Gardens On Trial

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It came to me while poking fingers into the ground for seeds to lay. It was a salient, subtle meditation that arrived in my mind as I methodically dug into the softness of the dirt, hypnotized by the smell of earth.

My mother was there. She was teaching me how to blanket the land with mulch so that the flower bed would have nourishment to snack on once the air becomes warm and clear.

“The earth loves us back,” I thought in my head. With a flurry of spring-time gifts and rain shower lessons, she not only provides but teaches us how to provide for ourselves.

The reciprocity I began to learn instilled a type of gratitude that I couldn’t find anywhere else in the city but in my own, home-grown garden. Thankfully, I never had the smell of ripe tomatoes or my yellow afternoons picking jalapeños threatened to be taken away from me.

Unlike my blessings, more than a dozen community gardens in NYC are being uprooted for more concrete. It’s not as simple as a cold city agency or developer crazed to keep kids from harvesting a relationship with nature, but rather a pragmatic move to construct desperately needed affordable housing.

As available land dwindles and real estate prices skyrocket, gardens are being targeted to build housing for some of the poorest New Yorkers. Community gardens that have claimed abandoned corners of their neighborhood to build sustainable education are being invaded by developers claiming ownership over the “vacant” spot. But many of these plots are far from vacant, with vines of fruits and lush greenery that have become a staple to the community.

Under De Blasio’s plan to build 200,000 affordable housing units, these developers are incentivized to purchase land for a nominal fee as long as they build discounted homes. This plan has therefore provoked a backlash from gardeners picketing at City Hall and taking eviction cases to court in order to reclaim a communal space of fruitful learning.

Take Roger That Garden for instance, a community space that stewards plants, vegetables, and composting in the neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The history of this local green patch dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s when the hardware store that occupied the lot was abandoned by its owner. The building began to rot for decades, corroding the foundation of the building next door which houses the juvenile outreach group, Crown Heights Youth Collective.

The Collective, lead by founder and Medgar Evers College history professor Richard Green, petitioned the city to demolish the building, and in 2006, once the space emptied, neighbors got together to get their hands dirty.

Green has said that the garden is just what New Yorkers need. “New York City needs green space now more than ever,” he told Gothamist. “Everything’s being moved into buildings. People need space where they can see greenery, and that’s what the space provides.”

For years, the gardeners tried to track down the owner of the lot, but even the city agency had lost track of the hardware store owner. So in 2013, it was a huge surprise when the gardeners found out that the owner of the plot had switched hands to TYC Realty, Inc.

Apparently, the realty group had better luck tracking down the true owner. According to public property records on file by the city, TYC Realty found Hub Plumbing, Hardware, Sales & Services owner Dudley McLachlan in Port Richey, Florida, and he signed over the deed for $10.

In June of 2014, gardeners of Roger That received an eviction notice by TYC Realty.

Now the two will battle in court over who has rights to the land. Gardeners maintain that TYC Realty has conducted shady business and that the communal plant bed should be granted eminent domain. In other words, they want their grassy knoll to be established under the Green Thumb Program as a community garden to be managed by neighborhood volunteers.

“When we send them legal notices, they rip them off our fence and claim to not have received them at their office,” Emily-Bell Dinan, who has been working with the garden since 2010, told Gothamist. “They change numbers constantly. They make it impossible for gardeners and local officials to sit down and talk with them about ‘How did you get this property?’ ‘Are you sure you got it legally? Because you’re not acting like someone who did.'”

The city lists more than 600 community gardens that are part of the GreenThumb program, which is administered by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Out of this, the city has considered more than 180 gardens and vacant lots for development as part of Mr. de Blasio’s initiative to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. Fourteen plots have been chosen to be demolished and built upon.

The only problem is that some of the “vacant” lots that are also considered for housing, are community gardens too, just not listed as such by the city agency. About 1,200 lots in the city are used as community gardens, according to information compiled by 596 Acres, an advocacy group for community land access. This number is a staggering jump from the 600 or so that the city claims.

Now, housing for people of modest means is definitely critical. In the Crown Heights neighborhood of Roger That Garden especially with more than 25 percent having less than a high school diploma and a median household income of $39,215. About 46 percent of households were considered “severely rent-burdened,” according to a 2014 study by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University.

However, the need for parkland could be considered a dire one as well. A study found the percent of parkland of the total district is just four percent. The district ranks 41st as some of he lowest among of park & playground acres per 1,000 residents.

“Community gardens are the most vulnerable spaces in the city,” Paula Z. Segal, a lawyer and a co-founder of 596 Acres who frequently represents gardens fighting developers, told the NY Times. “If you are a developer and looking for the opportunity to evict 16 families from their homes, or evict 16 community gardeners from where they grow their food, which would you choose? If you’re looking for the easy pickings, a garden is easier to evict.”

And while some see gardens as a luxury compared to housing, others find it just as essential for a healthy community.

Many gardeners feel that “at any moment, anything could happen,” Aresh Javadi, executive director of More Gardens, an advocacy group for community gardens, and a member of the board of the New York City Community Garden Coalition told the NY Times.

The greatest concern that Javadi and others have is, who is making the decision on what is best for the city if it is not the public who is advocating for their right to have gardens? It shouldn’t be so easy for communities to accept that the city, or anyone else, is able to take space away.

“That to me is a fallacy,” he to NY Times, “because we, the people who are growing the gardens, are the city.”

It worries me that some children in the city won’t have a chance to learn about plants, as I did growing up. That hundreds of corporate logos will be etched in their minds deeper than the type of vegetables that sustain their health.

If we love the land, the land will love us back. If we destroy it, do we destroy something in us too?

*Members of Roger That Garden went to the courts Thursday, March 10th, 2016 to fight to keep their land. Support Roger That Garden here and learn how you can help more NYC community gardens here.

Check out a video from a rally in front of City Hall on February 10, 2015, to save NYC community gardens from being destroyed. Video taken by Lisa Autz.