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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

The Death of Little Puerto Rico: NYC Gardens Plowed Under by a New Wave of Urban Development

by Sarah Ferguson

“It’s our eviction notice,” I told her, staring sadly into her bewildered eyes. Four months earlier, in April 1997, the New York City Council voted to award our garden, the Chico Mendez Mural Garden, and two smaller plots on East 11th Street to the New York City Housing Partnership, the non-profit Goliath that is responsible for virtually all new subsidized housing construction in the city. Yet no one from the Partnership or the city government had ever bothered to inform Lydia and the other gardeners of the plans.

It was as if we didn’t exist. In fact, when the Partnership proposal came up for vote before the City Council, our garden and the three others were listed as “vacant,” “blighted lots.” This despite the fact that folks at Little Puerto Rico had been tending their plots for over 10 years.

The oversight is sadly typical of the Giuliani Administration, for whom gardens are seen as “interim sites,” space savers for future development. Unlike other major cities, like Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Chicago, where city officials are actively engaged in incorporating green space in their urban designs, in New York, Giuliani has declared war on community gardening. While 60 of the city’s 700 or so remaining gardens have attained permanent status, the bulk are up for grabs as the city steps up efforts to privatize all “vacant” city-owned land.1

In the past year alone, more than 100 community gardens have been lost to development. Sixty-one were bulldozed or are on the list to be bulldozed; 41 others have been slated for housing or commercial development. Another 119 are to be sold at auction this May, and many more could be put up for bid soon after, according to sales projections contained in a recent city management report. The battle for green space is on, and the fate of these community-developed oases could significantly alter the physical and social landscape of the city.

Born From Ruin

Like the 50 remaining community gardens on the Lower East Side, Little Puerto Rico was born out of the economic downturn and subsequent fiscal crisis of the 1970s [see following article]. Waves of disinvestment, arson and abandonment felled large swaths of housing in this former slum community, leaving the area with some 500 vacant lots. On East 10th Street, the old-law tenements next door to my building were demolished in 1977. During the early 80s, they became the domain of a homeless man named George, who lived in a tractor trailer left behind by the demolition crews, and ran the place as his private junk mart, amassing an enormous quantity of busted toilets, doors, windows, car chassis, and old furniture salvaged from the streets.

By the spring of 1987, after George died, Silberstein and other residents from the block decided to wrest control of the lots. The initial cohabitation was not easy. After clearing a space and planting several raised beds of tomatoes and peppers, Silberstein says she was confronted by a group of Latin men who began pouring concrete to put up a garage for fixing cars. “Infuriated, I began to speak in faltering Spanish about the need to clean up the lots for the children. I took out two twenty-dollar bills, my grocery money, and told them, ‘I will give you $40 for this land to make this a garden!’” The men shuffled their feet and didn’t budge, she says. Then Don Garcia, an elderly Puerto Rican and acknowledged master gardener on the Lower East Side, came to her side and nodded his assent. The men backed down, and instead they and several other families from the block banded together to make a garden.

“We rented a tow truck to take away the abandoned cars, and got a friend who worked for Sanitation to get the trucks to pick up the garbage from the street, even though they weren’t supposed to,” reports Lydia Cortes, a Puerto Rican mother of five who lives in one of the subsidized tenements down the block. There were chunks of cement the size of boulders and piles of syringes crunching under foot. Bernardo Vargas, another gardener, estimates they excavated enough garbage to fill a dozen dumpsters. There were also pitched battles with baseball bats and hoes to chase away the junkies and dealers who still frequented the site. By the fall of 1987, they had achieved what the city’s Operation Pressure Point could not; they had rid the lots of drugs.

Typical of traditional Latin gardens, they built a casita (little house) in the center of the lot and salvaged bricks to make a pathway from the street. On either side, they planted beds of tomatoes, cabbage, beans, garlic, and cilantro. Next to the casita, they erected a shrine to Santa Clara on a mound of mint and rose bushes, and near the street, they dug a goldfish pond, which was presided over by an assortment of icons — Buddha, the Virgin Mary, a statuette of a Native American, and a carved African deity — all scavenged from the street. Later, a second casita was added in the rear, as Garcia and others began clearing the remaining lots on the 11th Street side for farming.

