Bringing Peace to the Garden of Tranquility—Land&People

The peapod carried a placard and the tomato handed out leaflets, while the sunflower climbed a ginkgo tree, shouting, "The gardens must be saved!"

New York's City Hall has seen its share of demonstrations over the years, but this one was different. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's plan to auction off Gotham's community gardens had sown seeds of discontent that quickly flowered in the city's activist gardening community. New York's Lower East Side, the birthplace of the community gardening movement, has seen garbage-strewn vacant lots blossom into urban pocket parks at the hands of the local citizenry, and the activists who had toiled for 20 years or more to create their Edens were not about to be uprooted.

In a city notoriously short on green space, the gardens are vital oases clawed from the rubble of the neighborhoods most lacking in parks. There is no Central Park in Alphabet City or in Hell's Kitchen or in Bed-Stuy. Community gardens are, in a sense, a parallel park system, providing green relief for neighborhoods whose open space is more typically a vacant lot littered with gutted cars and burned-out people. These gardens are people's parks, built with scavenged materials and sweat equity, with midnight cuttings and last year's seeds.

The Trust for Public Land has been involved in community gardening since the organization first came to New York in 1978, initially helping a dozen or more groups acquire their land. In 1983–along with two local groups, Housing Conservation Coordinators and the Green Guerillas–it ran a "Square Inch" fundraising campaign to buy the Clinton Garden in Hell's Kitchen. As lot values began to rise, TPL worked with the city to formally transfer several sites to the Parks Department as permanent gardens. In all, TPL's New York City Program has preserved more than 200 acres of scarce city land, working with community groups to grow more than 200 gardens and neighborhood parks. But nothing in the past compared to the challenge TPL–and the gardeners–faced now.

A Movement Takes Root

The city had embraced the community gardens during their formative years. In the late 1970s New York was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The vacant lots, magnets for crime, were liabilities, worse than worthless. Community gardeners cleared the debris, displaced the hookers and pushers, and gave the neighborhoods stability and hope. "The gardens," explains Jane Weissman, who for 14 years directed the city's GreenThumb program, "become focal points of the community. People come out of their houses, start talking to each other, and that usually leads to more community activism."

The city granted the gardeners low-cost leases and created the GreenThumb program to support them. GreenThumb helped remove the junked cars and hauled in topsoil and mulch. GrowTogether conferences grew until some 500 people would gather annually to learn garden design and basic horticulture plus some subjects never broached at the garden club. "Gardeners are taught growing together along with growing things," says Ms. Weissman. "Things like community organizing and conflict resolution." Like farmers everywhere, they had the GreenThumb Harvest Festival to prepare for: who has the prettiest rose, the plumpest pumpkin, the biggest sunflower?

"I planted beans so the kids would know where food comes from." In 78-year-old Olean For's All People's Garden on 3rd Street between Avenues B and C, a raised bed in a sunny spot is a veritable sampler of produce. There are tomatoes and beans, of course, plus carrots and beets and greens, even a small peach tree. Her words flow with the poetic cadence of the old South. "City kids don't know nothing," Ms. For says. "My son didn't know what greens were." With spunk that belies her frailty, the old woman recounts the turf battles behind the creation of her haven–turning her garden hose on one persistent pusher, throwing a brick at another, death threats that came when she started taking pictures of the dealers darkening her gates. Community gardeners fought–sometimes literally–for their space. They held a resolve that City Hall didn't count on.

The city's GreenThumb program counts 700 community gardens. No two are alike, but they all share a common heritage, and in that sense Parque de Tranquilidad, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, is typical. On what was once the site of a synagogue, a pathway of salvaged brick invites you through a rose and clematis archway, then divides and meanders; marble carvings, pulled from the temple rubble, define planting beds. City smells give way to the fragrance of mock orange, and trees buffer the street noise until bus rumble segues to bird twitter and East Fourth Street seems far away.

At the rear, in a glen shaded by a black oak, a white birch, and a 40-foot poplar, Bruce Morris sits at a picnic table. "That building"–he points next door, where English ivy climbs six stories–"was a burned-out shell, and this was a pile of rubble," Morris says. This was in the late '60s, when landlords, squeezed by rent control and taxes, sometimes abandoned–or burned–their buildings. The neighborhood–known as Alphabet City for its avenues named A, B, and so on–was home to poets and artists, but above all it was home to social activism. Residents shared a core belief, Morris says, "that you don't knock buildings down; you save them and give them to people." Morris and some friends homesteaded the building and then started to clean the garden site to keep the drug dealers out. "I'm not a gardener," Morris says, "but the idea of green space in Manhattan was very appealing."

Places for People to Grow

The garden-community nexus extends far beyond providing a bit of cool and green. Almost all the gardens serve as community meeting places; the larger ones often provide performance space. Parque de Tranquilidad is "establishment" now–home to weddings and birthday parties, a favorite with photographers, and serves as the earth sciences lab for nearby P.S. 15. In building the green space, Morris says, he and his friends built something else. "This was the homesteaders' meeting place. People got involved, with all that entails–the joys, the problems, and all those ideas. We learned to work it out. We built a community."

Jane Weissman can direct you to where peanuts grow. Ditto cotton. Even potted banana trees, set out to enjoy the summer sun. You can read a community by looking at its garden, she says. "Latino gardens are exuberant," she says, "filled with color." African Americans plant collard greens; Latinos, peppers; Italians, eggplant. There are herbs, too: rue–good for the stomach–and for general well-being, yerba buena. "People plant what's familiar," she says, "what they miss from home."

