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New York's Community Gardens

A History

New York in the 1970's. A bit like today - difficult economic times and city coffers unable to meet budgetary needs. But different in important ways, too. So far, basic services, like Police and Fire, have not been reduced. And rundown and arson-destroyed buildings that require their being demolished, no longer exist or come into city ownership for nonpayment of taxes - the source of much of the vacant land that supports GreenThumb community gardens.

New York in the 1970's. New Yorkers, propelled by the political activism of the 1960's and the environmental movement catalyzed by Earth Day 1970, refused to watch their neighborhoods deteriorate. Vacant lots were terrible eyesores. Garbage mounted up. Rats roamed with abandon. "Chop shops" sprung up, selling stolen car parts. Overgrown land created "mugger cover" hiding drug deals and other nefarious activities. Neighborhood activists did what the City could not do. They saw community gardens as a powerful way to make New York whole and healthy again. Their efforts successfully anchored and revitalized neighborhoods and, in the process, community gardens wrought a significant change on the urban landscape.

Community gardens existed in New York before the 1970's. The Depression of the 1890's and the Great Depression of the 1930's spurred many municipalities, including New York, to permit citizens to grow food on city-owned land. The two world wars with their accompanying food shortages brought about Liberty and Victory Gardens. However, these were temporary measures, abandoned as the precipitating crises passed. New York's community gardening movement grew out of the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970's, but it laid down deep roots. Its strength and vitality endures despite the recent events described below.

New York's contemporary community gardening movement is grounded in the work of three extraordinary women:

Liz Christy, founder of the Green Guerillas (1973), "bombed" Lower East Side vacant lots with homemade "seed grenades" and created the Bowery-Houston Garden, New York's oldest community garden. She then went on to develop the Open Space Greening Program (1975) for the Council on the Environment of NYC.

Hattie Carthan, whose successful efforts beginning in 1969 to preserve three brownstones slated for demolition in Bedford-Stuyvesant, also saved a tree that had no business growing in New York City, the southern Magnolia Grandiflora. Committed to planting and protecting her neighborhood's street trees, she then established the Magnolia Tree Earth Center.

In the late 1960's, fashion designer Mollie Parnis encouraged volunteer efforts rewarding neighborhood clean-ups and beautification projects with a welcome check at a recognition ceremony hosted by City Hall. The Mollie Parnis Dress Up Your Neighborhood Awards, administered by the Citizens Committee for New York City, have supported hundreds of self-help initiatives throughout New York.

In 1976, Cornell University Cooperative Extension was chosen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement the pilot Urban Agricultural Program to provide New York's backyard and community gardeners with horticultural expertise and assistance. This pilot program was so successful that by 1990, 23 cities were offering such services. (Unfortunately, the program was reorganized several years ago, eliminating this valued and valuable assistance.)

By 1978, scores of community gardens were flourishing by dint of hard labor and donated plants from nurseries and residents replanting their outdoor spaces. The one thing, however, that the gardeners did not have was permission to garden this city-owned land; technically they were squatters. Government resisted legitimizing gardens without liability protection. Neighborhood Open Space coalition created a low-cost liability program that gardeners could buy into.

This led to the creation of Operation GreenThumb in 1978. (The program's name was shortened to GreenThumb when it was transferred, in 1995, to Parks & Recreation from the Department of General Services [DGS], now known as the Department of Citywide Administrative Services [DCAS].)

For a year, GreenThumb operated with one part time staff person whose sole function was to issue leases. Permission to garden the land was authorized by a city-wide land use committee (this committee had many names over the years) that determined the disposition of city-owned land, e.g., to be sold at auction, selected for housing and commercial development, assigned to other agencies for open space, parking, or building construction. Leases were issued to community gardeners who requested land for which no immediate use was identified. From the beginning, GreenThumb was described as an "interim site" program, with access to land between demolition and development.

In 1979, GreenThumb applied for and received its first federal Community Development Block Grant, funding which continues to today. This allowed GreenThumb to hire staff and provide gardeners with materials to develop their gardens - fencing, tools, lumber for growing beds and garden furniture, soil, seeds, shrubs, and bulbs - and with training in how to design, build and plant their gardens.

Over time other organizations were created or established programs to assist the city's community gardeners. In addition to GreenThumb, Green Guerillas, Council on the Environment of New York City and Citizens Committee for New York City, organizations assisting gardeners include the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, Trust for Public Land, Brooklyn Botanic Garden/ Brooklyn GreenBridge, New York Botanical Garden/Bronx Green-Up, New York Horticultural Society and Trees New York. Working singly and cooperatively for the past 20 years, these organizations eagerly offer materials and advice. The resources they provide are more than matched by the resources every neighborhood can supply in abundance - the people who live there.

