| The Death Of Little
NYC Gardens Are Getting Plowed By a New
Wave of Urban Development
La Muerte del Pequeño Puerto Rico - en Español
The flyers were plastered to the garden fence like insults: "Own your
own Home Starting at an Estimated $103,000!" ran the bold type, over a
computerized image of neat, four-story brick townhouses captioned with the
phrase "Del Este Village." Spanglish for "Of the East
Village," that was the name the developers gave to the 98 duplex
condominiums they planned to build in my largely low-income, Latino
neighborhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side.While 27 of the condo units be
constructed on vacant lots in the area, 71 would displace four community
gardens, including the sprawling series of plots next door to my own
homesteaded tenement building on East 10th Street and Avenue B, a garden
known affectionately by its caretakers as "Little Puerto Rico."
"Sarah, Sarah, they give us these, que dices, what is it?" Lydia
Cortes, the acknowledged "mother" of our garden called to me,
waving a stack of flyers one of the "Del Este" agents had handed her.
"It's our eviction notice," I told her, staring sadly into her
bewildered eyes. Four months earlier, in April 1997, the New York City Council
voted to award our garden, the Chico Mendez Mural Garden, and two
less-established plots on East 11th Street to the New York City Housing
Partnership, the non-profit goliath that is responsible for virtually all new
subsidized housing construction in the city. Yet no one from the Partnership or
the city government had ever bothered to inform Lydia and the other gardeners
of the plans.
It was as if we didn't exist. In fact, when the Partnership proposal came up
for vote before the City Council, our garden and the three others were listed as
"vacant, blighted lots." This despite the fact that folks at Little Puerto
Rico had been tending their plots for over 10 years.
The oversight is sadly typical of the Giuliani Administration, for whom
gardens are seen as "interim sites", space savers for future
development. Unlike other major cities, like Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago,
where City officials are actively engaged in incorporating green space in their
urban designs, in New York, Giuliani has declared war on community gardening.
While 60 of the city's 700 or so remaining gardens have attained permanent
status(1), the bulk are up for grabs as the city steps up efforts to privatize
virtually all "vacant" city-owned land.
In the past year alone, more than 100 community gardens have been lost to
development. Sixty-one gardens were bulldozed or are on the list to be
bulldozed; 41 others have been slated for housing or commercial development.
As this book goes to press, another 119 are to be sold at auction in May, and
many more could be put up for bid soon after, according to sales projections
contained in a recent city management report. The battle for green space is on,
and the fate of these community-developed oases could significantly alter the
physical and social landscape of the city.
Born from ruin
Like the 50 remaining community gardens on the
Lower East Side, Little Puerto Rico was born out of the economic downturn and
subsequent fiscal crisis of the 1970s (see sidebar). Waves of disinvestment,
arson and abandonment felled large swaths of housing in this former slum
community, leaving the area with some 500 vacant lots. On East 10th Street, the
old-law tenements next door to my building were demolished in 1977. During
the early 80s, they became the domain of a homeless man named George, who
lived in a tractor trailer left behind by the demolition crews, and ran the place
as his private junk mart, amassing an enormous quantity of busted toilets,
doors, windows, car chassis, and old furniture salvaged from the bombed-out
At that time, "Alphabet City," as the blocks east of First Avenue
were known, was still reeling from heroin and the emerging crack epidemic,
and the car skeletons in the lot provided a convenient place to store drugs and
shoot up. A few doors down, an enterprising Dominican woman ran an
operation called "Black Door" heroin. When her runners betrayed
her, she reportedly had them shot, often disposing of the bodies in the lot.
"At night, you could hear gun shots of drug deals gone bad and on at least
five occasions, I can recall looking out my window to see body bags surrounded
by police," recalls Judy Silberstein, who moved into the small carriage
house in the back of my tenement in 1983. "In one instance, I had the
police in my home to investigate a stray bullet that pierced my second-floor
window and lodged in my wall. Another time, a houseguest from out of town
remarked on the numerous stray cats that he saw from my window at night. In
actuality, they were rats, not cats."
