush for like hardware stuff or things that people could order on Amazon. I mean that’s sort of a bigger conversation probably, but I think I felt closer to my people but I also felt like I needed to be engaged in my work differently. Because living in Queens felt far away, living on a border feels far away. I feel like Brooklyn is a nexus at times.

And I will say that meaning there’s a little bit more of a privileged branding that happens to Brooklyn at times, but there’s a lot of individuals who don’t get to participate in that and they get left behind, but their voice is not often connected to spaces that would change that. And so in Queens, I feel even now when we’re walking under the subway, you can’t even really see the sky in some areas because they just threw up all these buildings. When I moved to Astoria none of this was there. Absolutely none. Nobody was hanging out

CK: Do you get that sense from your students… a feeling of displacement and that the city is a challenging environment for them?

EC: Yeah, I do. My students probably live in an apartment with like five other people in those spaces. Or they share bedrooms and they’re in their twenties. You know, I think that comes with moving to New York and and seeking it out as like a liminal space and then for kids that are growing up here or whose parents migrated here with their families or were born here.

They think of this home. They don’t think of it as liminal space but on a lot of levels it is. Whenever I’ve taken students out of the city to upstate New York, where their phones don’t work, it’s devastating. I mean it’s so out of their comfort zone. I love that moment for multiple reasons because it really challenges what we consider to be normalcy or to be kind of a grounded place. Because a lot of us think that because we grew up in these areas, we can kind of tell people that this is what quiet means.

CK: Right. So this is another site we’ve selected. We’re calling this the Coptic Bamboo Forest. There is a very particular border here. We have this cultivated space that’s sort of used as a church playground, picnic area. It weaves around into a weedy jungle over here. I thought we could do a little walk to notice the border and then I’ll introduce a movement score to close our walk.

EC: How do some of these weeds make it over here. How do we get this?

CK: That’s a good question. I don’t think that ecologists have really studied this in detail, but a lot of these plants migrated on the ballasts of ships at the turn of the 17th and 18th Century. Or spread through the introduction of agriculture. Or even just as a packaging materials. Or animals coming over. And naturally as well through the wind, the water, and animal droppings. But a lot of It’s humans, humans make disturbance and so whenever you see weeds it’s likely that a human has disturbed the area in some way. So it becomes this indicator of human occupation, which is really interesting because if you leave a site dormant it goes through a series of succession. But the disturbance actually creates the opportunity for a new kind of succession that ecologists are still trying to understand in urban spaces like this.

EC: I feel like this reminds me of The Middle Passage. You disrupt the stasis and then you oppress, you push people on the outside. You make people feel lower than everybody else enslave them. But essentially, the way that you said weeds come from human disturbance makes me think of weeds as a frame of thinking about oppression or marginalization I should say. The great disturbance was Transatlantic slave trade. And so when you think about where these seeds might’ve come from… I’m thinking, that’s quite complex and unpopular, but I feel like there’s something interesting in this liminal space. I feel like a little bit of a weed.

CK: Right, me too. And to just notice here in this space, the archItecture of use. The barbed wires on this fence become an armature and habitat for these viney plants. They’re adapting to this kind of oppressive force and pushing back.

EC: And also the weeds are often overlooked. Nobody knows exactly what any of this is.

CK: Yes. They have these very unique sort of ways that they survive in harsh terrains despite pretty bad soil and poor drainage. Nobody takes care of these plants.

EC: But they still grow.

CK: Yeah, absolutely. Because they’re the ones that are going to survive, especially when we think about a future steeped in climate change.

We’re going to use that as the starting point for a movement score. So as we’re walking over the next few minutes I want to invite you to notice a plant that calls to you. And we’ll have a chance to get up close and personal.

EC: Okay… What are these? Those kind of wild grasses.

CK: That one’s called the fox tail. They spread their seeds a lot in the Autumn, but often other times too.

EC: Oh and what’s this one?

CK: That one’s called a spurge. And surrounding that is more of that sticky bedstraw. In the winter the skeletons of mugwort from last season emerge too. They can grow upwards of 6-8 feet.

EC: Oh wow. They really liked it here.

CK: We call it the Beebe Avenue corridor. They’re like popping through this fence. And right next door we have a condo and random hotels next to people who have lived here their whole lives. So many layers.

EC: Yes, this abandoned site also makes life. But these new buildings are kind of limiting. It makes life seem like it’s really just about going to the gym, doing your laundry, going to the grocery store, going to work. Like it doesn’t offer any complexity or nuance to it.

CK: Sterile condo, hotel land. And so it is this question of what do you do with these post industrial landscapes? And can the weeds teach us something? Perhaps something about entanglement and support structures that can emerge in unlikely places. Making do with space available.

EC: Right, and it seems that there tends to be more varieties of plants in relationship to more development that occurs. So it does feel a bit hopeful even.

This walk occurred on May 15, 2018


Erica N. Cardwell is an art critic and educator based in New York.  After nearly a decade as a youth worker and arts administrator serving marginalized women and communities of color, Erica shifted her career in advocacy to focus primarily on writing and teaching in 2015. In that same year, she was awarded a Nonfiction fellowship from the LAMBDA Literary Foundation.

Erica writes about the intersection of in/equity and imagination for Black artists and artists of color. Overall, her belief in the capacity for social change through visual culture has continued to inform her artistic practice.

Her essays and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming for The Believer, Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, Passages North, The Lightwork Annual, Rewire, Sinister Wisdom, The Feminist Wire, Bitch Media, The London Progressive Journal, Green Mountain Review, Triangle House Review, and Ikons Magazine.

As an educator, Erica has taught creative writing, composition, and social justice in schools throughout New York City: Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY); Hunter College (CUNY); Marymount Manhattan College; Barnard College; and The New School.

Erica is on the editorial board of Radical Teacher Journal. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College.   Erica lives in Brooklyn with her wife and her turtle, Smiley Mousa.

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