Until the mid-1990's, a minimum of housing was developed in New York City. During that time, the number of GreenThumb community gardens grew to 750. Over the years, concerns about the gardens' future were addressed by GreenThumb's Long Term Leasing Program, which issued ten-year leases to qualifying gardens (the fair market appraisal value of the land could not exceed a certain threshold). Not only did over 30 gardens secure a long-term lease, but also two gardens, whose appraisals were beyond the qualifying threshold, were designated as Preservation Sites. Although the Preservation Site gardens remained under DGS jurisdiction, they were removed from the agency's inventory of disposable land. With the transfer of GreenThumb to Parks & Recreation in 1995, gardens could be preserved garden by being transferred to Parks jurisdiction.

However, by 1994, requests to create new gardens were no longer being approved. In 1996, a mayoral directive mandated DGS auction its entire disposable vacant land inventory within five years. With all properties now in the auction pipeline, DGS approvals ground to a halt.

The Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) was charged to develop, in the same time period, not only the vacant land in its own inventory, but also the DGS land for which it had an "administrative hold." Thus, any new GreenThumb gardens approved for these properties had a short life span (and there were very few approved). For the hundreds of established gardens on these properties, the future was bleak. For gardens on DGS land, the future was unclear. Traditionally, if unofficially, as long as gardens were actively used and well maintained, they were exempt from auction except in special cases, e.g., the construction of a health center in a neighborhood. Now, however, no one knew or would say whether that exemption would continue.

The one ray of hope was HPD's willingness, at the end of 1997, to release over 30 gardens from its development plans and to transfer them to Parks pending local community board approval. Community boards were required to conduct a formal review of the gardens and to determine two things: that the land was no longer a priority housing site and that it would better serve the community as permanent open space.

Only a handful of gardens in Manhattan CB 3 and in Brooklyn CB 6 - had been approved for transfer to Parks when, in May 1998, a reversal in City policy regarding its community gardens nearly dealt a death blow to them. In order to grant HPD quicker access to properties for which it had administrative holds the management of all gardens on DCAS land was transferred to HPD. (Although these gardens were under DCAS jurisdiction, they had been, since 1995, managed by Parks.) GreenThumb licenses, which offered some measure of protection, were no longer valid. At one point, transferring the GreenThumb program to HPD was discussed. However, it was decided that GreenThumb would remain a Parks & Recreation program.

The real blow came in December 1998 when The City Record, the official newspaper of New York City, issued over a three-week period a list of 114 gardens that the City planned to sell at auction in May 1999. Over half the gardens on the list were over ten years old; several were 15 and 20 years old. They were well established, attractive, and activity hubs for their communities. Selling them without restrictions, as the City planned to do, did not even guarantee housing on the land. The new owners could do anything - build, pave them over for parking, land bank them. The reality was not promising. A study by the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President determined that the majority of Brooklyn land sold at unrestricted auction had never been developed in any way. It seemed that these community gardens were destined to be uprooted and become the neighborhood eyesores they replaced.

Immediately, greening advocates mobilized to stop the auction. Meetings with City Hall were unproductive. Garden activists took to the streets with good humored demonstrations of a kind that had not been seen in New York City since the 1960's. Four separate lawsuits, on both the state and federal level, were introduced. Foundations, led by Trust for Public Land, joined forces to try to purchase the gardens.

At the eleventh hour, the day before the auction, Brooklyn State Supreme court issued an injunction to stop the auction. Within a half-hour, City Hall agreed to sell the gardens to Trust for Public Land and New York Restoration Project. While these 114 gardens were saved, hundreds were still threatened with development.

In February 2000, the New York State Attorney General (OAG) secured a temporary restraining order (TRO) which prevented the City not only from conveying land to a developer, but also from entering the garden to perform test borings. The City's appeal to stay the TRO was denied in October 2000. From that time until September 18, 2002, the OAG and the New York City Corporation Counsel were negotiating a settlement agreement. The agreement calls for the preservation of an additional 200 community gardens (they will either be transferred to parks or sold to a land trust), establishes a review process for 115 gardens that the City wishes to develop, and allows the City to proceed immediately with the development of an additional 38 gardens

Urban Outdoors
March 2008
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