By the spring of 1987, after George died, Silberstein and other residents from
the block decided to wrest control of the lots. The initial cohabitation was not
easy. After clearing a space and planting several raised beds of tomatoes and
peppers (the soil in the lots was contaminated with heavy metals and lead),
Silberstein says she was confronted by a group of Latin men who began pouring
concrete to put up a garage for fixing cars. "Infuriated, I began to speak in
faltering Spanish about the need to clean up the lots for the children. I took out
two twenty-dollar bills, my grocery money, and told them, 'I will give you $40 for
this land to make this a garden!'" The men shuffled their feet and didn't
budge, she says. Then Don Garcia, an elderly Puerto Rican and acknowledged
master gardener on the Lower East Side, came to her side and nodded his
ascent. The men backed down, and instead they and several other families from
the block banded together to make a garden.
"We rented a tow truck to take away the abandoned cars, and got a
friend who worked for Sanitation to get the trucks to pick up the garbage from
the street, even though they weren't supposed to, reports Lydia Cortes, a Puerto
Rican mother of five who lives in one of the subsidized tenements down the
block. There were chunks of cement the size of boulders and piles of syringes
crunching under foot. Bernando Vargas, another gardener, estimates they
excavated enough garbage to fill a dozen dumpsters. There were also pitched
battles with baseball bats and hoes to chase away the junkies and dealers who
frequented the site. By the fall of 1987, they had achieved what the city's
Operation Pressure Point could not; they had rid the lots of drugs.
Typical of traditional Latin gardens, they built a casita (small house) in the
center of the lot and salvaged bricks to make a pathway from the street. On
either side, they planted beds of tomatoes, cabbage, beans, garlic, and cilantro.
Next to the casita, they erected a shrine to Santa Clara on a mound of mint and
rose bushes, and near the street, they dug a goldfish pond, which was presided
over by an assortment of icons-Buddha, the Virgin Mary, a statuette of a Native
American, and a carved African deity-all scavenged from the street. Later, a
second casita was added in the rear, as Garcia and others began clearing the
remaining lots on the 11th Street side for farming.
From the start the gardeners were a mixed bunch--whites from my
tenement, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Poles, and Columbians-reflecting the
multi-cultural character of the neighborhood. Unlike other community gardens,
established by green-minded activists and operated through consensus, the
organization of Little Puerto Rico remained largely tribal. The keys to the front
gate were kept by Lydia, who presided over the central casita, and her husband
Isais, who fixed cars and washing machines in the back, and Jose, the super
across the street. People from my building (who had access to the garden
through our back courtyard) and the surrounding tenements established plots
on a first-come, first-serve basis. Garcia was our "spiritual advisor,"
schooling newcomers in planting techniques as he helped keep the peace. But
for the most part, all decisions regarding the use of the garden for events and
parties went through Lydia and Isais. They put up a handpainted plexiglass sign
proclaiming the lots "El Jarden de la 10" (The Garden of 10th Street),
but Lydia and the others liked to call it Little Puerto Rico because it reminded
them of "home."
There's no question the garden had a profound impact on the block. Folks
from the community staged weddings, funeral services, baptisms weekly
prayer meetings, block parties, and birthday celebrations for children whose
parents could not afford to rent a hall for such events. For several years, Hector,
a Columbian homesteader, organized weekly screening of Spanish westerns
and other films, projected on the wall of an adjacent building. During the
Christmas holidays, the yard twinkled with hundreds of blinking lights and
decorations, and every Halloween , Lydia and the other mothers transformed
the casita into an elaborate haunted house fiesta, dishing out free candy to
hundreds of children from the neighborhood.
Over the years, Silberstein and some of the other gardeners moved beyond
vegetables to more elaborate plantings. From the gateway to our back
courtyard, there was a grape arbor, leading to a winding path of brimming with
lilies, foxgloves, black-eyed susans, Japanese anemones, hostas, hydrangea,
yarrow, and Russian sage. Honeysuckle and morning glory vines devoured the
compost bins, hollyhocks sprouted wild along the fences, mullein plants
towered like small trees. Nearby, I planted a memorial flower garden in honor
of my former cat, which spilled into rows of eggplant, arugala, squash, lavender
and herbs, and a patch of strawberries, which were inevitably eaten by the
kids, along with the chickens and rabbits Lydia and Isais sometimes kept in the
yard. Mornings I'd breakfast on tomatoes ripened on the vine and marvel at the
sweet drone of crickets and bumble bees, poised against the encroaching
tremor of piledrivers and jackhammers from nearby construction sites.
