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De Witt Clinton Park. Children’s Farm School. September 1902.

Back in the early 1900s, Hell’s Kitchen was not the most inviting of neighborhoods. In fact, the grim, unsanitary conditions are thought to be how it earned its name. Even so, Frances (Fannie) Griscom Parsons had a different vision for the area.

The reform-minded New York native created the Children’s Farm School on 11th ave-52/54 in the De Witt Clinton Park. Fannie’s teachings went way beyond gardening. Her children were taught civic values such as cooperation and discipline to steer them away from the life of crime so many of them seemed born into. Residents watched in amazement as 25 girls and boys (aged nine to 12) from the slums transformed an empty plot of land into a beautiful vegetable garden.

After just a year, the children’s behavior had dramatically improved and, over the first three years of the project, almost 3,000 youngsters benefitted from the transformative program. Perhaps as a result, gardening became increasingly popular, and by 1908, New York had approximately 80 city gardens. The trend reached its peak between 1900 and 1920.

This photograph was taken by Jacob A Riis, an influential photojournalist and social reformer of the time. His most prominent book, How the Other Half Lives, caught the attention of the public and prompted change by exposing the reality of New York’s decaying living conditions.

This story first appeared in the March 2015 issue of W42ST magazine.

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