From the start the gardeners were a mixed bunch — whites from my tenement, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Russians, Polish, and Colombians — reflecting the multi-cultural character of the neighborhood. Unlike other community gardens, established by green-minded activists and operated through consensus, the organization of Little Puerto Rico remained largely tribal.

The keys to the front gate were kept by Lydia, who presided over the central casita, and her husband Isair, who fixed cars and washing machines in the back, and Jose, the super across the street. People from my building (who had access to the garden through out back courtyard) and the surrounding tenements established plots on a first-come, first-serve basis. Garcia was our “spiritual advisor,” schooling newcomers in planting techniques as he helped keep the peace. But for the most part, all decisions regarding the use of the garden for events and parties went through Lydia and Isair. They put up a handpainted plexiglass sign proclaiming the lots, “El Jardin de la 10” (The Garden of 10th street), but Lydia and the others liked to call it Little Puerto Rico, because it reminded them of “home.”

There’s no question the garden had a profound impact on the block. Folks from the community staged weddings, funeral services, baptisms, weekly prayer meetings, block parties, and birthday celebrations for children whose parents could not afford to rent a hall for such events. For several years, Hector, a Colombian homesteader, organized weekly screening of Spanish westerns and other films, projected on the wall of an adjacent building. During the Christmas holidays, the yard twinkled with hundreds of blinking lights and decorations, and every Halloween, Lydia and the other mothers transformed the casita into an elaborate haunted house fiesta, dishing out free candy to hundreds of children from the neighborhood.

Borrowed Time

Of course, we always knew we were gardening on borrowed time. Back in September 1987, our plots had been slated for market-rate housing under an agreement between the City and the local community board known as the Cross-Subsidy Plan. (Under the plan, the City agreed to rehab vacant, city-owned buildings in the neighborhood for low and moderate income housing, in exchange for the right to sell off an equal number of vacant lots to developers for market-rate housing.) But the market-rate development had stalled following the stock market crash in 1989, and in the intervening years, our garden, like the many others on the Lower East Side flourished in legal limbo.

Three times, Lydia had applied for a yearly lease through the city’s Operation Green Thumb program, and in 1996, her application was approved, only to be denied a few weeks later when the city’s housing bureaucracy claimed it had “imminent plans” for the site. So Little Puerto Rico was never a “real” garden. We were squatters, with no right to the land other than the virtue that led us to clean up the forsaken lots in the first place.

The first sign that our urban pastoral was ending came in January 1997, when a survey crew rolled back the chainlink fence and drove a drilling rig into the center of the yard to test the soil and water tables. Concerned at that point how new construction might impact my aging apartment building, I contacted the Community Board, and was informed that the garden lots had been awarded to the New York City Housing Partnership, and that construction would commence “in the fall.”

In fact, the lots were not actually ceded to the Partnership until five months later, when the Mayor signed off on the deal in June 1997. Had we been informed, we could have at least presented our case before the City Council, which is required to hold public hearings before disposing of the city-owned properties. Instead, when our garden and the other 11th Street plots came up for a vote, they were listed as “vacant,” “blighted lots,” enabling the city to transfer them to the Partnership through an accelerated process called UDAAP (Urban Development Action Area Program) with little public input and no environmental review.

Created to facilitate slum clearance, the language of the UDAAP statutes becomes ludicrous when applied to community gardens. According to the city’s General Municipal Law, properties eligible for UDAAP are defined as:

Had it just been my garden, I might have been willing to accept the situation. (Little Puerto Rico occupied such a large expanse of land, it was inevitable the city would seek to recoup some of it.) Yet as I soon discovered, dozens of gardens in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx were being disposed of as vacant lots, with Council members for the most part unaware of the true nature of the land they were voting on. Like Little Puerto Rico and the Mendez garden, most were to be razed for moderate and middle-income housing built through the Partnerships’ New Homes program. (On the Lower East Side, Partnership had been invited to build on 19 other sites, including as many as a dozen other gardens. Up in Harlem, Partnership homes were targeted for nine gardens, on blocks littered with empty lots and hollow buildings.)

