Despite food trucks galore and restaurant upon restaurant with any type of cuisine you might imagine, some New Yorkers are seeking an alternative method to meet any culinary cravings: Foraging and fishing in the city’s parks. The New York Times report that an “eclectic bunch,” including “downtown hipsters, recent immigrants, vegans and people who do not believe in paying for food” are helping themselves to the city’s greenery. Foraging has gotten to the point New York City park officials are stepping up training for park rangers and enforcement patrol officers to keep an eye out for foragers, though some residents don’t think such measures are enough at all.
Collecting or destroying plants in city parks carries a fine of up to $250.00 but is rarely enforced, with the parks department preferring to educate. As Sarah Aucoin, director of urban park rangers for the Department of Parks and Recreation, points out, if everyone helped themselves to what the city’s parks have to offer, “the parks couldn’t sustain that.” But making sure people don’t help themselves to plucking mountain mint and elderberries from Central Park is not so easy:
Officials have not gone as far as posting signs in Central Park that foraging is prohibited, for fear they would serve as arrows pointing to the most delectable areas. [Maria Hernandez, director of horticulture for the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages Central Park] would take a reporter on a tour of edible plants only on the condition that their locations not be revealed.
For their part, regular foragers — especially those who write and teach about the practice — say that they are sensitive to the environment and that they focus on renewable items like leaves and berries. Besides, they say, much of their quarry comes from invasive species that squeeze out native plants.
Indeed, the New York Times City Room blog has an “urban forager” column as does the website Edible Manhattan. People like “Wildman” Steve Brill lead tours about urban foraging. There is certainly some satisfaction in feeling you know your way so well around the urban jungle that you can (literally) eat your way through it.
But Beverly McDermott, director of Friends of Kissena Park in Flushing, Queens, says she’s found people leaving the park with top soil and coolers full of fish and turtles and has confronted them directly. The rangers are “totally useless,” she says, just “walking around like Boy Scouts.”
According to the New York Times, it’s ”not uncommon” for people to take fish and turtles’ to eat, while park advocates “have reported evidence of traps designed to snare wildfowl.” These reports reminds me of stories from the 1980s about Hmong refugees hunting squirrels, ducks and dogs in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Bay Area residents were horrified but it was a reminder that a “park” and what is “wild” and for the taking (and hunting) are not universal concepts. While squirrels, turtles and the like are living on city property, they’re not collared or in cages. One might argue that it’s a sign of our country’s prosperity (not that it’s felt like that with the recent clashes over raising the federal debt ceiling) that we have public spaces where people, and animals, are (ideally) free to live and roam; where plants are grown for the public’s enjoyment, not its belly — and we should take measures to keep it that way.
Photo of turtles, and New Yorkers, in Brooklyn's Prospect Park by mkosut