Guest Rants, Real Gardens

Community Gardens: Where “Garden” Becomes the Verb

Here's a guest rant from Chris/Flatbush Gardener 

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Community garden supporters on the steps of City Hall

In New York City, every square inch of space is scrutinized,
and land use discussions often devolve into war games. Community gardens,
unique uses of open and green space, are not spared such critical examination.

NYC’s current generation of community gardens emerged during
the 1960s through the 1980s, as residents reclaimed abandoned properties—many
of them city-owned—from trash and crime. They were “defiant gardens;” Kenneth
Helphand devoted a chapter to them in his book of that title. Gardens became
centers of activism, bringing neighbors together to heal their communities.

While property values were low, the City didn’t much
care.  During the 1990s, property
values rose, and the City began bulldozing gardens in earnest. In 1999, then-Mayor
Rudolph Giuliani put 113 community gardens up for auction as “vacant” lots for
“development.” The City had tens of thousands of other vacant lots and empty or
underutilized properties.  In
response to protests against the sale, Giuliani declared “the era of communism
is over.” More than a sale of public property for private profit, this was an
assault on the gardens’ communities.

Garden activists succeeded in blocking the auction, leading
to a 2002 Settlement Agreement preserving some of the gardens for eight years.
Even with the settlement, hundreds of gardens have been lost. The settlement
protected only 391 gardens of the 838 gardens. A recent census lists only 483
gardens.

The newly-formed New York Restoration Project (NYRP)
purchased 51 of the gardens put up for auction in 1999. But NYRP, in
partnership with Target, has converted nearly all of its community gardens into
parks, razing vegetable beds for lawns and ornamental borders, replacing
community stewardship with corporate sponsorship. Now that Target is closing
its garden centers, what will become of NYRP’s gardens?

Chris2
 Target Park in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

The 2002 settlement agreement expires this September. For
nearly two years, the New York City Community Gardens Coalition has been
negotiating with NYC’s Department of Parks and Recreation (Parks) and Housing
Preservation and Development (HPD) to ensure protection continues. However,
nowhere do Park’s and HPD’s proposed new rules mention “preservation.” However,
“development” features prominently, reflecting the interests of billionaire
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his supporters. Once again, NYC’s community gardens
are threatened for the sake of private profit.

Chris3 

NYC’s community gardens occupy a scant 120 acres, in
contrast to more than 27,000 acres of parks. NYC’s green space per capita is
lower than any other major U.S. city. A community garden should be win-win for
a neighborhood, right? Who could hate a community garden? “There is not a
universal love of gardens,” according to Parks Commissioner. 52% of today’s
gardens are under Parks jurisdiction, and all community gardens must register
with Parks’ GreenThumb program. Anyone else feel like this is the fox watching
the henhouse?

New Yorkers for Parks Open Space Index classifies community
gardens as “passive” open space, in contrast to active spaces such as sports
fields and playgrounds which “offer places for recreational sports, exercise
and play.” I argue that community gardens are active uses of open, green
spaces. They are participatory, offering opportunities to engage in activities—planting, weeding, harvesting—for which one would be arrested for
performing them in a public park. They provide unique benefits that are not
available from other types of open space. This is where “garden” no longer need
be just a noun: a place, static, passive. Community gardens are where “garden”
becomes the verb. Let’s make sure they stay that way.

Photos by Chris/Flatbush Gardener.

Posted by on September 6, 2010 at 5:00 am, in the category Guest Rants, Real Gardens.
Comments are off for this post

17 Responses to “Community Gardens: Where “Garden” Becomes the Verb”

  1. shira says:

    Intersting post. Thanks for sharing your insights. NYC is right in my backyard and I had no idea!

  2. Tara Dillard says:

    Nothing has changed since the Roman coliseum was built atop a private garden. It’s owner vanquished in battle, his lands given to ‘the people’.

    All politics is local.

    Down to the mulch. Deed restriction communities not allowing leaf litter mulch. Not allowing turf to go below a certain percentage of the total.

    Why would NYCity ‘gardens’ be any different?

    A friend pruned an unkempt bit of (Atlanta) city landscape a block from his home & was accused of racism & threatened with a lawsuit.

    Gardening, as a verb, has been threatening for 1,000′s of years.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. Mimi says:

    If you garden on property that’s not yours, you can’t get your nose out of joint when the owner does something else with it.