And this was just the start. In the fall of 1996, the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) had acknowledged plans to develop half of the more than 800 gardens then thriving on city-owned lots over the next five years. While gardeners and open-space advocates cried foul, the Administration justified its policy with the need to build “affordable” housing. The desire for green space, city officials claimed, was far outweighed by New York’s mounting housing crisis. These gardens they pointed out, had for the most part come about when low-income tenements were demolished. Didn’t it make sense now, when the economy and real estate market were more flush, to try to replace the housing that was lost? “Let’s remember,” wrote HPD Commissioner Richard T. Roberts in an editorial for the Daily News, “that the aim of these housing initiatives is to wrest sound neighborhoods not out of virgin land or existing parks, but out of the cycle of decline” (Sept. 2, 1997). In other words, the gardens were perceived as remnants of the city’s fiscal crisis, while the new housing and commercial projects were seen as signs of progress, a way to lift low-income neighborhoods out of poverty and boost their economies.

Cultural Clearcutting

Of course, many pointed out that Partnership’s model of low-density, suburban-style housing is not really all that “affordable” when you consider the neighborhoods where these townhouses are being built. Priced between $117,000 and $234,000 these co-op and condo units are supposedly targeted at first-time homeowners earning between $32,000 and $71,000. But a closer look at the sales contract for the Del Este project on the Lower East Side revealed that purchasers would have to earn at least $43,000 to qualify for a mortgage. That’s more than double the area’s median family income of $20,007.

Others on the Lower East Side questioned the logic of building four-story townhouses, with private entrances and 30-foot backyards, in a neighborhood comprised of mostly five- and six-story apartment buildings. If the City and the Partnership were truly concerned about the housing crisis, why not build taller and more densely, so as to create more housing while preserving more land for community space? Such notions of creative planning fell flat on the Administration. When asked at a public hearing about the notion or incorporating portions of the gardens into the Partnership’s plans, HPD deputy commissioner Mary Bolton responded that “open space is inconsistent with home ownership.”

The attack on the gardens came at a time when the city was seeking to auction two Latin-run community centers on the Lower East Side. Squatters were being booted from their homes in military-style evictions, while housing authority apartments were being warehoused in the neighboring projects off FDR drive. The Del Este townhouses, as we saw it, would only fuel gentrification pressures in the nabe, essentially replacing one class of people for another.

Working with the Mendez gardeners and activists from the New York City Community Garden Coalition, we organized rallies and press conferences to accuse the city of “cultural clear-cutting.” I played the race card, and brought Rev. Al Sharpton and Harlem Councilman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. down to “Little Puerto Rico” to mug for the TV cameras. The folks from my garden went along reluctantly. Unlike the self-styled Chico Mendez “warriors” — educated poets and activists who reveled in media stunts — many of the gardeners at Little Puerto Rico were afraid of losing their welfare benefits or having their citizenship challenged.

My friends told me I was crazy, tilting at windmills. We weren’t just bucking City Hall, we were taking on the Partnership, the brainchild of David Rockefeller, whose board membership reads like a Who’s Who of New York’s leading real estate and financial players. Many of the city’s established greening groups, such as the Green Guerrillas, the Parks Council, and Council on the Environment, also seemed reluctant to enter the fray — fearful, it seems, that an aggressive stance for gardens would undermine their relationship with City Hall. While the grassroots Community Garden Coalition, comprising 200 gardeners citywide, began mobilizing folks from threatened spaces to attend rallies and Council hearings, many of the non-profit advocates were helping Green Thumb develop a rating list — which plots should be saved and which were expendable.

In September 1997, after months of searching for a lawyer to take the case pro-bono, we united with the nine Harlem gardens to file suit against the City and the New York City Housing Partnership. In our lawsuit, we challenged not just the sale of our gardens, but the 400 others that the Administration had targeted for development. In approving these projects, we argued, the City had denied our right to public review, and failed to assess the cumulative impact such a loss of open space would entail, as mandated by state environmental statutes.

Unfortunately, the State Supreme Court didn’t see it that way. As gardeners, the judge ruled, we lacked sufficient legal standing to challenge the city’s plans because we didn’t own the lots or hold any long-term leases for them. Apparently, simply being engaged citizens was not enough. On December 30, 1997, Little Puerto Rico, Chico Mendez, and the other East 11th Street plots were finally razed.