We always knew we were gardening on
borrowed time. Back in September 1987, our plots had been slated for
market-rate housing under an agreement between the City and the local
community board known as the Cross-Subsidy Plan. Under the plan, the city
agreed to rehab vacant, city-owned buildings in the neighborhood for low and
moderate income housing, in exchange for the right to sell off an equal number
of vacant lots to developers for market-rate housing. But the market-rate
development had stalled following the stock market crash in 1989, and in the
intervening years, our garden, like the many others on the Lower East Side
flourished in legal limbo.
Three times, Lydia had applied for a yearly lease through the city's Operation
Green Thumb program, and in 1996, her application was approved, only to be
denied a few weeks later when the city's byzantine housing bureaucracy
claimed it had "imminent plans" for the site. So Little Puerto Rico
was never a "real" garden. We were squatters, with no right to the
land other than the virtue that led us to clean up the forsaken lots in the first
The first sign that our urban pastoral was ending came in January 1997,
when a survey crew rolled back the chainlink fence and drove a drilling rig into
the center of the yard to test the soil and water tables. Concerned at that point
how new construction might impact my aging tenement, I contacted the
Community Board, and was informed that the garden lots had been awarded to
the New York City Housing Partnership.
In fact, the lots were not actually ceded to the Partnership until five months
later, when the Mayor signed off on the deal in June 1997. Had we been
informed, we could have at least presented our case before the City Council,
which is required to hold public hearings before disposing of the city-owned
properties. Instead, when our garden and the other 11th Street plots came up
for a vote, they were listed as "vacant," "blighted lots,"
enabling the city to transfer them to the Partnership through an accelerated
approval process called UDAAP (Urban Development Action Area Program) with
little public input and no environmental review.
Created to facilitate slum clearance, the language of the UDAAP statutes
becomes ludicrous when applied to community gardens. According to the city's
General Municipal Law, properties eligible for UDAAP are defined as "slum
or blighted areas.... The existence of such areas constitutes a serious and
growing menace, is injurious to the public safety, health, morals and welfare,
contributes increasingly to the spread of crime, juvenile delinquency and
disease, necessitates excessive and disproportionate expenditures of public
funds for all forms of public service and maintenance, and constitutes a
negative influence on the adjacent properties, impairing their economic
soundness and stability, thereby threatening the source of public
If it had just been my garden, I might have been willing to accept the
situation. (Little Puerto Rico occupied such a large expanse of land, it was
inevitable the city would seek to recoup some of it.) Yet as I soon discovered,
dozens of gardens in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx were being disposed of
as vacant lots, with Council members for the most part clueless as to the true
nature of the land they were voting on. Like Little Puerto Rico and the Mendez
garden, most were to be razed for moderate and middle-income housing built
through the Partnerships' New Homes program. On the Lower East Side,
Partnership had been invited to build on up to 19 other sites, including as many
as a dozen other gardens. Up in Harlem, Partnership homes were targeted for
nine gardens, on blocks littered with empty lots and buildings.
And this was just the start. In the fall of 1996, the city's Department of
Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) had acknowledged plans to
develop half of the more than 800 gardens then thriving on city-owned lots over
the next five years. While gardeners and open-space advocates cried foul, the
Administration justified its policy with the need to build "affordable"
housing. The desire for green space, city officials claimed, was far outweighed
by New York's mounting housing crisis. These gardens they pointed out, had for
the most part come about when low-income tenements were demolished.
Didn't it make sense now, when the economy and real estate market were more
flush, to try to replace the housing that was lost? "Let's remember,"
wrote HPD Commissioner Richard T. Roberts in an editorial for the Daily News,
"that the aim of these housing initiatives is to wrest sound neighborhoods
not out of virgin land or existing parks, but out of the cycle of decline."
