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Film on Staten Island Gardeners Needs Donors With Fistfuls of Green

By Nicholas Rizzi | December 16, 2013 8:58am
Growing Food on Staten Island
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Jay Weichun

STATEN ISLAND — Springtime sees Staten Island's gardeners plant their backyards, readying for a bounty of homegrown fruits and vegetables.

And, for more than five years, filmmaker Jay Weichun has been watching them.

"I'm riding my bike around, I'm on the bus, and my gaze has been tuned to look for indicators of a garden," said Weichun, 33, who grew up on Staten Island and currently lives in Concord.

"When I find it, I ring the doorbell. Some people are receptive and some people aren't."

For the past five summers, Weichun has been working on a web documentary, "Growing Food on Staten Island," about local gardeners around his borough. Last week, he went public with the project on Kickstarter in a bid to raise $3,000 to hire a web developer for the project.

So far, the project has raised $470 toward its goal.

For donors who kick in $35 and up, Weichun will send tomato seeds that survived Hurricane Sandy, given to him by a gardener featured in the documentary.

The gardener lost most of his seedbank — brought to the U.S. from Italy where he grew up — in the storm, but found a collection he had stashed away since 2008, Weichun said. After a successful harvest from the seeds, he gave 10 plants to Weichun.

Weichun said many of the people he interviewed had similar heritage in their seedbanks, taking seeds from farms where they grew up in Italy before immigrating to the U.S.

"A lot of folks are using the same seeds that they've always used," he said. "[It's about] heritage and kind of keeping the authenticity alive."

Weichun said the project won't serve as an instructional guide to plant tomatoes in the city, but try to highlight the art of gardening and the borough itself.

"I've been trying to make sense of the borough and tell a story of the people and how they use the space. And to me this has probably been the sweetest way of doing it," he said.

"To me, it's a great story about land use and creativity and recognizing what's really an art form and isn't considered as such."

Weichun, who's working on a master's degree in integrated media art from Hunter College, realized the project wouldn't work as a linear documentary, and thought a website where users can choose the videos they want to see in any order would work best.

He plans to have a map of Staten Island with dots where the gardeners live — without being too specific — where viewers can click and watch the story of the nearly 25 residents he filmed.

Weichun said the project shows that, while urban gardening has become hip in other boroughs,  Staten Islanders have been doing it for over 30 years.

"In Brooklyn, it's very much a trend now and these folks have been doing the same exact thing," he said. "It's an interesting contrast between the boroughs."