Putting Down Roots—Land&People

From the start, TPL’s founders recognized that people need contact with the earth, not only to be healthy and whole but to realize their membership in a larger community–one that includes humans, animals, and the land itself. Without such a connection to the natural world, how could people be called upon to protect the environment?

For many city dwellers, however, making meaningful contact with the land can be next to impossible. This is especially true in New York City, where finding a patch of green can entail a subway ride to a distant destination simply to spread out a picnic or lie down in the grass.

Starting in the 1970s, as counterculture pioneers were “going back to the land,” some people in New York’s most crowded neighborhoods were reclaiming the rubbled vacant lots that surrounded them, transforming them into community gardens and centers of neighborhood expression. Today more than 700 grassroots gardens have taken root in the city’s five boroughs, many on city-owned land. As community leaders emerged to take on the challenge of transforming blighted land, public and nonprofit groups like the Green Guerillas, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the city’s GreenThumb program, and the Trust for Public Land have grown up to nourish the movement, delivering soil, tools, building materials, and expertise to an eager army of would-be urban farmers and advocating for their efforts.

Beyond growing flowers and vegetables, the gardens grow neighborhood activists, emboldened by their success in bringing forth life from the city’s hard dirt. The gardens also grow community, bringing people together to work the soil and to work out their common problems and their differences.

When in 1998 the city announced plans to sell at auction more than 100 city-owned properties containing community gardens, a small revolution ensued. Along with taking responsibility for creating a community resource, the garden pioneers had taken on a sense of ownership. In their minds, the fact that they didn’t actually hold title to the land they worked didn’t keep it from being theirs.

At the time of the auction, TPL had been assisting gardens for more than 20 years, offering technical and financial support, strengthening governing boards, and building community participation, including an environmental education program with the New York City schools that brings 2,500 students to the gardens annually. With the sale of so many gardens imminent, TPL and other garden and community activists came together to find lasting security for the gardens. In the end TPL purchased 62 of the most established gardens and has been working since then to create three land trusts–one each for the gardens of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn/Queens. Combined, these constitute the largest urban land trust in the country. Another 51 gardens were purchased by the New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization founded by Bette Midler. Still, more than 400 community gardens remain unprotected.

For more than 30 years, TPL has worked to bring people and land together, particularly in cities, where most Americans live. But as the stories that follow reveal, it is local energy, commitment, and ingenuity that can transform a piece of ground into a place of the heart.

Eclectic and Enduring on the Lower East Side

“I’ve been an accident guy all my life,” says Jimmy Dougherty, with a wry grin. The math teacher stands next to a garden bed that’s marked at its head and foot by a rusted, wrought-iron bed frame. “When I was working in theater back in 1982, I accidentally wandered in here. I liked the stage. I liked the feel of it. I got a plot so I could do some acting. That’s how it all started for me.”

Jimmy has the pliable face of a sit-com actor. His hair sticks exactly skyward like the 30-foot tower at the center of the garden behind him. Constructed of discarded wooden planks, the tower displays a collection of old dolls, sun-bleached plastic animals, toys, and other castoff treasures. The subject of a PBS documentary and much neighborhood debate, the tower is the mascot of 6th and B–a garden in Lower Manhattan named for its cross-streets, 6th Street and Avenue B–and an expression of the garden’s bold and playful personality.

Joanee Freedom holds her twin teal parrots, Alberto and Lokeeta, on her outstretched hand and laughs at Jimmy. She lived all over the country before coming to the Lower East Side in the early 1980s. “I lived on farms in West Virginia, so for me it was a natural to plant and grow things.” Joanee recalls gravitating to the neighborhood along with many other artists and writers. She paid $300 a month for an apartment in those early years, when musicians would set up in the garden and play heavy electronic sets late into the night. Today, the same apartment goes for $2,000, acoustic performers take the garden stage on summer nights, and the awnings of tony restaurants shade the sidewalks on Avenue B.