In other words, the gardens were to be seen as remnants of the city's fiscal
crisis. These new housing and commercial projects were to be seen as signs of
progress, a way to lift low-income neighborhoods out of poverty and boost
their economies. "Do we sacrifice gardens to build housing?" Deputy
Mayor Fran Reiter asked rhetorically in the New York Times. "You're damn
right we do. . . The bottom line is, we're going to build wherever we can, and
whenever we can."
Of course, many pointed out that
Partnership's model of low-density, suburban-style housing is not really all
that "affordable" when you consider the neighborhoods where
these townhouses are being built. Priced between $117,000 and $234,000 these
co-op and condo units are supposedly targeted at first-time homeowners
earning between $32,000 and $71,000. But a closer look at the sales contract for
the Del Este project on the Lower East Side revealed that purchasers would
have to earn at least $43,000 to qualify for a mortgage. That's more than double
the area's median family income of $20,000.
Others on the Lower East Side questioned the logic of building four-story
townhouses, with private entrances and 30-foot backyards, in a neighborhood
comprised of mostly five and six-story tenements. If the city and the
Partnership were truly concerned about the housing crisis, why not build taller
and more densely, so as to create more housing while preserving more land for
community space? Such notions of creative planning fell flat on the
Administration. When asked at a public hearing about the notion of
incorporating portions of the gardens into the Partnership's plans, HPD deputy
commissioner Mary Bolton responded that "open space is inconsistent
with home ownership."
The attack on the gardens came at a time when the city was seeking to
auction two Latin community centers on the Lower East Side. Squatters were
being booted from their homes in military-style evictions, while housing
authority apartments were being warehoused in the neighboring projects off
FDR drive. The Del Este townhouses, as we saw it, would only fuel gentrification
pressures in the nabe, essentially replacing one class of people with another.
Working with the Mendez gardeners and activists from the New York City
Garden Preservation Coalition, we organized rallies and press conferences to
accuse the city of "cultural clear-cutting." I played the race card,
and brought Rev. Al Sharpton and Harlem Councilman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
down to "Little Puerto Rico" to mug for the tv cameras. The folks from
my garden went along reluctantly. Unlike the self-styled Chico Mendez
"warriors"-educated poets and activists who revelled in media
stunts-many of the gardeners at Little Puerto Rico were afraid of losing their
welfare benefits or having their citizenship challenged.
My friends told me I was crazy, tilting at windmills. We weren't just bucking
City Hall, we were taking on the Partnership, the brainchild of David Rockefeller,
whose board membership reads like a Who's Who of New York's leading real
estate and financial players. The local community board had backed the Del
Este project, convinced the duplex condos would help "stabilize" the
community. It was a done deal, why fight? Many of the city's established
greening groups-such as the Green Guerillas, the Parks Council, and Council on
the Environment-also seemed reluctant to enter the fray, fearful, it seems, that
an aggressive stance for all gardens would undermine their relationship with
City Hall. While the grassroots Garden Preservation Coalition-comprising 200
gardeners citywide-began mobilizing folks from threatened spaces to attend
rallies and Council hearings, many of the non-profit advocates were helping
Green Thumb develop a rating list for which plots should be saved and which
were more expendable.
In September 1997, after months of searching for a lawyer to take the case
pro-bono, gardeners from Little Puerto Rico and Mendez united with the nine
Harlem gardens to file suit against the city and the New York City Housing
Partnership. In our lawsuit, we challenged not just the sale of our gardens, but
the roughly 400 others that the Administration had targeted for development.
In approving these projects, we argued, the City had denied our right to public
review, and failed to assess the cumulative impact such a loss of open space
would entail, as mandated by state environmental statutes.
Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court didn't see it that way. As gardeners,
the judge ruled, we lacked sufficient legal standing to challenge the city's plans
because we didn't own the lots or hold any long-term leases for them.Apparently, simply being engaged citizens was not enough. On December 30,
1997, Little Puerto Rico, Chico Mendez, and the other East 11th Street plots were
PRIVATIZING THE LAND
Though we lost our gardens, the fight raised
the media's awareness and forced local politicians to stand up for green
spaces in their districts. We had also inspired a more militant spirit of green
activism in the city, with garden supporters such as the Lower East Side
Collective (LESC) organizing street demos and "fax jams." During
Giuliani's second inauguration ceremony in January 1998, garden activists
were the only protest group to infiltrate the proceedings. In July 1998,
thousands of crickets were released to disrupt the auction of several casita
gardens on the Lower East Side. The protests may have scared off the New York
City Housing Partnership, which pulled back on plans to develop more sites on
the Lower East Side. But they seem only to have egged on the Mayor.
