Hundreds Gather to Protest City's Auction of Garden Lots

    About 500 community gardeners, many from other states, rallied in Bryant Park yesterday, chanting "Stop the Auction! Stop the Auction!" singing along with Pete Seeger and vowing to preserve the 700 community gardens that have been grown on trash-strewn vacant lots.

    The administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has put 114 of the city-owned lots on the auction block for May 13. As the date nears, advocates of the gardens on those lots are pressuring the city to save them.

    "This is our way of letting New York know -- and we hope the Mayor is listening -- that we need community gardens," said Leslie Lowe, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. "When people say it's houses versus gardens, that's a lie. There are more than 11,000 vacant lots in the city."

    Ms. Lowe, a lawyer, said that 29 community planning districts in the city, most of them low income, have less than 1.5 acres of open space per 1,000 people. "Low-income children have no place to play, except on asphalt," she said. "These gardens are where children learn about nature, and we have to fight to save every piece of green space."

    The gardens scheduled to be auctioned are the first wave of more than 700 community gardens that the city could sell at any time because they have been leased to gardeners on only a temporary basis. The Giuliani administration has said the purpose of the auction is to promote economic development and the creation of housing.

    In January, when the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development confirmed its plans to sell more than 100 garden lots, Deputy Commissioner Hector Batista said that the agency was trying to sell off any city-owned properties not slated for housing or economic development.

    The rally was part of a two-day conference called "Standing Our Ground," sponsored by the New York City Community Garden Coalition, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and the city chapter of the Sierra Club. The conference began on Friday at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church on Henry Street, in the Lower East Side.

    "I feel this is one of the most important battles right here, right now," said Mr. Seeger, who has spent much of his life rallying people to clean up the Hudson River. Now he has turned his attention to another cause: plants. And he has concluded that they will win, anyway.

    "A hundred years from now, the city is going to be all green," he said. "It's just a question of whether people are going to be here -- or just vines growing up all the fallen-down buildings."

    New York advocates of gardens and open space were joined by others yesterday, from Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Madison, Wis., to pledge their solidarity and tell their own stories.

    Betsy Johnson, the director of Garden Futures, a land trust coalition in Boston, said, "We've saved 150 gardens in Boston. The first thing we did was realize that it wasn't housing versus gardens. Our constituency was the same for both."

    New York City Council members Kenneth K. Fisher of Brooklyn and Kathyrn E. Freed of Manhattan, and State Senators Thomas K. Duane of Manhattan and Velmanette Montgomery of Brooklyn urged gardeners to write their city and state legislators to stop the auction, and to support bills that would halt the proposed sales and funnel state and Federal money into preserving urban green space.

    GRAPHIC: Photo: Flower puppets led a procession at Bryant Park yesterday to protest the auction next month of city lots that were converted to community gardens. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
April 11, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 1; Page 33; Column 1; Metropolitan Desk