Privatizing the Land

Though we lost our gardens, the fight raised the media’s awareness and forced local politicians to stand up for green spaces in their districts. We had also inspired a more militant spirit of green activism in the city, with garden supporters such as the Lower East Side Collective (LESC) organizing street demos and “fax jams.” During Giuliani’s second inauguration ceremony in January 1998, garden activists were the only protest group to infiltrate the proceedings. In July 1998, thousands of crickets were released to disrupt the auction of several casita gardens on the Lower East Side. The protests may have scared off the New York City Housing Partnership, which pulled back on plans to develop more sites on the Lower East Side. But they seem to have only egged on the Mayor.

In April 1998, the Mayor’s office unilaterally transferred all but a handful of Green Thumb gardens from the Parks Department to the Assets and Sales Unit of HPD. Though largely a bureaucratic maneuver, the transfer of these remaining green spaces to HPD signaled that virtually all of the city’s gardens were now vulnerable to development. The magnitude of Giuliani’s privatization agenda became apparent last January, when greening groups discovered through departmental leaks that 126 Green Thumb gardens had been included among the 400 parcels of land to be auctioned this May. Included on this auction list are gardens which have existed for over 20 years — such as Parque de Tranquilidad and the All People’s Garden on the Lower East Side, and the Garden of Eden, whose role in resurrecting a troubled block in Queens was lauded in a 1996 National Geographic article celebrating the 25th anniversary of Earth Day.

This time, the Administration has made no effort to pit gardens against the need for affordable housing. The gardens are to be sold to the highest bidder. The move shocked the staff of Green Thumb and the city’s nonprofit greening groups, which have spent tens of thousands of dollars and in materials and training to help establish many of the gardens now up for sale. “In the past, there was always an unspoken policy that no viable garden which was actively used and well-maintained would be put up for sale at an unrestricted auction,” notes former Green Thumb director Jane Weissman, who resigned from her post last fall. “We lost a few gardens through restricted sales — say for a community health center or subsidized housing — but they were never just put up for open speculation.”

The plan has also outraged elected officials. “They said these lots were for housing, and it’s a lie,” charged Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, whose borough has 19 gardens on the list. “What they’re having is a cake sale.” (New York Times, Jan. 11, 1999). Ferrer and others have pointed out that many of the gardens exist on small or odd-shaped lots which would barely be useful as parking lots. Even the normally staid New York Times called the prospect of bulldozing well-used gardens “an act of neighborhood violence.” (Jan. 14, 1999)

Giuliani for his part has shown little but contempt for the gardeners’ cause. Asked at a January 11 press conference why he was selling off so many community havens he remarked, “This is a free-market economy — welcome to the era after communism.” Indeed, the Mayor went further, suggesting that any opposition to the sales would only undercut the future of the city’s Green Thumb program: “I think people who are interested in these gardens are going to ruin this program because they’re reneging on the deal, and ultimately politicians won’t turn over these properties on a temporary basis... It’s like, when people make a deal, they shake hands; they have to both live up to it.” (Newsday, Jan. 12, 1999)

In fact, many in New York believe it is the mayor who is reneging on his obligation to represent the needs of his constituents, while remaining blind to true value — both social and economic — that the gardens have bestowed on the Big Apple. The roughly 700 remaining gardens occupy about two hundred acres of green, open space — an area four times the size of the 52-acre Brooklyn Botanical Garden. They serve an estimated 20,000 gardeners, who have contributed millions of dollars in materials and sweat equity to beautify their blocks, with little or no assistance from City Hall. Yet these same 700 gardens represent no more than a tenth of the 11,000 vacant lots currently in the city’s sales inventory.

“Even from a market based perspective, this policy doesn’t hold water, because everyone knows that property values go up in a community that has a well-kept garden,” says Peter Marcuse, Chair of Columbia University’s Urban Planning School. “It doesn’t make sense to sell off the gardens before the surrounding properties are developed.” In fact, in the less market-driven neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, many of the gardens auctioned could remain vacant for years. According to a recent report by Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden, 96 percent of the 440 vacant lots sold in Brooklyn at previous auctions remained vacant lots for years following the sales. More than half of those lots have remained garbage-strewn eyesores; the others were turned into parking lots or ad-hoc auto repair shops, generally in violation of city zoning rules.

