Garden-Lovers Arrested at City Hall Sit-In

    With some wearing insect outfits, flower-bedecked hats and mischievous grins, two dozen people staged a sit-in on the marble floor of the City Hall lobby yesterday to protest the Giuliani administration's decision to auction off more than 100 city-owned lots that neighborhood groups throughout the city had converted into community gardens.

    Thirty people were arrested in an odd encounter between protesters carrying kazoos and police officers wearing riot gear. When the officers realized that the only physical threat would be to their backs -- from lifting limp bodies off the floor -- they removed their helmets and began carrying the protesters out a back door to a waiting police van.

    Calling themselves the More Gardens! Coalition, the protesters went to City Hall -- ostensibly to attend a public hearing on the issue -- with packets of information for the press, protest songbooks and an orchestrated plan to fax announcements of the protest to the news media at the very moment the demonstration began.

    The demonstrators left the Council hearing en masse and walked down City Hall's circular stairwell to the first floor, with intentions of staging a sit-in on the steps of City Hall -- a place the Police Department has declared generally off limits, alleging a concern for security. Police officers locked the front entrance to the building to thwart the protesters, then pointed to a back exit. Instead, the demonstrators plopped on the lobby floor to sing and rail against the Mayor.

    When the demonstrators ignored orders to leave, the police began the arrests, on charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstruction of governmental administration.

    The first to be arrested wore a multicolored hat worthy of Dr. Seuss. The second had hair dyed blue. The third was dressed like a ladybug.

    The protesters also carried an idiosyncratic interpretation of the law: namely, that it was illegal for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani not to attend the hearing at which they planned to voice their grievances. When they learned that the Mayor was in Washington and not on the premises, they threatened to stay put until Mr. Giuliani returned.

    A frisson of nervous energy ran through the 45-minute confrontation at times, with people giggling, shouting encouragement to one another and singing of the glories of gardens to the melody of "We Shall Overcome." But the protest reflected the deep-rooted anger engendered by the administration's plan to sell off the properties. Where some neighborhoods see abandoned lots transformed into verdant symbols of community pride, the city sees excess public property that might be sold to promote economic development.

    More than two decades ago, the city agreed to allow local groups to convert the lots into gardens, with the understanding that the arrangement was temporary. "When these parcels of land were given to the community for the purposes of gardening, it was well known to them" that the city would someday reclaim the properties, said Colleen Roche, the Mayor's press secretary. "This doesn't come as a surprise."

    In some neighborhoods the lots sprouted weeds and little else; in others, they became miniature Edens. But whatever serenity they created evaporated when the city recently announced plans to auction 480 parcels in May, including 112 that had been converted into gardens. Yesterday's hearing was the fourth and last opportunity for city residents to voice their feelings on the matter; city officials said yesterday that they would consider the public response in determining whether to remove some of the lots from the auction list.
    "The purpose of the auction is to create economic development in neighborhoods, to create housing," Ms. Roche said. "The people protesting today would be the first to protest the lack of affordable housing or jobs in the city."

    But spokesmen for several organizations that champion the virtues of open space, from Greenthumb to the Trust for Public Land, have denounced the decision as insensitive and shortsighted, while the Bronx Borough President, Fernando Ferrer, has dismissed it as a "cake sale."

    City Councilman Adolfo Carrion Jr. of the Bronx plans to propose a bill that would prohibit the sale of community gardens unless they are to be used for low-and moderate-income housing.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Police breaking up a protest against plans to auction off more than 100 lots that citizens have been gardening. (Andrew Goldberg for The New York Times)

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
February 25, 1999, Thursday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section B; Page 8; Column 2; Metropolitan Desk