Cotton in Harlem

Cotton in Harlem

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Willie Morgan has been gardening in Harlem for more than five decades.

He currently manages a community plot on 122th street and Frederick Douglas Ave where he grows tomatoes, collard greens, okra and onions. He shares the harvest with neighbors. 

Across the street, in a small triangle, he grows peanuts and cotton, an homage to the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, whose statue occupies the same lot.

It’s a history lesson, he says, meant for kids in the neighborhood who don’t know the history of cotton and its connection to the slave trade. 

Morgan is 86, but he has the energy of a young man and the enthusiasm of an evangelist. “Kids wear jeans and they don’t know where the cotton comes from,” he said.  

I met Willie last week while I was crossing the street. He pulled me aside to explain what he was doing. It was already late June, he said, and time to put cotton in the ground. He soaks the seeds before planting. 

Willie moved to New York City when he was nine. He started tending gardens at a time when there were plenty of vacant lots in the city. Over the years he has had to move several times as the patches of land were developed. 

The gardens have been a common thread in a life hustling to earn a living.

According to a New York Times profile of community gardeners, Willie had “worked for United Parcel Service for a while and then started Bodacious Unlimited, making custom-designed clothing. When that failed, he bought a bar called Top Club on 125th Street, which closed in 1987.”

Willie told me to come back in August to see the cotton bloom. 

I realized I’d never seen that so I plan to return and learn more.


COFFEE SHOP: There’s a hardware story on 125th Street in Harlem that was recently taken over by a Mexican entrepreneur. He cleared out the middle section and installed a coffee shop decorated with plants. It has no windows. It seemed unlikely to succeed as a destination. And yet, it is thriving.

WAR GAMES: Large language models will obviously be used in war. How they will perform is going to be an interesting question.

TAXIS: I’m surprised there isn’t more chatter about how New York City went from a place where taxis were cheap and abundant to a place where there are no taxis. They were wiped out by Uber which now prices rides with wild swings.

MOVE: Love this advice from Anthony Bourdain to get up off the couch and move. Moving is the solution to practically everything that ails us.

CAR CULTURE: Brent Toderian writes about the impact of car culture on cities, in particular the requirements for parking because customers drive to stores.

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