Toward A Garden Truce, Fertile and Long-Lasting

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Scattered across New York’s concrete and steel landscape are close to 600 community gardens, most of which are owned by city agencies or public land trusts. For the people who transformed what were often garbage-strewn lots into urban oases, the passion for protecting these plots runs as deep as the roots below.

Local gardeners from all five boroughs gathered in the auditorium at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Saturday morning at an event organized by the New York City Community Gardens Coalition, an independent network of local gardeners. In spite of a settlement to protect gardens reached in 2002 and the current trend towards going green, local gardeners worry about their future and used the day to share concerns with a half dozen invited state and city officials.

Threats to community gardens are not new. In 1999, then-state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued the Giuliani administration to halt the auctioning of community gardens – which the city was calling vacant lots – to developers. In Sept. 2002 under the Bloomberg administration, the city reached a settlement that preserved 198 gardens, while also designating 153 sites for affordable housing development.

But this settlement expires in 2010. And the tension over how best to use the city’s finite land resources – whether for housing or open space – is as strong as ever.

Special Deputy Attorney General for Environmental Protection Katherine Kennedy told the gardeners that now is the right time to think about what should happen in 2010 – whether the settlement gets extended, amended or simply expires. She also recommended improving the process of notifying developers of the current settlement in order to mitigate the risk of “human error.”

It was just that kind of “human error” that damaged at least two East Harlem gardens earlier this spring, said Jack Linn, a Parks and Recreation Department assistant commissioner and the event’s keynote speaker. Both gardens – Pueblo Unido, at 1659 Madison Avenue between 111th and 110th streets, and the 110th Street Block Association garden at 1650 Madison Avenue – were granted protected status by the 2002 settlement.

However, Loewen Development LLC obtained a license agreement from HPD to do soil testing and borings at these sites, according to Loewen vice president Peter Murray. His firm was designated by HPD to develop 11 sites in East Harlem, including four community garden sites. He concedes that the preparation for this testing did “disturb” the gardens.

“On April 13th, when a complaint was made to HPD about our activities, we immediately ceased the work,” said Murray via e-mail. Gardeners familiar with the situation said that police had to be called to stop the damage.

In early May, Loewen Development met with the City Parks Department, GreenThumb, HPD, City Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito and the gardeners and reached an agreement that Murray says will benefit the gardeners and enable ongoing development of affordable housing.

“Three of the four gardens will be preserved and Loewen Development will contribute to the gardeners for rebuilding and permanent decorative fencing,” said Murray.

While this outcome seems positive, some gardeners see little they can do to prevent similar incidents in the future, even if a garden is supposedly protected.

“If you have a giant machine, and men with hard hats, you can start destroying anything you want,” said Aresh Javadi, whose local advocacy organization More Gardens! worked with city officials to resolve the East Harlem disputes.

Alex Brown, from the Harlem United Gardeners, summed up the threat posed to community gardens in a word. “It’s development. From river to river, any space that’s open is being built,” said Brown.

Brown, along with 25 of his neighbors, used to till a plot at 112th Street and Seventh Avenue — formerly the New Hope Garden. As part of the 2002 settlement, his garden was designated for development and a five-story 44-unit condominium building now sits on his old plot.

Just this spring, another community garden in Harlem — Nueva Esperanza — was designated for development in spite of community protest. The site will soon be the home to a Museum for African Art and 150 units of luxury housing.

Beyond the discussion of development, city and state officials did come to the event with some encouraging news for the gardeners.

With a nod toward Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, Linn said the parks department is going to plant 541 street trees around the perimeters of community gardens. Parks will also receive an additional $1 million this year for GreenThumb, the program that supports community gardens, from the Office of Management and Budget.

“Basically, this is money that other agencies could not get spent in time and we have at Parks a good record of spending money quickly when we get the opportunity,” Linn said.

That new money, along with existing allocations, will be used to pay for new sidewalks, rainwater harvesting systems, solar lighting systems, rodent control, and new code-compliant structures. Money will also be used to support school garden programs and to increase urban agriculture projects.

Representing the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets, Bill Kimball and Bob Lewis announced that their department would be the new home for the New York State Community Garden Office. The office was established in 1987, it was has been vacant since before the Pataki administration because of budget constraints. One individual who will count state oversight of community gardens among broader responsibilities will staff this new office working out of Brooklyn.

Kimball said this was good news for New York City since the largest number of community gardens are located here. It also means that the community garden program has a point-person on the state level, something that has been absent for years.

In spite of these announcements, gardeners remained concerned about the expiration of the settlement in 2010 and the presence of a new, potentially less supportive mayor.

“We need to organize, organize, organize,” said Mark Leger, who gardened for 19 years in Park Slope before recently moving to Bushwick where he gardens at the Granite Garden. Leger also said resources like tools and topsoil need to be distributed equitably to all gardens – regardless of whether it is owned by the parks department or a land trust. But most importantly, gardeners need to communicate with each other, said Leger.

Linn, whose department oversees approximately 300 of the city’s gardens, stressed that same point.

“I said don’t be paranoid; I did not say don’t organize. You should be part of the next mayoral campaign. Make your feelings known. Make the feelings of the people who use and enjoy your gardens known.”

– Brigid Bergin