    And, sorry, neighborhood parks win out over veggie gardens for me EVERY TIME. In a community veggie garden, a very limited number of people with limited and unusual (statistically speaking) interests can participate. Others are blocked–on necessity, otherwise everything gets stolen. (The irony of people stealing things off area that doesn’t belong to the gardeners shouldn’t be lost.) A neighborhood park is much more open to the enjoyment of many more people.

    If you want to be guaranteed a garden, then you shouldn’t live somewhere that you can’t own one. If you do choose to live without a yard or even balcony, then you should be grateful for the opportunity to use other people’s property when it presents itself but shouldn’t get upset when the actual owners want to do something else with it. Start pushing adverse possession lawsuits, and everyone will lose.

  4. rainymountain says:

    I find the rant sad in its reflections on the driving force of the rich getting richer at the expense of the greater community’s health and well-being.

    “If you want to be guaranteed a garden, then you shouldn’t live somewhere that you can’t own one…” There are plenty of people,and the number grows daily, who never have the chance to own their own accommodation, let alone the luxury of somewhere with a yard or a balcony, and it is many of those people who come together as a community to garden in community gardens. There are numerous accounts of the transformative power of these gardens in personal lives and in the wider community.

    My experience of neighbourhood parks is that they mainly serve the dog-owning population, another group with specialized interested, as a pooping and exercise area, or as a short cut to elsewhere. I don’t see people lingering sitting on benches and talking together. Moreover, unlike community gardens, neighbourhood parks require upkeep by the city (or corporate interests) both at the taxpayers expense and are largely unproductive, passive spaces.

  5. Liz says:

    As well as trying to preserve community garden spaces, I think effort should be put into turning unused park space into community gardens. I also think one problem might be that community gardens can turn into neglected weed plots because they rely on the active participation of participants.

  6. Eye-roll at Guiliani’s comment. “Communism was just a red-herring.” It was all about property values. Still, in the era of guerilla gardening, one has to concede that squatters rights to a plot will only allow you to work the spot so long as the property owner doesn’t mind. And there is the question of them being actual community gardens or just private gardens on property you don’t own. I remember a community garden I walked by each day in Boston that had to be pad-locked because they kept getting raided by people on late night grocery-shopping trips. I was sympathetic to those whose plants got swiped, but at the same time, I didn’t think it was fair that they got to garden and I didn’t. Plots could be worked in perpetuity and openings only came open as people moved away, so every five years or so. Sure, their beauty could be shared, but it’s cold comfort when you’re craving fresh veg of your own.

  7. Jacqueline says:

    I agree with Liz regarding the idea of community gardens in parks. I worked with a community gardening org that had agreements with its city to host parks on city sites, including parks, elementary schools, and middle schools. The gardens took only small spaces within these already-public areas. The community gardens on school sites even opened the door for school gardening opportunities.

    Each circumstance has it idiosyncrasies, but I would hope there would be some interest in finding a satisfactory, creative compromise.

  8. Matt says:

    I think the problem isn’t as much as guerilla gardeners complaining when they were blatantly gardening on land that wasn’t theirs, it’s that policy makers are removed from their constituents, making snide “communism” remarks and are incapable of understanding what community gardens actually are about.

  9. anne says:

    Target is closing it’s garden centers? Interesting, because for the last year, my small farm business has been getting advertising flyers from Target for all kinds of bulk industrial pesticides, herbicides and fungicides and the implements to use them. I guess they moved to the evil side of growing things.

    This post makes me sad, especially during these times when there are so many who seem more concerned with privacy rights than the health and well-being of their communities (something that would also be a benefit for them, although less immediately tangible). I’m so tired of this “every man for himself and god against all” trend…

    One of the community gardens in our town is run by a local federally-run health clinic on county-owned property. Anyone can garden there, but if they stop maintaining the plot they are asked to pass it on to someone who can/will. It is run in conjunction with a nutrition and diabetes-awareness program run by the clinic, the idea being to promote consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Seems like there might be some grant money out there in the health world for gardens like this?

    In the suburban town I grew up in, in the 70′s, a local community garden was formed in a local city park specifically for seniors on limited incomes, so they could supplement their diets, get some exercise and have social activities around gardening (one of our local senior living places also has it’s own community garden too). Maybe there’s money available these days for that?

