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Community Gardening in New York City Becomes a Political Movement
By Edie Stone, Director of Community Outreach,
New York City Department of Parks and Recreation GreenThumb Program
Board Member, American Community Gardening Association
Presented at "Perspectives of Small-Scale Farming in Urban and Rural Areas-about the Social and Ecological Necessity of Gardens and Informal Agriculture"
Berlin, Germany July 22nd, 2000
In January 1998, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s second inauguration was interrupted by protestors shouting "Save the Gardens!" Giuliani whacked the gardens!" and wild howling as the protestors were dragged away. The Mayor made light of the situation at the time, although he was no doubt surprised that the protestors had managed to enter his invitation only celebration. Fearful of just such an incident, New York City police had cordoned off the entire block surrounding City Hall. Unbeknownst to the Mayor, the garden supporters had tickets to the event.
The protestors were members of the Chico Mendez Mural garden, a community garden created by a group of artists in Manhattan’s East Village. As the neighborhood rapidly gentrified starting in the early 1990’s several community gardens had been razed to make way for new housing construction. Gardeners from the East Village joined supporters of several Harlem gardens slated for destruction in an unsuccessful lawsuit brought in State Supreme Court in late 1997, challenging New York City’s right to dispose of the gardens without review of the environmental consequences of the decision. The gardeners’ suit was dismissed based on the judge’s opinion that since gardeners did not own nor had leased the land on a long-term basis, they had no legal standing to file suit.
Hundreds of other New York City gardens were similarly threatened by the Giuliani administration’s desire to privatize city-owned lands, including gardens. Although most community gardens had been officially sanctioned under the city Department of Parks and Recreation’s GreenThumb program, the short term leases issued by the City for gardening specifically stated that the land could be reclaimed on thirty days notice. In May of 1998, the administration further weakened the gardens official standing by transferring the vast majority of the gardens to the jurisdiction of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). This move sent a clear signal to gardeners and their supporters that the Mayor had little interest in continuing the community gardening program, and also had the effect of rendering the community gardens’ temporary leases null and void, since these had been issued by the Parks Department, which now had no jurisdiction over the land.
Although this transfer was made quietly, (under the laws of New York City transfer of land between City agencies does not require public review) garden supporters leaked the news of the transfer to grassroots activist groups who quickly telephoned hundreds of gardeners citywide and effectively lobbied the press to report the story. Gardeners and supporters in turn called their elected officials, resulting in HPD agreeing that the GreenThumb program would continue, managed by the Parks Department, although no new leases would be issued for the land. At the same time, HPD agreed to preserve 36 gardens deemed to be exceptional examples of community gardens by the Parks Department as permanent parkland.
Following the spring 1998 transfer, development of community gardens became increasingly frequent. Fewer than fifty community gardens had been approved as sites for the construction of housing before the transfer. In the two years subsequent, over one hundred development projects have been approved on land used for community gardening.
Reactions by community gardeners have varied. One family from the crowded Williamsburg section of Brooklyn moved back to Puerto Rico, unable to tolerate life in the city without the recreation and fresh produce their garden had provided. Advocates for the Harlem Garden of Love, planted and tended by schoolchildren at Public School 76, fought an effective public relations battle in the press after the garden was bulldozed without warning while the children watched. After the action was widely condemned as insensitive and unnecessary (to date nothing has been built on the site) HPD officials agreed to allow the children to plant a new garden on another lot next to the school.
East Village gardeners and activists joined to construct a bulldozer blockade at another garden site. The encampment was equipped with lockdown boxes, elevated sitting tripods and other civil disobedience devices, including a huge frog on stilts over the gate large enough to house four protestors. The frog or Coqui as it is referred to in Spanish, is a symbol of strength in Puerto Rico where it is revered for the huge voice it displays despite its small size. The Esperanza garden’s Coqui held off bulldozers for several hours as police sawed through steel bicycle locks to remove the protestors inside. Hundreds of other police were required to hold back enraged crowds outside the garden gates, and dozens of protestors were arrested.
Many gardeners, including those from Esperanza, have filed lawsuits to challenge the legality of the sale of their gardens, based on statutes ranging from lack of public review to charges of environmental racism. The majority of these cases have been dismissed, based on the fact that most gardens once had signed leases stating that they were temporary uses of the land and the fact that gardeners as non-owners do not have standing to bring suit. An exception was the suit filed in Federal court by State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer.