In April1998, the Mayor's office unilaterally transferred all but a handful of the then 741
Green Thumb gardens from the Parks Department to the Assets and Sales Unit of
HPD. Though largely a bureaucratic maneuver, the transfer of these remaining
green spaces to HPD signalled that virtually all of the city's gardens were now
vulnerable to development. The magnitude of Giuliani's privatization agenda
became apparent last January, when greening groups discovered through
departmental leaks that 119 Green Thumb gardens had been included among
the 400 parcels of land to be auctioned this May. On the chopping block are
gardens which have existed for over 20 years-such as Parque de Tranquilidad
and the All People's Garden on the Lower East Side, and the Garden of Eden,
whose role in resurrecting a troubled block in Jamaica, Queens was lauded in a
1996 National Geographic article celebrating the 25th anniversary of Earth Day.
This time,the Administration has made no effort to pit gardens against the
need for affordable housing. The gardens are to be sold to the highest bidder.
"It's like Robin Hood in reverse," remarked one Harlem gardener in
testimony before city officials. The move shocked the staff of Green Thumb and
the city's nonprofit greening groups, which have spent tens of thousands of
dollars and in training and materials to help establish many of the gardens now
up for sale. "In the past, there was always an unspoken policy that no
viable garden which was actively used and well-maintained would be put up
for sale at an unrestricted auction," notes former Green Thumb director
Jane Weisman, who resigned from her post last fall. "We lost a few gardens
through restricted sales-say for a community health center or subsidized housing-
but they were never just put up for open speculation."
The plan has also outraged elected officials. "They said these lots were
for housing, and it's a lie," charged Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer,
whose borough has 19 gardens on the list." What they're having is a
cake sale." (4). Ferrer and others have pointed out that many of the gardens
exist on small or odd-shaped lots which would barely be useful as parking lots. Even the normally
staid New York Times editorialists called the prospect of bulldozing well-used
gardens " an act of neighborhood violence." (5)
Giuliani for his part has little but contempt for the gardeners' cause. " This is a free-market economy-
welcome to the era after communism," he remarked at a January 11 press
conference. Indeed, the Mayor went further, suggesting that any opposition to the
sales would only undercut the future of the city's Green Thumb program: " I
think people who are interested in these gardens are going to ruin this program
because they're reneging on the deal, and ultimately politicians won't turn over
these properties on a temporary basis. . . It's like, when people make a deal, they
shake hands; they have to both live up to it." (6)
In fact, many in New York
believe it is the mayor who is reneging on his obligation to represent the needs of
his constituents, while remaining blind to true value-both social and economic-that
the gardens have bestowed on the Big Apple. The 700 gardens occupy roughly two
hundred acres of green, open space-an area four times the size of the 52-acre
Brooklyn Botanical Garden. They serve an estimated 20,000 gardeners, who have
contributed millions of dollars in materials and sweat equity to beautify their
blocks, with little or no assistance from City Hall. Yet these same 700 gardens
represent no more than a tenth of the 11,000 vacant lots currently in the city's
" Even from a market based perspective, this policy doesn't
hold water, because everyone knows that property values go up in a community that
has a well-kept garden," says Peter Marcuse, professor of urban planning at
Columbia University. " It doesn't make sense to sell off the gardens before the
surrounding properties are developed." In fact, in the less market-driven
neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, many of the gardens auctioned could remain
vacant for years. According to a recent report by Brooklyn Borough President Howard
Golden, most Brooklyn lots sold in previous auctions have remained garbage-strewn
eyesores for years.
The value of these green spaces becomes more apparent when you
consider that New York has less open space per capita than any other city in the
country. The majority of the city's 59 community boards fall below the state's
minimum open-space standard of 2.5 acres per 1,000 residents. The Lower East Side,
for instance, has .7 acres of space per 1,000. By contrast, Boston has four acres
per 1,000, and Philadelphia has more than six.
