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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

A Brief History of Grassroots Greening in NYC

by Sarah Ferguson

Community gardening in New York has always followed the boom and bust cycles of the economy, with gardens sprouting up during periods of stress and falling land values, then withering away when demands on the land became overwhelming. During the Depression, the City’s welfare department and the federal Works Project Administration sponsored nearly 5,000 “relief” gardens on vacant city lots for unemployed people. But the project was canceled in 1937, when the USDA initiated its food stamp program for farm-surplus products. Though many immigrant families continued tending backyard plots, the gardening cause remained dormant until WWII, when the city announced that all available, city-owned land would be cultivated for Victory Gardens. Despite their success, these plots were abandoned at the close of the war, when the end of food rationing and a burgeoning frozen-food industry squelched the initiative of urban farmers.1

By contrast, the diverse patchwork of more than 800 community gardens that have taken root in New York since the 1970s were born not out of government support, but rather its neglect. During the fiscal crisis, waves of arson and abandonment left the city scarred with thousands of crumbling buildings and vacant, rubble-strewn lots. By 1977, there were more than 25,000 vacant lots in New York.2 Littered with trash and rats, these open sores became magnets for drugs, prostitution, and chop shops for stripping down stolen cars. Yet the city’s only response was to spend thousands of dollars enclosing the lots with cyclone fencing.

Fed up with government inaction, in 1973 an impassioned artist named Liz Christy and a band of like-minded activists called the Green Guerillas began taking over abandoned lots on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Armed with bolt-cutters and pickaxes, they conceived of themselves as strike force to liberate the crumbling landscape around them. They founded their first garden on the corner of Bowery and Houston, where a few months earlier a couple of bums had been found frozen to death in a cardboard box. “You could not have picked a more unlikely place to start a garden,” recalls Bill Brunson, an early Guerilla. “At the time, there were still all these men lined up along the Bowery drinking wine and panhandling. To put a garden there — in what was probably the ultimate slime spot in the city — that was unheard of.”

It was also, in the eyes of many bureaucrats, illegal. Although the Guerillas initially got permission to clean the lots, the City later accused them of trespassing and threatened to boot them off the land. But after a media blitz, when Christy and her compadres brought in TV cameras to show how they transformed the lot — creating soil with nothing but sifted rubble and compost — the City backed down and offered them a lease in 1974.3

The Liz Christy Bowery-Houston Community Garden, as it later became known, was a lightning rod for do-it-yourself greening, inspiring passersby to create similar plots in their own neighborhoods. The Guerillas held training sessions and set up a phone line so people could call to find out where to get free plants and trees. They also lobbed “seed Green-Aids” — balloons or Christmas-tree ornaments stuffed with peat moss, fertilizer, and wildflower seeds — into fenced-off lots and along highways and street meridians across the five boroughs. “It was a form of civil disobedience.,” recalls Amos Taylor, another early GG member. “We were basically saying to the government, if you won’t do it, we will.”

By 1976, their efforts were beginning to win over government officials, including Brooklyn Congressman Fred Richmond, who pushed through a federal program to support urban gardening. In Brooklyn, the first demonstration project was set up through Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension Service. It was so successful that a national program was funded at $3 million and expanded to include 15 other cities.

Appalled by the devastation he witnessed during his historic walk through the burnt-out sections of the South Bronx, in 1977 Jimmy Carter pledged $500,000 for new parks and recreation facilities, part of a $10 million proposal for immediate aid to the area. That proposal eventually led to the allocation of $1.2 million in federal and New York State funds for community garden and parks development in the South Bronx. The grant required a 50 percent match of local funds — monies the bankrupt city government could ill afford. So, in one of the first official recognitions of the value of sweat equity, gardeners tallied up their volunteer hours — as well as the bricks, beams, and fallen telephone poles they’d recycled from their devastated community, and even the compost they generated — in order to come up with $300,000. The city made up the remaining $900,000 through street tress and sidewalk improvements.

