New Yorkers Dig Deep to Save Their Bit of Heaven; Bette Midler Joins Gardeners to Foil Mayor Giuliani's Homes Plan for Homes

Michael Ellison in New York

    Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor who has defeated New York's strip clubs, sex shops, hot dog stalls, squeegee merchants and jaywalkers with his popular shoot-from-the-lip style, was finally vanquished himself yesterday by an army of urban gardeners led by an actress who came to prominence singing in gay bath houses.

    The mayor had planned to sell 114 small community gardens in New York to property developers to raise millions of dollars but was stopped at the last moment when Bette Midler put $ 250,000 ( pounds 154,000) of her own money down to stop the sale.

    'Today I'm prouder than ever to be a New Yorker,' said Midler, who moved to the East Coast after an earthquake in California five years ago. 'We're thrilled. This is a joyous occasion and means that these gardens will stay in perpetuity.'

    Midler's New York Restoration Fund is paying $ 1.2m for 51 parcels of land and a conservation group, the Trust for Public Land, is putting up $ 3m for another 63. The charitable status of both organisations means that the city will be deprived of the taxes for which developers would have been liable.

    Mr Giuliani, a Republican, regards the urban gardeners - of whom there are as many as 20,000 - as an expression of flaky 1960s liberalism.

    New York has 750 community gardens which grew from the civil rights movement at the height of the city's squalor and decline in the 1970s, helping to revitalise depressed areas with poetry readings, crime watch meetings, children's workshops and parties on what had been raw scars between the skyscraper buildings of the ultimate city.

    One of the rescued sites, the All People's Garden on Manhattan's Lower East Side, for example, was salvaged from garbage and drug dealers in the late 1970s.

    The mayor had previously rejected an offer of $ 2m for the gardens. 'This is a free-market economy,' he told protesters dressed up as tomatoes and sunflowers at the time. 'Welcome to the era after communism.'

    The gardens' fate prompted a debate about what Mr Giuliani meant by his 'quality of life' campaign to improve New York. His policy of zero tolerance - targeting minor infringements to beat major crime - has been spectacularly successful in reducing most types of offences, although at the expense of alienating many minorities, who are the most likely to be stopped and searched.

    The zeal with which the policy has been applied has been held responsible for several high-profile cases of alleged police brutality, such as the shooting dead by four white officers of a black 23-year-old street trader in a hail of 41 bullets.

    Some strip clubs and sex shops have been forced to close but many others have found ways of complying with the law and staying open. Hot dog stalls continue to flourish and jaywalking goes unpunished. But New York's top tourist attraction - Times Square - has been purged of sleaze.

    The sale of the gardens was promoted as trading one quality of life for another.

    If the developers had won, thousands of homes would have been built in a city whose restricted property market grows ever tighter.

    But there would have been a price to pay: little slices of serenity, community meeting places that act as a pressure-valve for urban tension, would have been eradicated.

    Yesterday the city administration changed its tune on the sale.

    The deputy mayor, Randy Levine, described the resolution as a 'win-win situation' for the gardeners and the administration. He denied that lawsuits - which threatened to delay the sale - and adverse publicity had played a part in negotiations.

    'For us it was never a question of only saving a few gardens,' said Leslie Lowe, executive director of the New York City environmental justice alliance.

    'Almost all the gardens that were to be auctioned were in neighbourhoods of colour.'

    The Giuliani administration still claims that the sites were merely lent to the gardeners 20 years ago and that the future of more than 600 gardens remains in question.

    Olean For, 78, who was responsible for starting work on transforming the All People's Garden in 1978, said: 'When I got here this lot was nothing but garbage. Now people say it's a little bit of heaven.

    'How much is that worth to a neighbourhood? Can the mayor tell me that?'
Copyright 1999 Guardian Newspapers Limited
The Guardian (London)
May 14, 1999
SECTION: Guardian Foreign Pages; Pg. 15
BYLINE: Michael Ellison in New York