The Attorney General’s suit, joined by non-profit open space advocacy groups and individual gardeners, charged that the State was denied its right to environmental review when the City transferred hundreds of garden propertied to HPD. It further argued that because the community gardens are used as de facto parkland, they are entitled to the additional protections from development afforded parklands under State law. The Attorney General had declined to file this suit on behalf of community gardens prior to April 1999, no doubt loath to alienate powerful political interests supporting housing construction on garden sites. He was motivated to launch the suit by the Giuliani administration’s decision in January 1999, to sell over 100 community garden sites at an open auction to be held May 13th.
New owners of New York City lands purchased at auction are under no obligation to build on the sites. In fact, a study issued by the Brooklyn Borough President in 1999 indicated that 96% of the 446 sites sold at public auction in previous years had remained vacant, often used for illegal garbage dumping or vehicle storage. The City was able to approve these lands for sale without the approval of the Council members representing local interests because all of the properties had been approved for sale in prior years by a now defunct city agency, the Board of Estimate. All that was required for the sale to proceed was a series of hearings at which the public was allowed to voice their objections. At each of the four hearings held in the winter of 1999, hundreds of gardeners and their supporters testified in favor of removing the gardens from the auction block. Following the final hearing on February 4th, gardeners staged a sit-in in City Hall. Newspaper coverage was sympathetic to the gardens and made much of the absurd confrontation that erupted as police dressed in riot gear arrested singing garden activists dressed as flowers and bees.
Despite the protests, arrests, and a last minute unsuccessful attempt by supportive City Council members to pass new legislation blocking the sale, plans for the garden auction continued, culminating at a May 5th "pre-auction seminar" designed to educate potential buyers about the sale procedures. Garden advocates staged an extremely organized and well-planned protest outside the pre-auction seminar. Serenaded by a marching band and showered with hundreds of cut flowers tossed by supporters, sixty protestors were arrested for blocking a major street. The civil disobedience was monitored by volunteer lawyers and accompanied by a permitted demonstration attended by nearly a thousand gardeners and their supporters.
On May 11th, the Attorney General filed suit to stop the sale. A temporary injunction was issued barring the city from selling any community garden properties until the Attorney General’s charges were addressed. On May 12th, on the eve of the planned sale, the Mayor’s office announced that it had reached an agreement with two non-profit groups (The Trust for Public Land and Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project) to preserve the community garden lots. In exchange for several million dollars (which the private non-profit groups had been quietly raising from some of New York’s most wealthy and influential citizens for months) the City would transfer title of the gardens, to be preserved in perpetuity as Land Trusts. In order to facilitate this sale, the Attorney General withdrew his suit, although he reserved the right to reinstate it if the City proposed to sell any gardens in the future.
While the sale of the gardens to the Land Trust groups resolved the problem of gardens being offered for sale at public auction, it did nothing to protect the over 500 remaining gardens on HPD land from development projects. In the year following the auction, numerous gardens have been razed for subsidized housing construction, and the Mayor and the City Council have approved many more for future development. Pressure from garden advocates appalled by the number of community gardens being lost has prompted the Attorney General to reinstate his suit, this time in direct opposition to builders of subsidized housing.
At present, a temporary injunction barring the sale or physical alteration of any community garden pending the outcome of the Attorney General’s suit is holding up construction on at least twenty-five projects which include community garden sites. These projects, subsidized with Federal, State and local dollars include low income housing as well as owner-occupied town homes and senior citizen’s housing. The majority of the projects incorporate dozens of city owned lots, of which only one or two may be community gardens. Although lawyers for New York City expected the restraining order to be lifted in order to facilitate construction on several projects that were required to begin before the June 30th end of fiscal year 2000 in order to qualify for government funding, the judge has so far remained steadfast in blocking all garden destruction.
