MUSEUM, APARTMENTS PREVAIL
IN UPTOWN GARDEN STANDOFF

Protestors gathered last week outside Nueva Esperanza Jardin in East Harlem to try to stop the city from taking over the nearly 20 year-old community garden. Activists chanted "save our trees!" as construction workers and police surrounded the garden, with one member of the environmental group More Gardens! even handcuffing himself to a tree in an unsuccessful attempt to stop construction workers from preparing the garden for development.

"I just hope they pass over our garden," Nueva Esperanza spokesperson Anthony Bowman said Wednesday, taking note of the Passover holiday.

The clash over this spot of green is just one more battle in the ongoing war between environmentalists who want more open space and the forces of expanding development in New York City. According to More Gardens!, community gardens across the city face a similar fate. The group estimates there are 40 to 50 community gardens in danger of being developed, half of which are in East Harlem.

Nueva Esperanza Jardin ("New Hope Garden") has been located across from Central Park on the corner of East 110th St. and Fifth Avenue since 1988, when local community members decided to take a blighted vacant lot and turn it into a public space.

In 2002, a settlement between Mayor Bloomberg and then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer designated certain community gardens, including Nueva Esperanza, for development. The settlement resolved a 1999 lawsuit brought by Spitzer against then-Mayor Giuliani’s administration for selling community gardens as “vacant lots.” After the settlement, Nueva Esperanza was slated to be the site of the Museum for African Art and Edison Schools. But Edison’s financial troubles disrupted plans for development.

The site will now be used for an $80 million project which will include a 116-unit luxury condominium tower, in addition to the Museum for African Art, now temporarily located in Long Island City.

More Gardens! claims that the destruction of Nueva Esperanza Jardin is illegal because the city has failed to find an alternative site for the garden and failed to go through a public review process.

As required by the 2002 settlement, the city did offer Nueva Esperanza gardeners an alternative site for their garden within a half-mile radius of their current site.

Neill Coleman, a spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) said, “The former Gardener of Record, Tony Bowman, was notified of the need to vacate the former garden in March 2006. He vacated the garden in April 2006. Mr. Bowman was offered alternate garden sites for relocation in June 2003. He didn’t respond to the offer.”

However, all but one of the alternative sites were pre-existing community gardens. The site that was not already a garden lacked enough sunlight for gardening, according to Bowman.

The city did go through the public review processes when the project included Edison Schools, but the revised project that includes luxury condominiums has only been through an accelerated review process, activists say. The city charter allows the mayor to bypass a public review process and competitive bidding for city property with the approval of a majority of the Borough Board in which the property is located. Aresha Javadi of More Gardens! describes it as a “super fast-track” process that kept the project out of the public eye and did not allow for community input.

HPD spokesperson Neill Coleman said that the city followed the gardens review process set out by the September 2002 community gardens agreement.

“The current occupants of the site are not the gardeners of record and have no legal right to be on the site," said Coleman.

The city, which announced last month it will contribute $12 million toward the development, says the project will revitalize the area and add the first new museum in 50 years to Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile. According to the Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD), the Museum for African Art will be “a cultural gateway to Harlem” and create hundreds of jobs.

But neighbors also are worried that the planned luxury condos will have the effect of pricing them out of the neighborhood.

Benay Chisholm, 46, a retired transit worker who has gardened at Nueva Esperanza for 18 years, said the development ignores the community’s need for more affordable housing. “What’s going to happen to me with my low income?” asked Chisholm, whose rent is now $600 a month.

“Luxury housing is not something that this community needs,” said City Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito, who represents the area. Viverito said her pleas for a museum project that would have included affordable housing and open space have fallen on deaf ears. Still, she said, she is eager to have a museum that will honor the heritage of the African diaspora in the African-American communities of the neighborhood.

For now, the garden remains fenced off by the city with security guards watching the site around the clock.

But garden advocates have not given up. Viverito said she will continue her dialogue with the developers, Brickman Associates, and the Museum for African Art as well as HPD to find a new home for Nueva Esperanza. Joel Kupferman, a lawyer with the New York Environmental and Justice Law Project, said his group may seek an injunction on behalf of the gardeners. Brickman Associates would not comment for this story.

View photos of the garden and protest here.

- Rebekah Kebede