Joanee and Jimmy have hung on in the neighborhood, though, and their long involvement is not unusual in this garden community. Since the late 1980s, the garden site has been viewed as prime for market-rate housing. Joanee, Jimmy, and others stood by the garden at every hurdle, and it now stands as a source of inspiration for other less established New York City gardens. Through the intervention of TPL, the land was transferred to the Department of Parks in 1997 as a permanent garden. “We are a very large neighborhood family,” says Joanee. “We’ve created something extraordinary, fought for it, and now have a legacy to pass on to the city of New York.”

Weaving through the lush plots of 6th and B, one finds a rich blend of jungle and museum. Scavenged relics of old New York punctuate the garden’s paths and beds. Over one plot stands a mosaic turquoise arch, from which hangs a collection of crystal doorknobs salvaged from the ruins of tenements that once stood here. Elaborately carved cornices pulled from the wreckage of demolished buildings lend old-world elegance to a leafy corner. Small ceramic tiles look like fossils lining an overgrown path.

A man wearing a green felt hat reads the Sunday paper as he sits under a grape arbor. Over by the stage, volunteers sort bulbs for a daffodil garden while another group prepares for the monthly full moon ceremony. Funky, whimsical, and educational, the garden’s schedule of events–including a harvest festival, poetry readings, and art and yoga classes–reflects its eclectic personality. In fact, this garden hosts more than 100 scheduled events each year. Its use by many school and preschool classes helps recruit a large, active membership.

The busy gardeners still have room in their lives to make an impact on the greater world of New York. In the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks, 39 gardeners from 6th and B rallied to help clean up at Ground Zero. “We were a peasant army with brooms, rakes, and shovels,” Joanee recalls. “We marched to Battery Park and cleaned up the North End.” The November issue of Vanity Fair magazine ran a picture of this band of volunteers. Yet fame wasn’t what Freedom and her fellow gardeners were really after. It was the chance to contribute. “We refused to let them photograph us until we had filled up 45 industrial-sized garbage bags,” she insists.

A Garden Grows in Brooklyn

Ever since she was a small child, Yvonne Harris has hated to see unused land go to waste. Yvonne grew up caring for her father’s crops on the island of Trinidad. Twenty years ago she moved to Brooklyn and bought a brownstone in Crown Heights. “In those days,” she recalls, “this was a neighborhood, like East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant, that had been labeled as beyond repair.”

With an eye for beauty and a will to put land to use, Yvonne mobilized her neighbors to clear the empty lot on Bergen Street across from her home. With the help of the Council on the Environment of New York City, a citizens group that provides solutions to environmental problems and promotes environmental awareness, Yvonne and her neighbors revitalized what had long been a neighborhood eyesore. They brought in bulldozers to clear garbage and make space for lawns and shrubbery. They hauled in rocks to vary the topography. And together they laid out plans for a garden, now known as 1100 Bergen Street.

In the decades since, the Bergen Street garden not only has become a haven for gardeners, it also is credited with bringing down crime, creating stability, and raising property values in this fast-mending neighborhood. In 1989 the Trust for Public Land helped the Bergen Street Block Association acquire the garden properties from the city and a private owner. Today the garden is permanently protected under the ownership of the block association.

Behind a chain-link gate along the front boundary of the garden, wisteria, clematis, rhododendron, and anemone bushes merge. Old pines and oaks provide shade and benches offer respite from the busy street in the recesses of the mammoth green lawn.

“I gotta get these peppers! I gotta get these peppers!” Yvonne flits deftly, peppers in hand, around the perimeter of the garden into the vast shadow of the Bedford Presbyterian Church next door. In the garden’s far corner, she bends to pick the remaining strawberries from the children’s plot. “The children come here one evening a week,” she explains, “as part of a therapy program at the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service.”

Yvonne’s neighbor, Thelma Blakely, whose father was a North Carolina sharecropper, stops by to check out her plot. She has taught other gardeners how to turn the soil six feet deep in the springtime and bring in shopping carts full of rich soil before planting collards, turnips, and kale. Donna, the bus driver on the Bergen 65 route, slows her bus to a halt just in front of the open gate and opens her door. She says she wants to hand off some holiday decorations for the garden to Yvonne the next day. “When I toot,” Donna calls down from her seat, “you come out and get them.” Yvonne gives her a thumbs-up.

Wherever she looks, Yvonne sees the kind of beauty that is slowly rendered.

