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.
Principal / Managing Partner (Oakland, California)
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)