Fights Over Land Rights Continue
New York's Community Gardens in Danger
by Helen Drusinereprinted with permission from Earth Times News Service
The Lower East Side of New York City, or 'alphabet city' as it more commonly called, was for years a neighborhood synonymous with drugs, crime, prostitution, burned out buildings and garbage-strewn streets. But it is changing and one of the reasons for that change, say long-time residents, are the numerous community gardens, almost 40 of which have taken the place of many of the areas formerly debris-covered vacant lots.
So now in place of discarded refrigerators, rotting tires, garbage and rats, there are herbs of every variety -- rosemary, thyme, sage, basil -- flowers such as roses, pansies, marigolds, and mums, and myriad vegetables, including tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, peppers, mustard greens and spinach. In one garden there are even peach, cherry, apple and nectarine trees, as well as an enormous weeping willow tree.
But these gardens, like so many of the some 800 community gardens throughout the city's five boroughs, are in danger of extinction because of mayor Giuliani's administration's quest to create affordable housing in urban neighborhoods. The gardens are threatened by development because of the new city policy of putting all vacant lots up for sale regardless of their use. Ten have already been destroyed on the Lower East Side, and recently a garden in Harlem was bulldozed without any prior notice by the city.
When communities began turning abandoned lots into gardens, they were under the city's Department of Parks and Recreation Green Thumb Program. But in April 1998, the Giuliani administration transferred them to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which, as one community gardener put it, is responsible for building housing not preserving open spaces. Since that time many of the gardens which, if put together would be larger than the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, have been attempting to get permanent status by transferring their ownership back to parks and recreation.
Although slated for development in May 1998, a garden still hoping for permanent status is The Ninth Street Community Garden and Park, between 9th and 10th streets on Avenue C. Begun in 1979, it is now one of the largest in the city, encompassing one acre or enough space on which to build four apartment buildings. Its nearly l00 members have built a pond, gazebo, brick-lined pathways, public sitting areas, and a compost bin. The garden hosts a 4-month long summer garden concert series, a halloween treat and pumpkin give away, public barbecues, movies, garden classrooms for neighborhood day care centers and even an occasional wedding.
Referred to by its members as a community center without walls, the garden, they say, has not only been responsible for halting the sale of drugs and guns and the dumping of garbage around its corners, but has also been responsible for teaching hundreds of school children about composting , recycling, and planting. Several of the neighborhood day care centers have their own children's garden and herbs from the medicinal herb circle and tomatoes from the community tomato patch are donated to neighborhood residents and local soup kitchens.
Community Board Number 3 has so far received more than l,000 letters pleading for the preservation of this park, which many of the neighborhood's low-income residents view as a substitute for a vacation which they otherwise could not afford. Margarita Lopez, Councilwoman for the lower East side, did not return phone calls made to her office.
Even if a garden is lucky enough to achieve permanent site status under the city's Open Spaces Program, the garden is still vulnerable. "All gardens are still listed as vacant lots," says Sandra Allen, a member of the Sixth Street and Avenue B Garden, which was the first community garden to receive permanent status in l996. "The city has no intention of mapping a single garden, and until they become mapped, they are not permanent," she adds.
"However, the gardens are still vulnerable for takeover even if they are mapped," she continues, pointing to Shea Stadium which, she says, was a mapped city park turned over to private interests for profit. "By law, this land could not be used to build housing, but it could become a recreational facility for profit," Allen says, adding that "there is a federally-mandated percentage of green space per person which should exist in urban areas and here the city fails miserably."
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Gardens or housing? Either way, without the natural opportunities afforded by access to land, people will be forever trapped, at the mercy of others. What's your opinion? Tell The Progress Report:
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