The value of these green spaces becomes more apparent when you consider that New York has less open space per capita than any other city in the country. The majority of the city’s 59 community boards fall below the state’s minimum open-space standard of 2.5 acres per 1,000 residents. The Lower East Side, for instance, has 0.7 acres of space per 1,000. By contrast, Boston has four acres per 1,000, and Philadelphia has more than six.

The threat to the gardens constitutes a fundamental undoing of New York’s open space movement, which had been one of the leading forces in urban gardening in America. It also bucks the growing trend toward the creation of “livable cities” now being advanced by ecologists and urban planners. At a time when Vice President Al Gore has proposed allocating billions in bond moneys to preserve green space in cities and suburbs, why is Mayor Giuliani intent on mowing New York’s garden’s down?

Some say it’s vengeance against gardeners who have dared protest Giuliani’s development agenda, like the unruly anarchists and squatters who had once, in the minds of some city officials, wreaked havoc with property values on the Lower East Side. “The gardens are vehicles for social empowerment, and empowered people are very scary to this Administration. What better way to disenfranchise people than to take away these gardens? I think it’s mean, spiteful, and evil,” remarks one greening advocate and former City Hall insider.

In reality, the gardens are victims of a bubble economy which has vastly inflated real estate prices in New York. Land-use experts estimate that the 126 plots now up for auction could fetch more than $7 million, part of the hundreds of millions of dollars the city hopes to reap from the sale of city assets by the end of the decade. (Daily News, Feb. 21, 1999 and Jan. 26, 1998) From a short-term budgetary perspective, it makes sense to sell off as much land as quickly as possible, before millennial fervor undermines the stock market with Y2K jitters. Not only does the city reap an immediate cash windfall, but the land goes back on the tax-rolls. Whether these parcels harbor flower beds and vegetable patches is irrelevant, especially to a Mayor looking to balance his budget and reduce New York’s walloping debt margin in preparation for a run for higher office. New construction fuels the economy, provides jobs, and of course, generous campaign contributions from developers. No matter that it was the gardens themselves which helped arrest the decline in low-income neighborhoods and actually raise property values, paving the way for new development and renewed market interest. The bottom line is sell, sell, sell.

A similar dynamic is underway in such as Berlin and London, where land pressures are threatening community farms and allotment gardens. As in these rapidly developing cities, New York’s gardens are caught in a much larger land battle pitting the more intangible social and environmental benefits of open space against cold spread sheets of economic growth. How do you reconcile the need for community gardens in a rapidly globalizing city like New York, with a population of 8 million confined (with the exception of the Bronx) to several finite islands of space? What do trees and sunflowers mean balanced against the juggernaut of real estate, banking, and cybertech industries vying to make La Grand Manaza the economic engine of the world?

Uprooting the Past

These were the questions I sought to resolve when fighting to save Little Puerto Rico and the other threatened green spaces in my neighborhood. When I first took on the fight back in 1997, I half-jokingly referred to the crusade as the Loisaida Nostalgia Brigade. Loisaida, because that’s what Puerto Ricans have long dubbed the Lower East Side. Nostalgia brigade, because I knew I was fighting for a past which had in some sense already receded for New York’s real politick. Like the dozen remaining squats in the neighborhood, my garden was an anachronism — a place where poor men cleaned out old refrigerators, then gathered at night to play congas and drink Budweisers and guapa, Caribbean moonshine. I still recall one rainy day when former Council member Tom Duane, a West Village politician who had championed the garden cause down at City Hall, arrived for an unexpected tour of the place. In the front, he found a grizzled man we called Chicklet cleaning a pile of melo, or king fish, that he’d wheeled into the yard in a shopping cart. Duane wrinkled his nose as we made are way down the muddy pathway, past an old Packman video-arcade machine that the kids had dragged in from the street, and a hydroplane which someone’s “cousin from Miami” was temporarily storing in the back. His face soured until I marched him over to the Mendez garden, where the gazebo, colorful murals, and neatly tended flower beds seemed to reaffirm his shaken expectations.