Beyond greening, the gardens became catalysts for community development. “Once people succeeded with the garden, they went on to other things like fixing the schools, housing, creating jobs, whatever was needed,” says Taylor. In the Bronx, some of the community groups that both participated ion and were strengthened by the early greening schemes include the Bronx Frontier Development Corp., the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the People’s Development Corp., and Community School District 10.4

With so many gardens cropping up on city-owned land, in 1978 the city established Operation Green Thumb, which leases plots for $1 a year. Gardeners and greening groups had pressured for the program as a way of legitimizing their efforts. “They realized they were squatting and wanted some recognition of their right to be there,” says former Green Thumb director Jane Weisman. But others saw it as a bureaucratic means to control the ad-hoc appropriation of abandoned land. From the start, the City made clear that all leases were issued on a “temporary” basis. In order to enter the Green Thumb program, gardeners had to agree to vacate their plots within 30 days if the land was ever selected for development. In 1983, the City began issuing some five and ten-year leases. But property interests remained primary; any gardens occupying land valued at over $20,000 could not receive a long-term lease.

By the early 1990s, some 850 gardens had been established — more than 70 of on the Lower East Side. Yet these plots were becoming increasingly threatened as the neighborhood gentrified, and the city revived long-standing development plans. Inspired by the destruction of Adam Purple’s world-renowned Garden of Eden, in 1991 another Lower East Side woman named Felicia Young began hosting pageants to dramatize the plight of the area’s green spaces. Every spring, throngs of glitter-and-gauze wrapped dancers, giant puppets, and mud-caked performers wind their way through the neighborhood’s eclectic spaces, re-enacting the gardeners struggle to keep their land.

Through Young’s group, Earth Celebrations, gardeners on the Lower East Side began organizing around the concept of creating a neighborhood land-trust. In 1995, they began holding monthly meetings to strategize for long-term preservation. When HPD announced in 1996 that it intended to take back half of the Green Thumb gardens citywide, Young and her fellow activists joined with gardeners from other boroughs to form the New York City Community Garden Coalition. On February 13, 1997, they organized the first citywide garden rally. Led by giant puppets, more than 300 gardeners and supporters marched from City Hall Park delivering “valentines” of flowers and herbs to city officials, along with petitions demanding that the city recognize the validity of their green spaces. The street tactics clashed with non-profit greening groups, including Green Guerillas and the Trust For Public Land, which had privately taken the position that all gardens could not be saved. Instead, TPL worked with Green Thumb to get the more established gardens preserved as park land.

In 1996, the 6th Street and Avenue B garden — a large corner lot known for its bizarre, Watts-like tower of plastic toys and stuffed animals — was granted parks status. Eight other Lower-East Side gardens (54 citywide) have been transferred or are in the process of being transferred to the Parks Department. Among them are the 6BC Botanical Center, which features several goldfish ponds, waterfalls, and flora native to New York State; and Green Oasis, which offers a large stage for children’s theater, a carp pond, and raised beds for the handicapped. But for every garden saved, it seems, another is sacrificed. Eight of the Lower East Side’s gardens are to be auctioned this May, and the remainder are endangered, including, ironically enough, the Liz Christie garden. Although not slated to be bulldozed, this mother of all community gardens is now threatened by a plan to demolish the adjacent buildings, a victim of neighborhood redevelopment.

NOTES

1. H. Patricia Hynes, A Patch of Eden: America’s Inner City Gardens (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1996) p. xi; Tom Fox, Ian Koeppel, Susan Kellam, The Struggle For Open Space (Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, 1985), pp. 3-6.

2. Mark Francis, Lisa Cashdan, Lynn Paxson, Community Open Spaces (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1984) p. 4.

3. Lili Wright, “A Labor of Love, Not Just a Garden, The Villager, Nov. 12, 1987; interview with Bill Brunson.

4. Fox, et. al., pp. 16-21

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