City Roots: Neighborhoods Growing through NYC’s Community Gardens
Away from the spotlight, New York's community gardens have been bringing people togetehr for more than thirty years.
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By Lindsay Campbell
When you mention greenspace to a New Yorker, most people think of the expansive, formal beauty of Central Park. Or perhaps they think of the scrappy Ailanthus, the tree that grows in Brooklyn (and all the other boroughs) through fences and in vacant lots. If they are newer to the city, maybe they associate greenspace with the rollerblader-biker-runner superhighway—I mean greenway—along the West Side Highway. Or maybe the look-but-don’t-touch, fenced off traffic island greenstreets dotting much of Manhattan.
Falling somewhere between these extremes of formal management and urban wilderness, of determined recreation spaces and hands-off street decoration, are the more than 600 community gardens supported by city neighborhoods. Ranging from narrow strips alongside lots to entire city blocks, these gardens are dynamic resources that serve not only as much needed local open spaces, but as community centers. In a time when use of the Great Lawn is tightly controlled, gardens remain places for protest, music, culture, and health.
And while places like Gramercy Park and greenstreets offer visual and aesthetic enhancement, community gardens allow New Yorkers to get their hands dirty caring for their own green place.
The community garden movement emerged in New York City in the 1970s, in the wake of economic decline, absentee landlords, arson, and vacant properties. With large swaths of open space, including lots littered with garbage, rats, crime, and drug use, local residents began to reclaim space through gardening. Gardeners get involved for a lot of reasons, from a love of the outdoors, to a desire to meet their neighbors, to an urge to create new space in their community, to much more personal reasons sometimes related to changes in their own life. There is something unique about the opportunity for hands on group stewardship that community gardens provide that attracts deeply committed membership.
Although community gardeners come from all ages, races and income levels, the neighborhoods with the greatest clusters of gardens today represent areas that were hard-hit 30 years ago: the South Bronx, the Lower East Side and East Village, East New York, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Though these neighborhoods have changed—some more drastically than others—the legacy of community organizers and guerilla gardeners remains for future generations to enjoy.
A bike ride down Glenmore Avenue in East New York transports you to another place, with gardens on literally every block. A walk around some neighborhoods in the South Bronx is punctuated with Puerto Rican flags flying from garden gates and casitas (“little houses”) keeping alive cultural traditions of rural Puerto Rico that are fast disappearing on the island itself. And even the gentrified East Village has preserved its garden roots, from the Willow trees that thrive on underground streams at La Plaza Cultural and many other sites, to the towering art/structure of the 6 and B garden, to the memorial murals, to the annual garden parade replete with Gaia and other Earth-related puppets.
But as the city’s economy has shifted over the last 30 years, so too have the pressures on community gardens. Private developers suddenly remembered lots abandoned for many years as real estate prices jumped. Public housing development on city-owned lots increased as the need for affordable housing swelled. With no formal rights to the land, squat gardens in once-ignored corners of the city increasingly came into jeopardy from developers eager to recapture lost value.
The battle for community garden plots came to a head in the 1990’s during the Giuliani administration’s aggressive pursuit of development on city-owned garden sites. Bulldozing of functioning gardens for development was met with angry protest from neighborhood residents and general environmental activists alike.
Despite the often heated conflict, years of negotiation and work on the part of city employees, nonprofit workers, individual volunteers, and even the state Attorney General eventually led to stabilization of the crisis. In 1998, a large number of gardens were auctioned off by the city, some of which were able to be bought and preserved by greening nonprofits Trust for Public Land (tpl.org) and New York Restoration Project (nyrp.org), while others were lost to development The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation GreenThumb Program (greenthumbnyc.org), the city’s official gardening program, continued to work for years to prove the value of gardens as neighborhood resources and to bring them under parks jurisdiction for permanent preservation, all the while negotiating with Housing Preservation and Development and other city agencies and officials.
At the present time, though many gardens were saved in perpetuity, some still remain threatened, and the ability to bring new gardens into the parks system is severely limited. For one perspective on the garden preservation struggle, see The Struggle for Eden: Community Gardens in NYC by Malve Von Hassel. The most rich ands detailed history of the struggle, though, comes from the mouths of gardeners themselves. If you talk to almost any gardener or garden-advocate who was involved in the struggle for preservation, they will tell you that the long, hard road strengthened their resolve, making their space that much more sacred.
There are a number of organizations that support the existence, preservation and development of community gardens in NYC. GreenThumb offers materials, coordination and technical assistance to all gardens in the city. Borough coordinators from GreenThumb interact directly with gardeners on a semi-regular basis, and the organization also holds events like the Grow Together that bring together gardeners from around the city. If you live near a garden and would like to get involved but don’t see a contact name on the garden gate, you can call GreenThumb to learn more about the specific group that stewards that site and how you can join them.
Have you walked by a garden that was locked and thought you weren’t allowed to join in the fun? GreenThumb gardens are required to have at least 10 open hours per week, so just look for the times (often a weekday evening and/or weekends) when the gate is open, and go on in. You may be surprised by the welcome from gardeners eager to show off their hard work.
What if you don’t live near a garden or you don’t even know where to begin? Council on the Environment of NYC (cenyc.org) maintains an online map and database of gardens in the five boroughs. There are many other groups involved in the gardening movement, ranging from those still pushing for further preservation and better programming, like Green Guerillas (www.greenguerillas.org), to groups encouraging sustainable food systems, like Just Food (justfood.org), to noisy garden advocates/artists like Earth Celebrations (www.earthcelebrations.com).
Gardens present unique opportunities for everyone from seniors to children to get involved, whether by attending a one-time barbecue party, tending a plot throughout the seasons, participating in composting and bench-building projects, advocating for gardeners, or even just walking by a fence adorned with morning glories and sunflowers in the middle of the city.