As a neighborhood gentrifies, so do its gardens. The handful of community gardens on the Lower East Side that have attained permanent status through the Parks Department have done so because they have exceptional plantings, as well as highly motivated members capable of writing grants, lobbying politicians, and hosting poetry and jazz performances to prove their worth as community assets. Tilling vegetable plots isn’t enough. What’s being overlooked, of course, are those modest spaces tended by poor people for whom gardening is not a hobby, but an economic necessity. It’s no surprise that the neighborhood’s casita gardens have been among the first to get the ax.

Giuliani’s latest attack has in some sense changed that. By targeting even the most lauded and well-established plots, he’s helped unite gardeners and the non-profit greening groups to fight what’s become an all-out assault on community-held land. Hundreds of gardeners turned out for the perfunctory hearings that the City is required to hold before selling public properties. At the last hearing on February 24, thirty gardeners and supporters were arrested when they were prevented from protesting the auction on the steps of City Hall. Meanwhile, Council members in Brooklyn and the Bronx have introduced legislation to impose a moratorium on the sale of Green Thumb gardens. However, because it limits the power of the mayor, a moratorium would have to be approved by the voters as an amendment to the City Charter at the next general election in November. Other legislation is being pursued in the State Legislature to force the City to preserve gardens in accordance with the state’s Open Space Plan. The bill, sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator John Sampson, calls for gardens to be protected as park land and prohibits their sale without Community Board approval. A companion bill has been introduced in the State Assembly. Unfortunately, at this point, neither shows much chance of passing. “I don’t see a lot that’s going to make a difference except political pressure,” notes Andy Stone of the Trust for Public Land. toward that end, gardeners and open space advocates are mobilizing for a citywide rally and conference on April 9 and 10, 1999.

Whether this groundswell of opposition will force the mayor to back down is hard to say. At the very least, it should open people’s eyes to the quiet, yet fundamental role that gardens play in humanizing an otherwise overcrowded city of strangers. More than green spaces, New York’s gardens are microcosms of democracy, where people establish a sense of community and belonging to the land. Like the antic shrines and alters they construct in their flower beds, these eclectic havens are in a very real sense churches, where people find faith — both in themselves and in their neighbors. When I first moved into my building in 1994, I resented the all-night salsa and meringue that the Puerto Ricans on my block blasted from boomboxes on my front stoop. By the end of one summer gardening with them, I’d come to love them as an extended family.

Now that neighborhood cohesion is fading, lost in the seemingly endless flux of wealthy Europeans, film crews, and young students drawn to the Lower East Side as a hip crash-pad of metastasizing theme bars and trendy restaurants. After our garden was taken, some of the Little Puerto Rico gardeners cleaned out a small lot down the street, where they set up a table for dominos and a hoist for fixing cars. (the place was far too dark and decrepit for planting). A few months later, that lot, too, was sold to a developer. Another squat around the corner is on the verge of being evicted. The Latin-run community center up the block is hanging by a thread.

Meanwhile the fence to our former garden is plastered with more posters, these advertising everything from Gap Jeans and American Express cards to Esquire Magazine’s latest pin-up babe. Similar corporate posters have been cropping up on construction sites all over the neighborhood, displacing the hand-made, Xeroxed flyers for punk bands, poetry readings, and protest demos that once papered the landscape in a multi-layered babble of dissent. To me, these corporate posters symbolize the next wave of privatization, as the East Village transitions from a place where people made culture, to one where they consume it.

Note

1. As of January 1999, there were 697 gardens licensed under the City’s Green Thumb program, and maybe two dozen more gardens operating with no official status. 55 gardens have been designated as parks or are in the process of being transferred to the City’s Parks Department for long-term preservation. Five gardens have been incorporated as landtrusts.

Sarah Ferguson is a freelance journalist who has written extensively about the Lower East Side for The Village Voice. Her works have also appeared in The Nation, Vibe, Details, Esquire, Mother Jones, Utne Reader, George, World Business, and the National Catholic Reporter.

Thanks to photographer Ejlat Feuer for his wonderful images and stories of the casitas.

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