The threat to the gardens
constitutes a fundamental undoing of New York's open space movement, which had been
one of the leading forces in urban gardening in America. It also bucks the growing
trend toward the creation of " livable cities" now being advanced by
ecologists and urban planners. At a time when Vice President Al Gore has proposed
allocating billions in bond monies aimed at preserving green space in cities and
suburbs, why is Mayor Giuliani intent on mowing New York's gardens down?
it's vengeance against gardeners who have dared protest Giuliani's development
agenda, like the unruly anarchists and squatters who had once, in the minds of some
city officials, wreaked havoc with property values on the Lower East Side. By this
view, gardens are examples of community control and hence anathema to a top-down
mayor like Giuliani. " The gardens are vehicles for social empowerment, and
empowered people are very scary to this Administration. What better way to
disenfranchise people than to take away these gardens? I think it's mean, spiteful,
and evil," remarks one greening advocate and former City Hall insider.
it would be wrong to underestimate this mayor's capacity for ill will, the reality
is the gardens are victims of a bubble economy which has vastly inflated real
estate prices in New York. Land-use experts estimate that the 119 plots now up for
auction could fetch more than $7 million, part of the hundreds of millions of
dollars the city hopes to reap from the sale of city assets by the end of the
decade. (7) From a short-term budgetary perspective, it makes sense to sell off as
much land as quickly as possible, before millennial fervor undermines the stock
market with Y2K jitters. Not only does the city reap an immediate cash windfall,
but the land goes back on the tax-rolls. Whether these parcels harbor flower beds
and vegetable patches is irrelevant, especially to a mayor looking to balance his
budget and reduce New York's walloping debt margin in preparation for a run for
higher office. New construction fuels the economy, provides jobs, and of course,
generous campaign contributions from developers. No matter that it was the gardens
themselves which helped arrest the decline in low-income neighborhoods and actually
raise property values, paving the way for new development and renewed market
interest. The bottom line is sell, sell, sell.
A similar dynamic is underway in
Berlin and London, for example, where land pressures are threatening community
farms and allotment gardens. As in these rapidly developing cities, New York's
gardens are caught in a much larger land battle pitting the more intangible social
and environmental benefits of open space against cold spread sheets of economic
growth. How do you reconcile the need for community gardens in a rapidly
globalizing city like New York, with a population of 8 million confined (with the
exception of the Bronx) to several finite islands of space? What do trees and
sunflowers mean balanced against the juggernaut of real estate, banking, and
cybertech industries vying to make La Grand Manaza the economic engine of the
UPROOTING THE PAST
These were the questions I sought to resolve when
fighting to save Little Puerto Rico and the other threatened havens in my
neighborhood. When I first took on the fight back in 1997, I half-jokingly referred
to the battle as the Loisaida Nostalgia Crusade. Loisaida, because that's what
Puerto Ricans have long dubbed the Lower East Side. Nostalgia crusade, because I
knew I was fighting for a past which in some sense had already receded for New
Like the dozen remaining squats in the neighborhood, my garden
was an anachronism- a place where poor men cleaned out old refrigerators, then
gathered at night to play congas and drink Budweisers and guapa, Caribbean
moonshine. I still recall one rainy day when former Councilmember Tom Duane, a West
Village pol who had championed the garden cause down at City Hall, arrived for an
unexpected tour of the place. In the front, he found a grizzled man we called
Chicklet cleaning a pile of melo, or king fish, that he'd wheeled into the yard in
a shopping cart. Duane wrinkled his nose as we made are way down the muddy pathway,
past an old Packman video-arcade machine that the kids had dragged in from the
street, and a hydroplane which someone's " cousin from Miami" was
temporarily storing in the back. His face soured until I marched him over to the
Mendez garden, where the gazebo and neatly tended rose beds seemed to reaffirm his
As a neighborhood gentrifies, so do its gardens. The handful
of community gardens on the Lower East Side that have attained permanent status
through the Parks Department have done so because they have exceptional plantings,
as well as highly motivated members capable of writing grants, lobbying
politicians, and hosting poetry and jazz performances to prove their worth as
community assets. Tilling vegetable plots isn't enough. What's being overlooked, of
course, are those modest spaces tended by poor people for whom gardening is not a
hobby, but one of the few solaces they have left. It's no surprise that the
neighborhood's casita gardens have been the first to get the ax.
