#099 May/Jun 1998

Divide and Conquer

In its one and a half years, the New York City Coalition for the Preservation of Gardens (known as the Garden Coalition) has worked to unify more than 700 dispersed […]

In its one and a half years, the New York City Coalition for the Preservation of Gardens (known as the Garden Coalition) has worked to unify more than 700 dispersed community gardens and garden associations to ward off the threat of sale and redevelopment of their lots. In the process, the coalition and allied groups have begun to reach across a fabricated divide to unite an even more disparate group around the idea of livable communities.

New Yorkers fed up with living next to unofficial dumps have been transforming city-owned vacant lots into community gardens since 1973. In 1978 they were granted interim leases to the lots through a Parks Department program, GreenThumb. But the true meaning of “interim” has been hitting home since the mid-80s, as the city has auctioned off and bulldozed dozens of gardens at an ever increasing rate. This April the city began a large scale termination of gardens’ GreenThumb leases, transferring them to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), where they will be recorded as vacant lots. Announced on May 1st, these transfers affected 741 out of 750 GreenThumb gardens.

Divisive Excuses

In contrast to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s purported focus on quality-of-life issues, Giuliani’s administration is continuing the city’s more than decade-old attempt to excuse the “accelerated disposition” of community gardens with a cry of affordable housing. The housing crisis was the ostensible reason behind the “emergency” termination of the gardens’ leases, and HPD even called that termination “a tangible sign of hope for many people of moderate means,” despite no plans or assurances that any affordable housing would come out of the move. Mainstream media have echoed the cry; WNBC ran a segment titled “Flowers vs. Housing” and The New York Times announced “A Garden Caught in a Housing Squeeze.” In a city with a notorious lack of affordable housing and less than half the open space per capita of most US cities, the community gardening movement feels a new urgency to build coalitions to face down what they see as city hall’s divide-and-conquer strategy.

Crossing the Divide

The Garden Coalition has therefore fostered close relationships with affordable housing groups. While many affordable housing developers have not been allies, and some nonprofit developers have refused to drop plans to redevelop gardens, affordable housing advocates have been among the gardens’ strongest supporters. Susan Howard is one of many Lower East Side housing activists who met garden activists during the rent control fight last year. She has since been actively collaborating to stop what both groups see as a land grab in their neighborhood. At an emergency meeting the day after the May 1st lease termination announcement, Howard brought together 10 housing groups-including Lower East Side Collective, Metropolitan Council on Housing, Harlem Tenants Council, Queens League of United Tenants, and People’s Firehouse Housing and Community Development-to endorse a pro-garden press release that begins, “Gardens aren’t standing in the way of affordable housing-Giuliani is.”

Such housing support lends credibility to garden advocates. “The line the press has been feeding everyone is that the gardeners are these zany ‘others’ with no credible agenda,” said Howard. But now, when confronted with the housing emergency argument at city hall, garden advocates can whip out the housers’ press release and are likely to have a member of a housing group there with them. Housing advocates have also lent their knowledge, pointing out that “affordable housing” is almost never what the land is used for. “You would have to make $70,000/year to even think of living in one,” said Howard, referring to developments in the Lower East Side built on former gardens. Leslie Lowe, the Garden Coalition’s legal counsel, said the cooperation of housing advocates was instrumental in convincing the City Council Land Use Committee to delay voting on the redevelopment of gardens, which has brought a temporary respite to gardens.

Livable Communities, Not False Choices

But in order to achieve their long term goals of a moratorium on the destruction of gardens and the institution of a community land trust to preserve gardens, garden advocates need to defuse the gardens vs. affordable housing argument once and for all. Through intensive letter and email campaigns, demonstrations, press conferences, and garden festivals and tours with names like the Rites of Spring and The Big Dig, gardeners are trying to spread the word about the 14,000 vacant lots in the city’s inventory (not even including abandoned buildings), of which only 5 percent are gardens. To make a similar point locally, the coalition encourages its members to map the 5 block radius around a garden, noting every area available for housing.

Garden Coalition members are also spreading the word about the benefits this “alternative park system” offers the city, such as crime reduction and neighborhood beautification. In addition, “There’s a social life that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the city,” said Dave Lutz of Neighborhood Open Space Coalition. Several gardens serve as labs for science classes in East New York. One Harlem garden provides landscaping and farming employment for mentally ill residents. And every garden holds cultural events and provides a safe outdoor haven for youth. “We don’t focus on food, flowers, or pollution reduction,” said Steve Frillman, executive director of Green Guerrillas, a gardening group working closely with the Garden Coalition. “While the gardens do all that, the important thing is that they stabilize the neighborhood; they are an anchor.”

Portraying gardens in the context of local neighborhoods paves the way for neighborhood-focused developers to make a local investment in gardens, and such local investment is the key to building relations between these developers and the garden movement. Green Guerrillas, for example, works with participants in the Housing and Open Space Initiative, a project of the Trust for Public Land, Enterprise, and the Council on the Environment that helps CDCs integrate open space into planning. Two CDCs that are Initiative participants, East New York Urban Youth Corps (ENYUYC) and Community League of West 159th Street, have both actively supported all the GreenThumb gardens through lobbying and petitions, largely as an outgrowth of their work with gardens in their own neighborhoods. “Even if we put housing in an area that needs revitalization, youth need open space,” explains Dave Crutchfield, ENYUYC’s director of horticulture. “And we need space to build community.”

The collaboration between garden advocates and others who share common interests has been a testament to the importance of not letting someone else pick one’s allies and enemies. Lowe recalls mentioning her support for community gardens to a member of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Knowing the housing vs. gardens divide, she expected the person to respond with tense politeness at best. “I guess I’d bought the city’s propaganda,” she said. Instead, she discovered a ready ally in the fight to save city gardens.

Such experiences have shown garden advocates the value of defining themselves broadly, rather than hunkering down behind a barricade of competition. “We used to think of ourselves as just gardeners,” explains Haja Worley, the Garden Coalition’s president. “Now we think of ourselves as community preservationists.”

For further information

  • Garden Coalition, 212-777-7969
  • Green Guerrillas, 212-674-8124
  • Trust for Public Land, 212-677-7171
  • East New York Urban Youth Corps, 718-922-2229



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