Bulldozing the Grassroots Gardeners: Arcadia / Jennifer Tierney:

    As she watched the bulldozer rip through the tulip beds, Aggie Groff feared for the future of the boy who lived in the building next to the garden.

    His homeless family had been transferred there, to a building on New York's Lower East Side which once housed a crack cocaine business. Before the police raided it, 19 murders had occurred on that block.

    After the raid, the neighbours slowly replaced the crack vials and other debris on the vacant area next door with benches, sculptures and a barbecue pit. On one wall an artist painted a mural of Chico Mendez, the assass-inated leader of the Brazilian rain forest movement.

    "The garden had a very calming and civilising effect on the neighbourhood," recalled Groff. "It brought people of diverse backgrounds together."

    When the boy became a regular visitor to the community garden, Groff realised he was still illiterate, aged 10. Using money raised from poetry readings and concerts in the garden, she arranged for him to go to a private school. The boy's reading level improved markedly. Now the garden has gone, she wonders how to raise next year's tuition fees.

    The Chico Mendez Mural Garden is one of the hundreds of community gardens demolished, or listed for demolition, in New York City. There are about 800 community gardens in the city, most of them created on unused city-owned land. More than half stand condemned as part of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's campaign to provide housing. Of the 30 or so in the Lower East Side, where most were created after demolition of apartment buildings, almost all are threatened.

    "New York is once again hot, hot property, and the city wants to get out of the real estate business," explains Paula Young, of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the agency which manages the city's surplus properties.

    The city government, New York's largest landowner and absentee landlord, acquired its vast inventory of abandoned properties largely by default during economic downturns. Once blighted by the stigma of drug abuse and poverty, these sites are now quickly scooped up by private developers at city auctions.

    But the gardeners who make use of them are treated as squatters. "These people chose to take public land without permission," said Tom Rothman, director of the agency's land use planning division.

    Manhattan's Lower East Side, where there is the highest concentration of community gardens and home of the former Chico Mendez Mural Garden, was once the social pariah of New York. But this working class neighbourhood is now hotly sought-after in a cut-throat housing market.

    "The Lower East Side feels it's being gentrified; we understand that, but that's the way the world is going," said Young, pointing to a recent auction of seven properties on the Lower East Side which put $ 4m into the city's coffers.

    Four more community gardens on the Lower East Side were sold in an auction last month for a total of more than $ 500,000. Three of the gardens were created and cared for by the neighbourhood's large Hispanic community. The fourth was bought by five neighbours who wanted to save the garden from development. and paid $ 63,000 for it.

    Lower East Side residents have a long tradition of resisting trends and are not going to surrender their gardens without a fight.

    At the turn of the century, the Bowery, as it was then called, earned its reputation as a magnet for all manner of rabble-rousers.

    Michael Shenker, a Lower East Side gardener, remembers when the government called the gardeners "urban pioneers" and created programmes to support their "sweat equity" investments in the community. That was 20 years ago.

    "We personally threw out the drug dealers, cleared the land and planted the flowers," recalled Shenker. "Then, seemingly overnight, these once 'pioneers' are now called 'squatters' when they want the property."

    The sale last year of four community gardens for luxury condominiums galvanised a big grass-roots campaign in the neighbourhood to save them from demolition. The gardeners-turned-activists resorted to various means to stop the deal, from lawsuits to methods of civil disobedience borrowed from the radical environmental group Earth First.

    Although the developers won in court, the activists feel vindicated since the deal woke up the neighbourhood. "We wanted to re-create the culture of activism on the Lower East Side," said David Crane of the Lower East Side Collective, which was formed by residents in response to the city's auctions of garden-occupied lots.

    Leslie Lowe, an attorney and director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, helped prepare the environmental lawsuit filed by the New York Community Garden Coalition.

    A former assistant commissioner in the city's land distribution programme, Lowe knows how to play hard ball with city hall. "If we're going to fight this one garden at a time, we're fighting a losing battle," she said. "The policy needs to be attacked. The real issue is that the city isn't doing any comprehensive planning."

    According to Lowe, the city's piecemeal garden sales violate both federal environmental and civil rights law. She cited a recent study which shows a correlation between per capita income levels, which are lower in minority communities, and the number of open, green spaces.

    Differences between the percentage of "tree canopy", or the tree cover, in low and high-income neighbourhoods are dramatic. On the Lower East Side for example, tree coverage reaches about 3.9 per cent, compared with 34 per cent in affluent Riverdale. Without the 11 green acres contained in its community gardens, the East Side's canopy count falls to 2.9 per cent.

    In the name of environmental justice, the Coalition is putting pressure on the city to place the 200 acres of community gardens in a public land trust run by the gardeners.

    In a slight compromise, the city has started to incorporate some gardens, including four on the Lower East Side, into its parks system. The government also provides 395 gardens throughout the city with one-year temporary leases which can be cancelled immediately for development.

    Since 1986, a total of nine of the neighbourhood's gardens have been bulldozed for property development, with two more scheduled for later this year. In 1986, Adam Purple's Garden of Eden was destroyed. It was a prime destination for tourists who followed his paths of purple footprints throughout the East Village. When he relentlessly campaigned against the demolition plans, he became an icon of the city's garden movement. A movement still with a fight on its hands.

Copyright 1998 The Financial Times Limited
Financial Times (London)
August 15, 1998, Saturday W EDITION 1