Although the strong economy has played a significant role in the increase in building projects citywide, government dollars for construction of affordable housing on city owned sites has significantly decreased during the Giuliani administration. The majority of projects constructed on community gardens have been financed by the New York City Housing Partnership, a non-profit entity that combines government subsidies and private monies to facilitate construction of new owner-occupied housing. Developers supported by the partnership include some of the largest contributors to the campaigns of Mayor Giuliani and other State and local politicians. Donald Cappocia, whose company, BFC Construction, has developed projects on Mendez, Esperanza and several other East Village community garden sites, contributed money in excess of campaign finance law regulations to Mayor Giuliani’s reelection campaign in 1997, which had to be returned.
State legislators have cooperated with City Officials to enable the Partnership to obtain government owned building sites with minimal difficulty. A local law crafted in and approved by the State Legislature allows construction of one to four family subsidized owner-occupied housing (the low density, high profit margin townhouse construction typically favored by Partnership developers) to proceed without the approval or public review by Community Boards, the neighborhood advisory boards made up of volunteer citizens which usually review municipal projects. This special exemption of the normal land use review process is granted to projects that have been designated as Urban Development Action Area Projects (UDAAPs). UDAAPs are granted almost exclusively for Partnership financed developments and senior citizen’s housing. (note w/Neiahmiah, numbers of projects carried out by HPD)
Section 691 of the General Municipal Law that created UDDAPs requires that properties eligible for the accelerated process must be
"slum or blighted areas…the Existence [of which] constitutes a serious and growing menace, is injurious to the public safety, health, morals and welfare, contributes increasingly to the spread of crime, juvenile delinquency, and disease, necessitates excessive and disproportionate expenditures of funds for all forms of public services and maintenance, and constitutes a negative influence on the adjacent properties, impairing their economic soundness and stability…"
Clearly, this description does not accurately describe an active, well-maintained community garden.
Research has shown that community gardens improve neighborhood cohesion with the result of decreasing crime and increasing the property values of adjacent lands. Community gardens in New York City provide thousands of pounds of fresh produce annually and provide free public programming and services including arts classes, informal childcare, and performance for thousands of New Yorkers. In addition, New York City community gardens provide a place for young and old to work together and a common meeting space for people from a wide range of ethnic and national backgrounds. This is particularly important in New York City, where the constant influx of immigrants from around the world can easily lead to tension and mistrust between new arrivals and longtime residents from preceding waves of immigration. Community gardens provide a rare context in which people from widely varying income and age groups and ethnic backgrounds work together on a joint project.
At one Community Board hearing in Brooklyn where the fate of a garden named "Prospect Heights Community Farm" was being discussed, testimony was provided by teachers and children from the local public school, predominantly black longtime residents of the neighborhood and white newcomers who had recently bought houses, immigrants from Latin America and Japan, all of whom spoke passionately about how the garden had helped them to learn about each other and overcome differences. Not surprisingly, the Community Board voted to pass a resolution recommending permanent preservation of the garden. Although the ultimate fate of the garden is unclear, the developer proposing to build on it at that particular hearing has since dropped the garden from his plans.
In the face of the many benefits provided by community gardens, one might ask why these sites continue to be threatened by publicly funded development projects. One of the primary reasons that local City Council members vote to develop garden properties is ignorance. Because community gardens as a "temporary use" are not recognized as an official land use category under New York law, garden sites in development plans are referred to only as "vacant lots" designated by their tax block and lot numbers in public documents. When public hearings regarding plans for these lots are held, community gardeners are not routinely notified. Unless the gardeners know their tax block and lot number and constantly review the text of dense and difficult to obtain city government publications, it is unlikely that they will know to be present to represent their gardens. Without the input of their constituents, City Council members often approve projects without knowing that a community garden was involved.
Even on the rare occasions when gardeners do appear, the garden is often one lot in a development plan comprising several city blocks and hundreds of housing units. Council members understandably find it difficult to vote against these projects in the context of the continuing housing crisis New York City faces. Developers including the New York City Partnership are offered groups of lots to develop by HPD as a part of "Requests for Proposals" (RFPs), which are competitive bidding documents issued by the agency. Developers are routinely told that Community Boards have approved these housing sites, although under UDAAP often no presentation to the Community Board has been made. By the time the Council is presented the development proposal, plans have been drawn, financing has been secured, and many thousands of dollars of developers’ money has been invested in the completion of the project. The political pressure exerted by a relatively small group of however strongly committed garden advocates is seldom sufficient to overcome the overwhelming influence of the developers and HPD at this late stage in the process.