She has watched children who held their birthday parties in the garden grow up to be neighborhood leaders. She nods toward the brownstones across the street as she strolls amid the phlox, black-eyed susan, and lavender. “One hundred and sixteen years, these houses have been here,” she says, “And those stones have life, and they give life.”

Garden of Happiness

“I used to watch the farm report on TV when I was a kid and think I’d have a farm one day.” Karen Washington grabs a rake and strides up the rubbled path to a back plot in the Garden of Happiness. Here the sky stretches wide and rose branches have overgrown the chain-link fences in California-style florabundance. But this is Crotona, a largely immigrant neighborhood in the South Bronx, where working the land and creating an idyllic garden require incredible fortitude.

“First I got a house,” Karen continues as she clears growing space around her young vegetables, “and then I started a garden.” Step by small step is the way Karen and others have brought this garden to prosperity. She remembers that, when she moved from Harlem to Crotona back in 1985, all she could see on the vacant land across the street from her house were old mattresses, abandoned cars, and weeds. One morning Karen’s neighbor, Jose Lugo, emerged from his home with a shovel in his hand. When she asked him what he was doing, Jose responded, “I’m cleaning this place up. I’m making a garden.” And Karen went out and joined him, later receiving help from the Bronx Green-Up program of the New York Botanical Garden and the city’s GreenThumb program.

In the evenings when she gets home from her job as a physical therapist, Karen walks across the street to the garden to see who’s there and how they’re doing. What the garden grows tells the story of this diverse and dynamic neighborhood. “From 1988 to 1992, this was a neighborhood populated by Southern blacks. With them, it was collard greens, kale, mustard greens, cucumbers, potatoes, and string beans,” she recalls, “and they told everyone what and how to plant.” From 1992 to 1995, the neighborhood’s residents were largely Puerto Rican and Dominican, and Karen learned about cooking calabasa (pumpkin) with hot peppers and cilantro. In the late 1990s, Mexicans arrived, and now there are thick patches of tomatillos staked on vibrantly painted broom handles, and clusters of popallo, a Mexican herb. Juan, who gardens in the plot next to Karen’s, grows what Karen refers to as “killer corn,” started with a kernel his friends sent to him from Mexico. “That corn is so enormous,” she raves, “that when people drive down the street in the summer they stop and come up here and marvel at it. “It used to be, when you asked a kid in this neighborhood where a tomato comes from, he would answer, ‘the store.’ Now,” Karen proudly reports, “he says, ‘It comes from the garden.'”

Karen’s energy has catalyzed nearly as many alliances and outreach programs in the garden as there are herbs and vegetables growing there. The garden hosts voter registration drives, census education, immigration rights workshops, food drives for the homeless, toy drives for neighborhood kids, and workshops on agriculture and soil testing. La Familia Verde, a very successful Bronx garden coalition that TPL helped form, hands out garden produce at the local food bank.

For Karen, extending her passion for gardening to her community is as basic and essential as raking the soil on her plot. “Without this place, people would go in their houses and shut their doors,” she says. “Without this place, there would be no world.”

An Uptown Jewel

The shapes here are unforgettable. From the sidewalk, your eye is drawn upward, to the tops of five-story apartment buildings. Atop the far wall, a white water tower looms. Descending to the earth in a cascade of forms are fire escapes, water gutters, pipes, window bars, and metal grates. At ground level, a narrow strip of land is nearly hidden in the shade. A lone dogwood tree stands at the center–a small, sturdy emblem of this garden’s perseverance.

“I was drawn here to get the hell out of my apartment,” says Sandy Walker, who wears a hand-knit sweater so red it lights up the drab street. “I was searching for direction of some sort. I thought this was a good way to get to know people and try to be productive. Pushing wheelbarrows and being physical brings you together.” She pauses and laughs. “I thought I would just throw a few seeds in the earth and have a barbecue . . . and look at me now!”

In a few short years, Sandy, as co-president of La Perla Garden, has become the driving spirit behind this garden on West 105th Street in Manhattan Valley, which now attracts members from neighborhoods near and far. Also a leading volunteer at the nearby Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Sandy has inspired gardeners to join cathedral volunteer groups.

