Ena McPherson in Tranquility Farm, one of the gardens being adopted by the city.

Andrew Caringi

Ena McPherson in Tranquility Farm, one of the gardens being adopted by the city.

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This article is being co-published with Brooklyn Deep.
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Abdul Muhammad has seen developers looking at the New Harvest community garden next to his Bedford-Stuyvesant home for a long time, yet nothing ever happened. He kept on cleaning the lot and planting crops as the neighborhood changed around him. Residents that couldn’t afford fresh produce could get it at the garden. All were welcome.

“We feed the community,” he says.

Now, the large plot of city-owned land on Vernon Avenue between Marcy and Tompkins, which once served as a shortcut for drug users, is set to be turned into new residential buildings.

“This is prime real estate,” he says. “As far as we’re concerned it’s a done deal.”

The news came as part of a long-awaited announcement from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) about the fate of more than 40 community gardens on city-owned land across four boroughs. At least nine sites in Brooklyn and Manhattan will be offered up for the development of affordable housing, with exact locations yet to be worked out in some cases. Another 36 sites—the majority of which are in Central Brooklyn—will be transferred to the Department of Parks and Recreation and remain community gardens.

Gardeners learned the details in a hastily scheduled meeting at City Hall on the morning of Dec. 30. Many couldn’t make it and some were notified just hours before. Still, the room was full and Brooklyn Deep was in attendance.

Officials offered little explanation for the timing and vowed to help each garden affected by the decision.

“I know this is going to be painful and I know this is going to be tough,” said Michael DeLoach, a representative from the mayor’s office. “This is not the end of the process, it’s the beginning.”

Many gardeners appreciated the chance to meet, but were still upset and made impassioned pleas for their sites to be spared.

“Do not take these two lots. Do not take them from a community from which everything has been taken,” said Frances Mastrota from the Pleasant Village Community Garden in East Harlem.

City officials repeatedly stressed the need for new housing and promised to be more receptive to community needs than past mayoral administrations. HPD Commissioner Vicki Been said that because the city now receives more than 80,000 applications for every 100 units of affordable housing, they have no choice but to build more.

“We are critically aware of the importance of open space,” she said. “We have tried very hard to save as many gardens as we possibly can.”

Yet for the activists in the room, losing even one site is too many—especially in low-income communities where many of the affected gardens are located.

“When you destroy a community garden, you’re destroying a community,” said Ray Figueroa from the New York Community Garden Coalition.

While gardeners such as Abdul Muhammad were disappointed by the news, others had much cause for celebration.

Some gardens had been on HPD land for years without any issues, but others had been fighting for their survival after landing on a list of potential development sites in late 2014. Many on the list held demonstrations and community meetings to rally support. Ena McPherson from Tranquility Farm in Bedford-Stuyvesant even invited the city’s parks commissioner to come for a tour.

With the exception of New Harvest, every garden on the list from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Weeksville and Brownsville was saved. This allows them to continue growing fresh produce, providing nutrition education, raising chickens, harvesting honey and processing many pounds of compost for years to come.

But Alice Forbes Spear from 462 Halsey Community Garden says this doesn’t mean their fight is over.

“If any garden is threatened, if there’s any threat, then we’ll all fight back,” she says.

Forbes Spear says that in addition to supporting other gardens, she’ll be fighting the rapid pace of Brooklyn development in 2016 through community organizing.

“There’s so much work to be done,” she says. “We’re going to keep on pushing back and keep on trying to create communities that are healthier, more affordable, reflective of the actual population of New York City and responsive to our citizenry.”

Community garden advocacy has been strong in New York since the 1970s, when the city struggled with home foreclosures, vacant lots and rampant crime. In 1978, Operation Green Thumb was launched to make lots available for community members to revitalize their blocks with gardens.

Today, the GreenThumb program is part of the Department of Parks and Recreation and has more than 600 gardens. Not every garden in GreenThumb is on Parks land—some sites belong to other agencies or are part of land trusts—and none are officially permanent. Each garden is granted a license agreement of typically between one to four years that can be renewed. Still, these sites receive some material support, such as tools and soil, and have a more stable existence than if they were on HPD land.

Open space is set to play a large part in discussions about rezoning and affordable housing next year, particularly in East New York and Cypress Hills which are at the top of the city’s list of areas set for major new development. Community leaders were pleasantly surprised to learn that three gardens in Cypress Hills made the list of sites being transferred to Parks. Though at least one has been slated for new development.

Shai Lauros, a director at the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, says that overall the administration’s move last week was a positive sign for preserving green space amid new construction.

“I’m actually really encouraged by the city,” she says. “It is public land and it is land that’s effectively paid for by city residents, city taxpayers, and so it’s important that the community be part of this work.”

Many of the other gardens on HPD’s development list are in East Harlem where the city is also pursuing major rezoning. The garden sites collectively make up less than two acres of land, but the de Blasio administration needs every parcel it can get to meet their ambitious affordable housing goals. The list of available HPD property is dwindling and now mainly comprises small abandoned lots that aren’t economically viable to build on.

Paula Segal, executive director of 596 Acres, works to open up community access to unused city property. Her organization helped residents get permission to start 15 of the gardens that will be transferred to Parks. She thinks it’s time for New York to overhaul a complicated system where different government agencies own vacant land without clear communication about what is happening on it. Not only would this help the city better understand what it owns, but it would also help future gardeners find new sites.

“We need major land reform in how the city handles its real estate inventory,” says Segal. “HPD has been serving as a land bank with no oversight for half a century.”

Segal will be advising gardens that are on the list of HPD development sites during what will likely be a long, complicated process. Past administrations have preemptively bulldozed gardens. Officials at the City Hall meeting promised not to do that.

GreenThumb plans to meet individually with each garden targeted for housing development to discuss relocation options. City officials said gardeners shouldn’t invest any new resources in their sites, but it could be years until developers are ready to begin building in some cases.

Until then, Segal says gardeners should continue to enjoy their green spaces and look toward spring.

“Nothing is final until concrete is poured,” she says.

Brooklyn Deep is a digital journalism platform chronicling neighborhood change in Central Brooklyn through investigative reporting and in-depth storytelling. Brooklyn Deep reporter Cole Rosengren is a freelance reporter in New York City. He can be followed @ColeRosengrenNY.