Clearly the deliberate inclusion of community garden sites in HPD RFPs is at the root of the problem. Although the battle over community garden development has led to costly construction delays and litigation for developers and the City, particularly the recent suit by the Attorney General, HPD continues to issue RFPs containing garden sites, including as recently as June 2000 when the temporary restraining order on development of garden sites was already in effect. It is widely believed in community gardening circles that HPDs actions are taken in response to direct pressure from the Mayor’s office to eliminate community gardens.
It is no secret that Mayor Giuliani is not well disposed towards community gardens and their supporters. In response to criticism of City plans to auction gardens in the spring of 1999, Giuliani was quoted widely in the press saying, "This is the free market era, welcome to the era after communism." For many elected officials, community gardens, as the popular response by private citizens to the devastating abandonment and neglect brought upon by the city’s fiscal crisis in the Seventies, are an unsavory reminder of bad times. One politician representing Harlem was once heard to say, "We don’t need any more collard greens in Harlem. What we need is houses and shopping malls." Some garden advocates even go so far as to believe that Giuliani’s transfer of gardens to HPD in 1998 was revenge for the garden supporters’ protest at his inauguration.
Whether this is based in fact or in paranoia, there has been a steady decline in City support for community gardens in recent years. Since 1998, almost no new gardens have been added to the GreenThumb program. City agencies routinely deny or neglect to respond to citizen requests for permission to garden on City owned lots. Although gardens have been added on the grounds of schools and some privately owned sites, there has been a net loss of over three hundred gardens since 1990. It has always been the case that many community gardens cease to exist when community volunteer organizers lose interest or move away. The difference in recent years is that new volunteers seeking to start a garden project are turned away by City agencies with jurisdiction over available vacant land. This loss of volunteer effort is unfortunate, particularly in light of the lack of open space resources in New York City.
In a city with less open space per capita than any other major city in the country, where 59% of Community Boards do not meet the State’s minimum requirement of 2.5 acres per thousand residents, community gardens are a source of open space and recreational opportunity that is nearly free to New York. The GreenThumb program that provides materials, technical assistance, and clean soil, is funded by federal dollars and volunteers overwhelmingly provide the labor. In addition, thousands of dollars of private money are annually spent by non-profit organizations on developing and enhancing community gardens, which remain popular with foundations and other private sector funders.
When planners misunderstand community gardens to be temporary beautification projects, it is easy to see why they choose housing as the priority use for city owned sites. The problem with the widely reported "gardens versus housing" debate is that it oversimplifies the problem and is based on widespread inaccuracies about the nature of the gardens and the publicly financed housing that is being built. The majority of the housing constructed in New York City in the last ten years has been subsidized, owner occupied, low density townhouses. These projects, funded by public resources and private non-profit organizations such as the New York City Partnership, typically result in sale costs of between $117,000 and $234,000 for a two to four family home. Although down payments are subsidized by the government, purchasers typically must earn at least $43,000 in order to qualify for a loan. In the East Village neighborhood, this is more than twice the median annual family income. Purchasers typically may sell the houses for market prices after ten years of occupancy. At the same time, public funding for low-and median income rental units has practically ceased. In the 1970s New York State sponsored 125,000 middle-income apartments, but none since. During the Koch administration from 1987-1989, $800 million in City dollars were spent on housing however Giuliani has spent only $200 million. By comparison, $255 million dollars in City funds were recently awarded to relocate the New York City Stock Exchange to larger headquarters.
New housing in New York is most often built by for-profit developers, who sometimes create some affordable units in exchange for financial concessions from the City. The housing to be built on the former Esperanza Garden is slated to be 80/20 housing, wherein in exchange for significant tax breaks and a reduced price for the land, the developer agrees to set aside 20% of his units for low-income tenants. The other 80% will be market rate luxury rentals (projected to be renting for at least $3000 a month), and commercial spaces will fill the first floor. Opponents of the project are equally as incensed by the gentrification it brings to the neighborhood as by the destruction of the community garden in the process.
