Green Havens

Urban Community Gardens Fight to Save Their Space

In the heart of downtown Manhattan, peeking out from between towering brick high-rises, is a little green oasis called the Liz Christy Garden. Inside, urban sojourners can watch fish and turtles glide beneath the surface of a pond. For others, the garden offers a rare opportunity to read or paint in relative peace, as the dense greenery muffles the roar of passing traffic. The Soho neighborhood created and tends this leafy niche, which grows both food and flowers, and the residents have defended its right to exist. Not everyone in the city appreciates this "frivolous" use of valuable real estate, which could support office and apartment complexes.

New York City’s community gardeners have been waiting anxiously for more than two years to learn if the green spaces they love will escape the bulldozer. In 2000, New York’s Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, filed a lawsuit that froze construction of 2,922 apartments scheduled to be built on current community garden sites. Junita Scarlett, a spokesperson for Spitzer, says, "Our position was that the city had not performed the required environmental impact analysis." Now, with Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement that he will try to expediently resolve outstanding lawsuits, gardeners are working to gain popular support, appealing to community boards and throwing large-scale festivals, such as the GreenThumb GrowTogether in March.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that New York City’s population grew between four and 9.4 percent between 1990 and 2000. More than eight million people are competing for a limited amount of very high-priced housing. New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) says that the buildings intended to replace the gardens would be "affordable housing for working families, low-income senior citizens, and moderate-income families looking to buy their first homes
Housing doesn’t grow on trees."

Across the country, garden associations feel a constant threat of encroachment by the modern urban landscape of concrete and steel. "Each year we’ve lost a few gardens, mostly to housing," says Denver Urban Gardeners Director David Rieseck. "Our private lots can get bought out. And there’s a new trend in public housing, called "in-fill projects," which is to build a duplex or smaller structure instead of a large apartment complex. Now the small, vacant lots are attractive again."

Marie Howland, professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland, questions the
viability of community gardens on expensive inner-city property. "The gardeners were lucky," she says. "The value of this land was low, so they were allowed to use it virtually for free. If there’s now powerful economic pressure to change over to higher development, it’s not very realistic for these community gardens to hope for survival."

Many urban gardeners, under economic disadvantage, invent new strategies for securing rare open space. Rieseck explains, "We start out trying to get long leases on properties that are the least attractive for development, like smaller properties with odd shapes and configurations. Also, we have a number of sites on schoolyards. A school is very unlikely to sell its property, and it values the garden as a resource for student programs."

Betsy Johnson, vice president of community gardening and development for the Boston Natural Areas Fund (BNAF), says, "Like New York City, we had a wake-up call in 1986 when we lost a garden. We started discussions with the city, and we looked into alternative methods." Today, 50 percent of BNAF’s urban gardens are privately owned by nonprofit organizations.

Johnson also believes in the importance of establishing a garden’s stability in the mind of the surrounding neighborhood. "We’re looking to upgrade the gardens with permanent materials," she says. "Instead of using wood dividers, we use granite. You wouldn’t build a park out of something that decays."

Kelvin Hosein, co-founder of the Euclid 500 Community Garden in Brooklyn, New York, has worked to prove the value of gardens to the city. Along with growing tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, sweet bell peppers and beans, many of which are dispersed to feed the community, Euclid 500 runs a canned goods distribution operation, and hosts cultural and musical activities. "An urban garden absolutely increases property value," he says. "When we bought the property next door in 1989, there were rats, debris and drug dealing in this lot. Now it’s gorgeous instead of an eyesore."

But Howland doubts the loss of gardens will lower the city’s standard of living. "They’re being displaced because property values are going up," she says. "This is not the most economically feasible use of the land right now."

Planted plots have frequently been leased from New York City on a clearly defined short-term basis, leaving some officials baffled when gardeners refuse to vacate. "These gardens were created with the explicit understanding that they were temporary uses of vacant city-owned property," says the HPD. "Gardens are great, but not at the expense of new housing."

Gardeners are dismayed by the idea that they should be able to easily relocate. The Liz Christy Garden dates to 1973 and is New York City’s oldest community garden. According to Don Loggins, one of the garden’s founders, "There are things here you don’t see anywhere else, including hundreds of bird nests and a beehive providing eight pounds of honey a year. We’ve been composting for 30 years, so we have great soil." Steve Frillmann, executive director of New York’s activist group Green Guerillas, says, "The mature trees are unique to the Liz Christy Garden. There’s even a towering sequoia."

"City government support of community gardens doesn’t exist right now," says Loggins. But elsewhere in the country, civic leaders have demonstrated that a more positive relationship with gardeners is possible.

According to Johnson, BNAF appreciates the city of Boston’s willingness to work with the group in getting nonprofit ownership, though it would also like to see more government funding and public/private partnerships. "By having the nonprofit sector take over gardens, we’ve given ourselves a whole other dilemma," she says. "We’re basically running an alternative park service. When a garden needs compost delivered, for example, they call us and we have to fund it."

Cory Calandra, executive director of the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), says, "We have an ongoing relationship with the Parks Department and have received funding from our mayors. This is a very dense city and our leaders have been very supportive of San Francisco’s need for public space."