Gardeners' Last Stand

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Celeb treehouse architect Roderick Romero–his handiwork graces rock star Sting's estate in Tuscany–had already nailed beams into trees at the Courtlandt Avenue community garden when activists discovered a fatal glitch. An envelope from Housing Preservation and Development, though sent to the wrong address, would soon arrive, with an eviction notice for the garden.

Similar notices were en route to other nearby community gardens, all death knells.

With the evictions, HPD is effectively ending years of often contentious back and forth between community gardening and housing development in the Melrose section of the South Bronx. In 1993, the community group Nos Quedamos (Spanish for “We're Staying”) thwarted a city plan to replace low-income apartment dwellers with a mid-rise, middle-income, gated community. In response, Nos Quedamos developed an alternative plan for affordable housing–but its income range, $35,000 to $72,000, is still out of reach for residents, whose median income is $16,000. Community gardeners also felt excluded, since Nos Quedamos' proposal called for razing their plots.

Recently, a coalition called the South Bronx United Gardens (SBUG), circulated a revised housing plan that would preserve 11 of the neighborhood's 20 gardens.

In an about-face over the past year, Nos Quedamos started meeting with gardeners, trying to incorporate their concerns. And in January, the organization signed on to SBUG's proposal. There's just one hitch: Nos Quedamos doesn't own this land–the city does. And HPD served evictions on four gardens in March alone.

As a last-ditch effort, activists have been meeting with politicos and the AG's office. The Bronx Borough President's Office and Council Member Jose Serrano have long tacitly approved of the gardens, and of a 2002 ruling by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to permanently preserve 193 of them, give 198 to the Parks Department or other restorationists, demolish 38, and encourage developers and gardeners to jointly review the fate of 114 others. For that review to move forward in Melrose, Bronx Community Board 1 needs to agree to take part in it. At a meeting in April, the board's subcommittee opted out of the review and nixed the SBUG/Nos Quedamos proposal.

Now politicos, including Councilmember Serrano, are supporting the land-use subcommittee's decision.

Some garden groups are throwing in the towel. But some in the Courtlandt Avenue contingent plan to camp in Romero's tree art to defy the bulldozers. No matter how the drama ends, says SBUG activist Marty Rogers, “We continue to play our parts.”

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