The gardens of the East Village and other now gentrifying communities in Manhattan and Brooklyn are sometimes perceived to be in part inadvertent victims of their own success. Karl Linn, retired university professor and co-founder of Architects and Planners for Social Responsibility writes,
In Coney Island, Brooklyn, community gardens that provided much needed fresh food and recreation space for tenants of overcrowded high-rise public housing were destroyed in 1997 to facilitate the construction of commercial stores. At present, many of these former garden sites have yet to be built on because the private developer lacked sufficient financing to carry out the project. A sign on one of the former gardens that has now reverted to an unfenced lot full of trash and weeds reads "COMMERCIAL SPACE FOR RENT-BUILD TO SUIT." Another Coney Island garden is being relocated to make way for a minor-league baseball stadium.
These projects are of questionable benefit in comparison with the very tangible quality of life improvements provided by an active, well-managed community garden. Planners and elected officials however often fail to see community gardens as more than "a few people planting flowers." Cultural differences also lead to misunderstandings. Gardeners from the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico, commonly construct small houses called "casitas" in their garden sites. These casitas are used as public gathering spaces and are often the focus of communal activities in the neighborhood, from birthday parties to memorial services. Some casitas like the one in the well-known Rincon Criollo garden in the South Bronx, which was recreated in the Smithsonian Institution as an example of Carib culture, serve as folklore centers where traditional skills such as drumming and dancing are taught. To a housing department official, however, casitas appear to be dangerous shacks, built without regard to building and fire codes. While problems of illegal occupants in these structures do occur, they are the exception.
Determination of the intrinsic value of a community garden also depends on many cultural and societal factors. When Parks Department officials were asked to decide which community gardens should be preserved as permanent Parks, they judged the gardens partially based on a set of esthetic standards that excluded most vegetable gardens and casita style gardens. Parks, it was assumed, should be primarily flowers and trees, an English Cottage garden type of planting, with few raised planting beds which were deemed unattractive. Gardeners who had little space for flowers due to maximized food production were largely excluded. Casitas also were problematic for Parks, for the concerns raised above. As a result, most of the gardens preserved through Parks transfer were gardens in relatively more affluent areas or which had received significant institutional support from one or more non-profit organizations. The majority of these gardens were started and managed by white middle class people.
When the Giuliani Administration decided to auction community garden sites, non-profit garden advocacy organizations like the Trust for Public Land were faced with the possibility that they would have to raise funds to buy the properties at open auction. Due to the impossibility of raising funds to purchase all of the sites, a decision was made to select certain sites for purchase in order to preserve the best examples of community gardens. Though the decision was to be weighed heavily in favor of gardens with many public programs and a strong community based management as well as esthetic factors, lack of reliable data collection on programming and management as well as disproportionate distribution of private funds to support garden programs in the past led to the majority of gardens selected once again being relatively affluent, white managed sites (ultimately, the addition of funds by the performer Bette Midler allowed all of the sites to be purchased).
What then is the means to an equitable solution for the preservation of community gardens, taking into account that new housing construction, especially of truly affordable units, is vital in New York and other urban areas? Clearly, the housing agency, HPD, cannot be expected to defer from its mission to promote construction on whatever city owned sites remain. Developers, particularly those whose business is concentrated on affordable construction, will be loath to turn down development opportunities offered to them by the City, even when this requires displacing a community garden highly valued by the community. Community members and gardeners cannot make their opinions regarding the development of garden lots known without the ability to attend hearings that are easily accessible to them (held locally) and of which they have been properly notified.
In an attempt to address these concerns and reach a solution that makes sense in the context of successful comprehensive planning taking into account the needs for both housing and open space, garden advocates have worked in collaboration with gardeners and supportive elected officials to craft legislation. The legislation, recently introduced to the City Council and co-sponsored by many Council members, lays out a process by which community gardens can be reviewed for potential permanent preservation, either by transfer to the parks department or sale for a nominal fee to private Land Trusts. Under the proposed legislation, this review would have to take place at all levels of government, including the local Community Boards, whose approval would be required. This will provide the maximum number of public hearings allowed under law, giving garden supporters a better chance of influencing the process in their favor.
Any garden currently registered in the GreenThumb program and meeting GreenThumb requirements as to maintenance, public accessibility, and management will be eligible for preservation through this process. In this way, it is the local community who will set the standards of what constitutes a garden worthy of preservation, rather than a City agency or private organization. Local Community Boards made up of volunteer residents can be expected to be more flexible and knowledgeable about cultural differences and needs than citywide bureaucratic institutions.