Sandy’s tireless enthusiasm is complemented by the calm personality of La Perla’s other co-president, Amla Sanghvi. A longtime New York Botanical Garden volunteer who works as a photo editor at Scholastic, Inc., Amla first walked by the front gates of La Perla in 1992, not long after a fire had gutted the buildings on the lot and a few neighborhood activists had gotten together to clear out the rubble. She got the phone number of the garden organizer from the city and came to work the next weekend, even though it was more than 40 blocks away from her apartment in Washington Heights. Since then, she has noticed La Perla filling up her life, just as it did for Sandy. “The people in the garden gradually became the people in my life,” says Amla, as she looks at Sandy with amusement. “How would I have known Sandy otherwise?”

It’s not just people that inspire strong affection in these two women, it’s the nature of the garden itself. Individual plots reflect La Perla’s unusually artistic, progressive, and socially conscious garden programs. One plot commemorates neighbors who have died of AIDS with a sculpture and plaque. In another plot, two slabs of slate symbolically represent the World Trade Center towers. The garden walls are covered in brightly colored murals.

Word of La Perla’s inclusive character has spread throughout Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where vacant land is sparse and expensive and community gardens are few. “Somehow La Perla seems to attract people who don’t live in the neighborhood,” says Amla. She rattles off a list of garden members that is a classic portrait of New York City diversity: “The basic population is Hispanic, of course. But there are also African Americans, Indians, Asians, Africans, Columbians, European students, and others. People who live nearby–some in the apartments overlooking the garden–are also included. “When we had the problem of drug dealers on the corner,” she says, “we made them part of the solution: we invited them to the garden barbecues.”

Today TPL owns La Perla and is working with the new land trust program in Manhattan to help the garden grow the roots it will need to stand on its own.

A Bronx Garden Takes Root

At the summit of the Morrisania neighborhood’s Boston Road, where it intersects with 165th Street, the view south across vacant lots and ragged rooftops leads to apartment highrises on a distant horizon. Gray buttresses of the George Washington Bridge break the sky to the west. It isn’t easy to imagine the rolling hills of the Bronx covered by orchards and pastures, yet in the late 19th century the borough was mostly farmland. Today this is an urban world.

“I have always loved the Bronx,” says Freda Hooper, who grew up here and then lived briefly on 117th Street in Manhattan. “When my husband’s job gave us the chance to move back here five years ago, I knew we had to come because it felt like home to me.” In the 1960s this was a family-oriented urban neighborhood, where parents felt comfortable letting their children go outside unattended and where the whole neighborhood would get together on hot summer days for trips to nearby Pelham Bay or Van Cortlandt Park. But in the years Freda had been living in Manhattan, Morrisania had deteriorated into the grittiest of the gritty, the toughest of the tough. She recalls stepping outside her building, the Jacqueline Denise Davis Court, and coming to face to face with a burned-out abandoned house across the street. “People stopped their cars at the red light on the corner and tossed garbage in there.” Freda knew the neighborhood deserved more dignity. And Freda was planning to stay.

“Just because you live in a certain neighborhood doesn’t mean you can’t have what you want,” Freda asserts. She started her campaign to improve the area by petitioning the city to restore a bus stop in front of the apartment building on the corner of 165th Street. Then she persuaded the city to demolish the abandoned house and organized her neighbors for down-and-dirty clean-up days; one of her tasks was passing out masks to volunteers to protect them from breathing the toxic dust on the old lot. Luckily, through the building’s tenants association, Freda met Audrey Davis, who grew up in tenements that used to exist down the block. “We just clicked,” recalls Audrey. “We knew what the other was thinking. We blended.” Working in the garden they created together, they move with a sense of purpose and composure and a sturdy rhythm.

The Jacqueline Denise Davis Garden, owned by the New York City Housing and Preservation Department, is still vulnerable to sale. TPL is hopeful that it will soon be transferred to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation or to TPL itself. Freda and Audrey both point with pride to the space the garden has reclaimed for the neighborhood, for the children who play there, and the elderly who come to sit under a willow tree and take in the view. “That garden means different things to different people,” Freda says. “You can lose yourself in there. You can turn a bad mood around.”

Freelance writer Martha Sutro lives in Brooklyn, New York.