Jeremy Liu : What’s Bitterness Got To Do With It?

Using bitter melon to address bitterness and drive societal change

Jeremy Liu is an artist, urban planner, and community development professional for affordable housing (with a background in biology, too). He co-founded the National Bitter Melon Council which grew out of his project Sifting the Inner Belt for Boston Center for the Arts in 2005. The Inner Belt was a poorly conceived highway proposal through Boston’s South End that the governor ultimately killed, but not before blocks of properties have been destroyed and thousands of families have been displaced. Many of the families were gardeners that grew bitter melon. Sifting the Inner Belt was a year-long performance and research art project to create an empowerment zone for those that were displaced. For example, a manicure booth was set up in the gallery offering free manicures in exchange for stories to give people a chance to express how they felt about the changes in the neighborhood.

The National Bitter Melon Council was founded to create legitimacy in order to draw participation in Bitter Melon Week. Fourteen restaurants agreed to offer bitter melon menu items so that patrons can taste the neighborhood in a new way. Each dish was presented with a story of the garden or neighborhood from which the bitter melon was harvested. While some restaurants were skeptical in the beginning, they found that people liked the bitter-sweet taste of bitter melon.

This is the first entity ever created for and about the bitter melon. A Bitter Melon mascot was also created. The bitter melon is an unlikely fruit. In working with CSA farmers, the Council discovered that CSA farmers were bitter that they had to grow the same items year-round, and experimenting with growing bitter melon was a welcomed change from the ordinary.


Jeremy Liu

Principal / Managing Partner (Oakland, California)

Jeremy Liu is a practicing artist, real estate developer with experience in completing complex public-private projects, and chief executive with a unique background in urban, community and environmental planning, affordable and mixed-income housing, commercial real estate, creative placemaking/arts and cultural planning, and technology development. As an artist, he has received both an Artadia Artist Prize and a First Place Ribbon at the Topsfield Fair, the country's oldest county agricultural fair.  He is the co-founder of the National Bitter Melon Council which promotes the literal and poetic possibilities of Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) while delving into the uncharted territory of bitterness as a foundational emotion in society. He is also a co-founder and principal of Creative Ecology Partners, a design and implementation lab for urban, economic and community development innovation.  In addition, he is the co-founder and managing partner of Creative Development Partners (CDP), a "Community Benefits by Design" real estate investment and development company that delivers unique solutions for urban-based developments delivering financial returns for investors, sustainable solutions for the environment and benefits to the community that create jobs, stimulate the economy and enhance cultural vitality. Jeremy previously served as the executive director of two nationally-recognized community development corporations that focused on housing and commercial real estate development and management as well as community economic development. He has written for Shelterforce Magazine, ZeroDivide, the Journal of Urban Affairs, and KCET ArtBound.  He is a board member of The Center for Neighborhood Technology, the New England Foundation for the Arts, and the Interaction Institute for Social Change.  In 2015 he will be the Senior Fellow for Arts, Culture and Equitable Development at PolicyLink with support from the Kresge Foundation.

The National Bitter Melon Council explores the manifestations of bitterness and advances the idea that bitterness is a strong driver in society. The Council adopted the bitter melon as a vehicle to address bitterness in a community. Another performance intervention involved writing what one is bitter about on a wrapper for bitter melon seeds and soil, and then tossing the wrapper into blighted or vacant lots for bitter melon to grow. Through this act, people are empowered with a sense of agency and control over the built environment.

 Jeremy and the Council advocate “bitterness mapping” – uncovering what people are bitter about – to gain better insight into the community and build better communities. In biology, bitter plants evolved as a defense mechanism to ward off predators. Humans are the only mammals who have cultivated a palate for bitterness, such as coffee, tea or chocolate. Bitterness is a reaction to poor design – whether it’s a product, place, or experience. Bitterness relates to the experience of loss, and that attachment to loss holds many people back. The Council has created approaches to understanding and dealing with bitterness to overcome the attachment to loss and drive positive change.

Written by Diana Banh (@dibanh)