A number of gardens are allied with the City Farms project, which collects fresh vegetables for city soup kitchens. Brooklyn's Garden of Union, which composts spoiled produce from a nearby food co-op, donated 343 pounds of fresh veggies to a neighborhood shelter in its first summer. And everywhere, there are kids. At the Pleasant Village Garden, in the middle of Spanish Harlem, two shy children, barely as tall as their tomato plants, explain that they are weeding "because weeds like to eat the plants." Their mom laughs and says she likes the garden because "kids'll eat their vegetables if they've grown them."

The city's fortunes have changed since the dark days of the '70s. Ironically, the same booming prosperity that reversed the cycle of decline surrounding the gardens has put community gardening at risk. On the books at city hall, a community garden is just another vacant lot, and vacant lots are once again valuable. The city owns too much property, Mayor Giuliani declared. There are some 11,000 vacant lots in the Division of Real Estate Services inventory, and late last year the city decided that more than a hundred gardens in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx would be sold at public auction.

What Are Gardens Worth?

Community gardeners are tenant farmers; it was always understood that the city could take back the land at any time. And viable gardens had been lost before. In one bitter incident, the beautiful El Boehio garden, a favorite outdoor concert spot in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section, was lost when the city selected it (over a nearby parking lot) for the location of a day-care facility. In 1996, 15 gardens in central Harlem were razed by the city's Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD), which holds many of the lots, to build new housing. But in the past, the gardens had always been taken to fill some other social need; never before had they been put on the block simply to raise cash.

The Trust for Public Land went to work, trying to build bridges to city hall, trying to find common ground, and evaluating the rootedness of the gardens. Project Manager Alban Calderon visited every garden slated for sale. All the while, TPL was desperately raising money. "We got a lot of backing from major philanthropists," says TPL's New York City Program Director Andy Stone. "We knew we might have to go to the auction."

One of several offers the TPL presented to the city was a $2 million package to buy 70 gardens, establish an endowment to fund stewardship and improvements, and establish a formal process by which the remaining gardens' value as community resources would be assessed. Three weeks before the auction deadline, the city rejected TPL's offer.

Mayor Giuliani, who made "quality of life" the theme of his administration, failed to see the impact community gardens make on the quality of life in the nether parts of New York City. Auctioning the gardens, he argued, was simply an act of fiscal responsibility–a tough sell in a city boasting a $2.1 billion budget surplus. The mayor had little appreciation for the homesteading culture of the gardeners. "If the gardens are so valuable," he told community leaders protesting the auction, "you should make a bid." Later he added, "The era of communism is over."

Gardeners responded by staging a '60s-redux spectacle. Costumed as fruits and vegetables and flowers, with a ladybug thrown in, they played kazoos and sang their own anthem of protest to a famous tune: "We Shall Till the Soil." Little girls stuck flowers in police bullhorns. Dozens were arrested, including the sunflower–a cop climbed the ginkgo tree to cuff him. The New York media had a field day.

While the gardeners demonstrated, lawyers went to court. Four different suits were filed in state and federal courts by more than two dozen organizations, from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance to the Green Guerillas and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued on the grounds that auctioning the lots violated state environmental laws.

TPL renewed talks with the city. With lead support from Lewis and Dorothy Cullman, Agnes Gund, Daniel Shapiro, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the New York Restoration Project, and many others, the ante was upped: $3 million for 62 gardens. But the city wanted the lawsuits dropped as a condition. TPL was not party to the suits and, as TPL's Mid-Atlantic Regional Director Rose Harvey told the New York Times, "We have no ability to do that, nor would TPL interfere in any lawsuit."

Safe Havens–For Now

The stalemate broke when the state Supreme Court ruled–just a day before the scheduled auction–that the city first had to prove there would be no environmental harm. The city came to the table.

The synergy created by the protests, pro-garden editorials, and lawsuits–plus a little Divine intervention from a local diva–ultimately saved the gardens, at least the 113 slated for public auction. TPL, with $3 million to work with, was able to buy 62 gardens, to be held until local land trusts could be established to take them over. Bette Midler's New York Restoration Project already had pledged $1 million to TPL's war chest. Now the Divine Miss M. offered $250,000 of her own money to seed a $1.25 million deal that would ultimately protect the remaining 51 gardens.

Protection of the gardens triggered mixed emotions. Individual gardeners rejoiced at news that their local gardens were safe, but many feared a Pyrrhic victory, with salvation coming at the cost of an unacceptable precedent. Hundreds of other gardens remain at risk, withering in bureaucratic limbo. Several of the organizations that sued to protect the gardens have pledged to continue their legal fight.

"Certainly we're pleased that these gardens–including some of the city's oldest and best-established–have been saved," says Steve Frillmann, executive director of Green Guerillas. "But our concern wasn't just over the loss of the gardens. We're concerned that the city had no plans to replace the loss of services that these gardens provide, no plans to protect remaining gardens, and no plans for the creation of future gardens."

TPL's Rose Harvey agrees. "We will consider this a success if it is the end of private purchases and the beginning of a public policy to protect the gardens," she says. "This is not the end of the community gardens issue," she promises. "It is just the beginning."

Land & People, Fall, 1999

Richard Stapleton is a sailor, gardener, and freelance journalist living in New Jersey.