    I love urban community gardens; it’s green space for all. Even if you’re only able to walk past it every day, it’s good for the air, soil, earth and soul.

  10. I agree with some of the points made above. One major point is that our community gardens are “active” parks where the activity is gardening. Many people would like to recreate this way and cannot due to the limited space within a small number of community gardens. It is clear to me that as we grow our cities with a population that expects to garden, we will need parks that reflect this active involvement. Leisure, strolling, and athletics parks are our 19th and 20th century city park conceptions. It is time to begin conceiving new city parks that reflect our growing interest in active participation with nature’s processes.

    The battleground between guerilla gardeners and property owners is complicated by the law and our feelings. Property owners want to make money on their property. Wait, who’s property is it anyway? Back in the days of “manifest destiny” one had a certain amount of time to “improve” one’s lot -that tended to mean growing things. If you did not, you lost your right to the land. Of course, can this rule apply in a place like NYC? I believe that tax delinquency is the only route to public ownership when land lays fallow.

    I think the NYRP sets the wrong tone with their redesigned “community” gardens. Of course, what that organization understands is that many community gardens have little of an encompassing design; they are often functioning, but tangled, grids of vegetables, flowers, and shrubs. The best designed and located community plots have a much greater chance at being saved from development plans. Why? Because they appeal to the aesthetic sensibility of the power class. A well-tended garden, with strong design appeal, in a neighborhood with high property values will be appreciated and may gain well-connected allies.

    An average community garden in the same neighborhood will be under pressure to convert to housing. The average person, let alone a loosely organized group of people, does not have the resources, time, know-how and what else to create a Target style or even Liz Christy style garden out of their small plot. Who will stand for them? The law isn’t on their side -it favors property owners. Can we build support for laws that favor community gardeners?

    Community gardens also have the messy work of dealing with a multiplicity of ideas within its organization. We all have different ideas. In my community garden I am surprised to learn how many folks wanted in just to explore gardening, having little to no experience at all. Life sometimes takes over too, and the plot goes untended. We love the fresh produce, but come on, we do what we have to do first and buy our veggies all year round at the Golden Farm on Church Ave.

    So what is my point? I guess I come down to asking: IS GARDENING AN UNALIENABLE RIGHT? It can sure feel that way.

  11. anne says:

    With regards to the property rights issue, I noticed that many of the plots were turned into community gardens after sitting neglected and full of trash and undesirable activities for a length of time, not benefiting either the neighborhood or the property owners. Perhaps there could be a local law, such that when a property owner has let their property sit unused and untended for X amount of time, the property can be cleaned up and used as a community garden for the same length of time it was neglected. This would be an incentive to property owners to maintain their property (or at least keep it trash-free and safe), or develop it, or lease it to a community garden until they are ready to develop it. That way, everyone involved would at least be clear about what was expected.

  12. Really enjoying all the comments.

    “Community” is the hardest part of community gardening. Gardens need to be connected to their communities. GreenThumb, the NYC Parks program which registers and licenses community gardens Keep regular open hours, requires a minimum number of open hours to receive resources from the City. This is one way to balance public funds with public benefit.

    Many neighborhoods, such as my own Flatbush, have little open or vacant land. Landowners are not forced to develop; they can warehouse properties for decades, although it’s usually in their economic self-interest to sell or develop. With the loss of hundreds of community gardens over the past decade, an increasing urban population, and growing interest in urban farming, one of the challenges is “How will we create new gardens?”

  13. anne says:

    Xris, creating new gardens might be made possible if all the stakeholders (ie. gardeners, property owners, neighbors, city & public entities, business owners, etc) could get together on the same page with their hopes and intentions for the land. This would involve lots of boring (and possibly contentious) meetings, and probably some compromise on all sides before agreement would happen, but once everyone is on the same page, plans could be made.

  14. Mimi says:

    >I find the rant sad in its reflections on the driving force of the rich getting richer at the expense of the greater community’s health and well-being.

    So it’s okay to steal from people as long as they’re richer than you? Got it.

    >”If you want to be guaranteed a garden, then you shouldn’t live somewhere that you can’t own one…” There are plenty of people,and the number grows daily, who never have the chance to own their own accommodation, let alone the luxury of somewhere with a yard or a balcony, and it is many of those people who come together as a community to garden in community gardens. There are numerous accounts of the transformative power of these gardens in personal lives and in the wider community.