Gardens that are not immediately approved for preservation will be granted two-year leases by the City, restoring the legitimacy lost during the 1998 property transfer. Developers wishing to build on leased community garden sites will also have to go through a full land use review process and Community Board approval of the development project will be required (UDDAPs will be eliminated for garden sites). The complexity of this process should dissuade many developers from selecting community garden sites, and may cause HPD to eliminate garden sites from RFPs altogether.
In all cases, community gardens will have to be designated as such in all City documents and hearing notices. Garden spokespersons registered with GreenThumb will be notified by mail in advance of any hearings regarding development plans or other government actions regarding garden sites.
This common sense approach to balancing the needs for both housing and community gardens may seem practical to the outside viewer. Clearly it does not bias the process either in favor of development or garden preservation but rather allows both sides to have their say and lets the community have ample opportunities to influence the outcome. Gardens that do not meet the needs of the surrounding community will not garner support and will not be preserved. Developers will no longer build on garden sites when other truly vacant locations are available. Since there are an estimated 11,000 city owned vacant lots, adding this level of regulation for the 700 community garden sites should not significantly effect housing construction in New York. To the contrary, developers will be spared the financial and logistical difficulty of fending off protestors and lawsuits in order to build on sites they were told were "vacant lots."
Unfortunately, the legislation faces an uphill battle for passage. Campaigns of City Council members as well as potential Mayoral candidates are heavily financed by the real estate industry, which may view this legislation, however inaccurately, as an impediment to new construction. Because New York City politicians have term limits, they are often more accountable to the interests financing the campaign for their next office than to their current constituents. In an effort to counter the influence of the powerful real estate lobby, garden advocates have raised significant private funds to hire a lobbyist to promote passage of the legislation. In millennial New York, it seems, even a grass-roots issue like preservation of neighborhood gardens requires professional political assistance.
A truly grassroots campaign, involving letter writing and pre-printed postcards and posters has also begun, however the estimated 20,000 community gardeners are an inherently difficult constituency to organize. The very factors that make community gardens valuable assets in the community: diversity of membership, high percentage of participation by children and the elderly, and involvement of minorities, the poor and other marginalized communities, make community gardeners a difficult group to mobilize. Although hundreds of gardeners were moved to action by the threat of possible sale of over a hundred gardens at once, development projects are typically approved one or two at a time, to the general disinterest of the larger gardening population. If the legislation is to pass with the involvement of community gardeners, and not just professional advocates and their hired guns, (who are much more likely to compromise in order to achieve some measure of success) a concerted and sustained organizing effort of gardeners is required.
Community gardeners and supporters in rapidly developing urban areas around the world should likewise act quickly to preserve community open spaces in their cities. Although gentrification and new building construction in America is particularly rampant due to the booming economy, the worldwide trend towards urbanization will threaten most urban agriculture projects just at the time when they are most needed. In spite of the fact that locally grown produce is more nutritious, more energy efficient due to the elimination of transportation costs, and more affordable, urban planners often fail to see the need for incorporating these "rural" elements into the framework of cities.
Community gardens in New York City developed not because professionals determined a need for them, but because private citizens took matters into their hands to create spaces that met their demands for beauty, food and security in their deteriorating urban landscape. In the process and perhaps inadvertently, the gardeners created neighborhood cohesion and a political identity that transcends divisions of race, age, income, language and gender. This identity is extremely powerful and when focused is very threatening to the political establishment who count on divisions to ensure that power remains in the hands of the elite.
Advocates for community gardens and community projects in general should
take steps to ensure that neighborhood volunteer maintained spaces are
preserved before economic pressures to develop the land escalate due to
gentrification, overcrowding or other factors. A legislative process for
the selection of those sites to be preserved must be based largely on community
input for these decisions to have meaningful benefits for the neighborhoods
involved. Neighborhood people make true community gardens in response to
their own unique needs. Just as the decision to build a community park
that is to be maintained by volunteers cannot be made in the absence of
those volunteers and be successful, the decision whether or not to destroy
a neighborhood garden must be made by its neighbors.