attack has in some sense changed that. By targeting even the most lauded and
well-established plots, he's helped unite gardeners and the non-profit greening
groups to fight what's become an all-out assault on community-held land. Hundreds
of gardeners turned out for the perfunctory hearings that the city is required to
hold before selling public properties. At the last hearing on February 24, 30
gardeners and supporters were arrested when they were prevented from protesting the
auction on the steps of City Hall. Meanwhile, Council members in Brooklyn and the
Bronx have introduced legislation to impose a moratorium on the sale of Green Thumb
gardens. However, because it limits the power of the mayor, a moratorium would have
to be approved by the voters as an amendment to the City Charter at the next
general election in November.
Other legislation is being pursued in the State
legislature to force the city to preserve gardens in accordance with the State's
Open Space Plan. The bill, sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator John Sampson, calls
for gardens to be protected as park land and prohibits their sale without Community
Board approval. A companion bill has been introduced in the State Assemly.
Unfortunately, neither show much chance of passing. " I don't see a lot that's
going to make a difference except through political pressure," notes Andy
Stone of the Trust for Public Land.
Whether this groundswell of opposition will
force the mayor to back down is hard to say. At the very least, it should open
people's eyes to the quiet, yet fundamental role that gardens play in humanizing an
otherwise overcrowded city of strangers. More than green spaces, New York's gardens
are microcosms of democracy, where people establish a sense of community and
belonging to the land. Like the antic shrines and alters they construct in their
flower beds, these eclectic havens are in a very real sense churches, where people
find faith-both in themselves and in their neighbors. When I first moved into my
building in 1994, I resented the all-night salsa and meringue that the Puerto
Ricans on my block blasted from boomboxes on my front stoop. By the end of one
summer gardening with them, I'd come to love them as an extended family.
neighborhood cohesion is fading, lost in the seemingly endless flux of wealthy
Europeans, film crews, and young students drawn to the Lower East Side as a hip
crash-pad of metastasizing theme bars and trendy restaurants. After our garden was
taken, some of the Little Puerto Rico gardeners cleaned out a small lot down the
street, where they set up a table for dominos and a hoist for fixing cars (the
place was far too dark and decrepid for planting). A few months later, that lot,
too, was sold to a developer. Another squat around the corner is on the verge of
being evicted. The Latin-run community center up the block is hanging by a thread.
Meanwhile the fence to our former garden is now plastered with more posters, these
ones advertizing everything from Gap Jeans and American Express cards to newfangled
MTV lingo. Similar corporate posters have been cropping up on construction sites
all over the neighborhood, displacing the hand-made, Xeroxed flyers for punk bands,
poetry readings, and protest demos that once papered the landscape in a
multi-layered babble of dissent. To me, these corporate posters symbolize the next
wave of privatization, as the East Village transitions from a place where people
made culture, to one where they consume it.
1. According to Green Thumb,
as of January 1999, there were 697 gardens licensed under the city's Green Thumb
program, and maybe two dozen more gardens operating with no official status. Some
55 gardens have been designated as parks or are in the process of being transferred
to the city's Park's Department for longterm preservation. Five gardens have been
incorporated as landtrusts.
2. New York City General Municipal Law, section 691.
3. Richard T. Roberts, " Why We Must Build on Open Spaces," Daily News, Sept.
4. Anne Raver, " Houses Before Gardens, The City Decides," New
York Times, Jan. 1 1997.
5. Anne Raver, " Auction Plan For Gardens Stirs
Tensions," New York Times, Jan. 11, 1999. 5. " Bulldozing Eden," New
York Times, Jan. 14, 1999.
6. Robert Polner, " Rudy: Sales Will Go On,"
Newsday, Jan. 12, 1999.
7. David Lefer, " Gardens Flap Growing," Daily News, Feb. 21, 1999
and Douglas Feiden, " Prime Real Estate Is Up for Grabs," Daily News,
Oct. 26, 1998.
Originally published in Avant Gardening,Autonomedia 1999.