    Big freaking hogwash. There are decent homes with no major renovation needs in my hometown going for $80k on .12-.20 acres. That’s maybe $550 a month, with property taxes included. (Uckier homes–not falling down but certainly in need of TLC–have been listed as low as $60k recently.) The lowest were about $90k at the height of the housing boom, and it WASN’T because the town was dying. Quite the reverse.

    In fact, there are fourplexes going for $85k, with the small surrounding land, just a couple of blocks from the revitalized downtown. Each one of the other units rents for between $400 and $450/month, and yes, they are occupied. (They are, in fact, where my family lived when my parents were starving grad students. I remember those apartments quite well.) You walk away, if you lived in one unit, after maintenance and mortgage, about $500 up each month. (If my husband drops dead tomorrow, I’d move back home and start buying property, cosmetically renovating my way as I went, as my own job is “from home.” It’s such a no-brainer investment there. Once I had 12-20 units, fourplexes and duplexes, I’d get my “real” house.)

    And there are TONS of jobs there, too. Some are high paying. Some aren’t. No one pays minimum wage–the starting wages for paper-hat jobs is about $7.75/hr or so, with Wal-mart starting with night stockers at $8.50, with benefits for fulltime employees. With how much lower the cost of living is, there’s no question that owning a house is faaaaar more affordable for such a worker than the most roach-ridden apartment in DC, Baltimore (where there AREN’T any jobs), or NYC.

    >With regards to the property rights issue, I noticed that many of the plots were turned into community gardens after sitting neglected and full of trash and undesirable activities for a length of time, not benefiting either the neighborhood or the property owners. Perhaps there could be a local law, such that when a property owner has let their property sit unused and untended for X amount of time, the property can be cleaned up and used as a community garden for the same length of time it was neglected.

    There are supposed to be ordinances in these cities about maintenance that apply to all property owners, not just housing owners. I am very much against favoring owners of lots over owners of houses by turning a blind eye to this kind of neglect. In many areas, there is a law of adverse possession–if you overtly use and maintain an area with no challenge from the legal owner, after enough time, it becomes yours. It’s a modern “squatters rights.” This, though, would be a disincentive for property owners to turn a blind eye to community gardens. What would be better would be to strictly enforce the maintenance. That would encourage owners to avoid costs and fines by giving over the use of the property in return for its maintenance to groups like gardeners for the duration that it’s going to lie passive.

    As for unused parks–that’s an issue of poor design, then. There are precious few places for children to play in cities. The parks should be one. If it fits the neighborhood, a park will be used, whether by adults or children. If it doesn’t, it won’t.

    Unfortunately, freaky over-protective parents are less likely to let their kids just play than ever before. It’s not some stranger on the street that’s the big danger–it’s obesity. But most people like to do the mental equivalent of taking precautions against sharks yet ignoring seatbelt laws.

  15. Yes, garden is the verb and that is why most gardens on city-owned land were lost and will continue to be. Community gardens are such an asset – and I am thrilled to be part of one again but too much “politics” and backbiting often ruins them from within.

    Sad that Midler’s money went to pretty park settings instead of food plots…but litter pick-up was always her organizations’ focus so that never surprised anyone.

    The New York Public Library has Garden Your City on their shelves (Chapter 17 is Community Gardening)or ask your library to get. Yeah, yeah… I wrote it. You can do it in your town and it is so worth the effort.

  16. Tibs says:

    Trying to enforce maintenace codes and ordinances is an expensive activity: time, money and manpower. Most governments are broke, or quickly going broke. They pursue what they see as serious crimes, not a rundown vacant lot. First you have to get the police to file a ticket. Then you have to get the prosecuting attorney to do his thing. Which can often mean lots of time trying to figure out just who does own the land. Then you have to get the court to take in seriously. Too often after the first two have done their jobs, the judge tosses it out or just imposes a minor fine or finger slapping. You need a real crusader at three levels. Maybe NYC needs a version of HOA’s for the neighborhoods. They seem to have more power than city hall.

  17. Mimi says:

    Make the fines high enough, and code enforcement is more than self-financing. Allow owners who are particularly delinquent and don’t show hardship to be stripped of their land. Then it becomes the city’s. The city must be held to the same standards–or auction it off.

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