NYC Community Gardeners Might Have New Protection in the Fight Against Development | Civil Eats

NYC Community Gardeners Might Have New Protection in the Fight Against Development

The Garden of Eden in the Bronx. (Photo credit: Greta Moran)

Along Coney Island’s boardwalk, a community garden once brimmed with vegetables and edible flowers rustling in the salty breeze. Almost entirely run by immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, the garden provided food, medicine, and solace to the Brooklyn neighborhood. “It was a really big, beautiful space for the community,” said Yury Opendik, a Coney Island resident who tended to the garden in the late 2000s. Opendik built a gazebo out of wood pallets in the garden, which he’d visit most evenings. “It brought a lot of peace into my life.”

The garden helped protect the community during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, absorbing and slowing the deadly storm’s floodwaters. In the aftermath of the storm, Opendik and the other residents came together to rebuild the garden after it had been buried in sand. But this didn’t last long: It turned out that former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was eyeing the land for a music venue, and the city council and local planning commission approved a plan to develop the plot in 2013.

Late one December night that same year, the city sent construction workers to bulldoze the plot of land, without notifying the people camping there, hoping to block the garden’s destruction. Opendik and the others gardeners gathered in the morning to watch as the garden they had been nurturing for years was turned to rubble. “It was heart-wrenching,” he recalls.

This was far from an isolated incident. New York City’s Parks Department provides licenses through its GreenThumb program to over 550 volunteer-run gardens. But the majority of the gardens were built on city-owned land and the licenses offer scant protections from the ever-present risk of development. Currently, the Elizabeth Street Garden—a community sculpture garden in Manhattan—is slated to be destroyed as part of a controversial rezoning plan. In East Harlem, the Pleasant Village Community Garden, founded 44 years ago, is set to lose its back garden, where residents grow food for a local market and pantry.

“I’ve often said, ‘You bulldoze a community garden, you bulldoze a community,’” said Raymond Figueroa, Jr., a Bronx-based community organizer and president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, which fought to save the Coney Island garden for two years. “Community gardens are more than landscaping amenities; they’re significant vehicles for community development, sustainability, and productivity in a way that is self-determining.”

And yet, garden land tenure in NYC is “very precarious,” adds Figueroa, who spends a lot of his time strategizing around this issue with a handful of other garden organizers.

A few years back, Figueroa had a lightbulb moment. After combing through “volumes and volumes of technical manuals and policy” in search of ways to protect New York’s community gardens, he came across what he was looking for: a designation known as Critical Environmental Areas (CEAs). It provides heightened regulatory protection under the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act, potentially triggering a full environmental review and greater public input in decisions impacting the land at stake.

Figueroa noted that community gardens appeared to meet the CEA criteria under state law. They offer “a benefit to human health, a natural setting, agricultural, social, cultural, historic, recreational, or educational values, or ecological or hydrological values that may be negatively affected by disturbances.”

He met with lawyers at the nonprofit legal group Earthjustice about the designation and they joined forces to petition city agencies toe that urge community gardens be designated as CEAs. As an instructor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Figueroa worked with then graduate student Samuel Pressman to quantify the ecological services of community gardens, from regulating the temperature with leafy plants and trees to reducing methane by composting food waste, in a report that informed the petition.

“Despite the critical values that community gardens provide—at virtually no cost to taxpayers—these gardens remain vulnerable to destruction,” states the petition, which was originally filed last year. While the idea was slow to gain traction with city officials at the time, the petitioners are hopeful the Mayor Eric Adams—who put a Food Policy Transition Team in place shortly after being elected and has expressed support of urban agriculture in the past—will be more receptive.

Expected to be re-submitted in the coming months, the hundred-page petition makes the novel case for why the city’s community gardens, which feed people fresh fruits and vegetables, while reducing flooding and offering shade on hot days, should have the same legal safeguards as other important natural areas, such as the wetland estuary Jamaica Bay, where the fragile ecosystem enhanced has been protection from development.

“A city-owned garden can be sold at any time,” said Alexis Andiman, a senior attorney with Earthjustice. She pointed to GreenThumb’s license agreement for community gardens, which states that it is “terminable at will by the Commissioner in his or her discretion at any time, upon sixty (60) days written notice, and Licensee shall have no recourse of any nature whatsoever by reason of such termination.”

After a community garden is razed for development, it’s usually permanently lost. While this new designation won’t entirely prevent this, it will give the gardens–which were designated as vacant lots until 2020—another layer of protection. “This approach has never been done in an urban environment,” said Figueroa. “There have never been community gardens designated as Critical Environmental Areas.”

Building Food, Climate, and Social Resilience

The importance of community gardens, especially to food security and human health, has come into sharp relief during the pandemic, as they have served as places to organize, grow, and distribute food. As the petition notes, these green spaces also cultivate trees and other plants that filter particulate matter, which is linked to respiratory illnesses and heightened COVID-19 risk.

However, it took the persistence of community garden organizers for the city to catch onto these links. Early in the pandemic, community gardens were told to close their gates to the public as New York entered its first lockdown. The city’s GreenThumb program sent an e-mail to plot-renters explaining that the gardens had been closed to the public since their the small size—often under an acre, sequestered between buildings—makes social distancing difficult.

But many community gardeners pushed back against that decision, especially during a time of record-high food insecurity.

“You’re telling us to shut down? Hell no. We got in those gardens,” said Karen Washington, who contributed to the petition and has been called “urban farming’s de facto godmother” after she spent years fighting for community gardens in the Bronx. “How do you tell a community that is hurting—that is starving—to shut down community gardens?”

For Washington, the decision to keep growing food was an easy one. She knew the pandemic would only sharpen the disparities in healthy food access—an issue that she helped bring to the forefront as an early advocate for food justice—across New York City. She coined the term “food apartheid” to describe how discriminatory polices lead poor neighborhoods of color to be flooded with cheap food.

In spring 2020, Washington, Figueroa, and other Bronx residents helped form the Bronx Community Farm Hubs (BCFH), a coalition that brought together local community gardeners and regional farmers to grow and donate food to senior housing, pantries, schools, and other emergency efforts throughout the Bronx. They also worked with Bronx Green-Up, the longtime community garden outreach program of the New York Botanical Garden, which coordinates the still-operating network of 18 community gardens to provide the food.

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As the pandemic surged, the community garden organizers distributed nearly 43,000 pounds of food, including 5,000 pounds that came from Bronx gardens, in 2020. In 2021, they distributed more than 162,100 pounds of food, including nearly 15,000 from the gardens. And they did this all while taking health precautions. “The first thing we did was get the Department of Health to give us instructions on how to open up the gardens safely,” said Washington. In the end, GreenThumb recognized Bronx Community Farm Hubs’ efforts with their annual Urban Agriculture Award.

At the Garden of Eden in the Bronx, gardeners set up a program early in 2020 that served cooked meals. To prevent crowding, people filtered in through one gate of the garden and out another. “[GreenThumb] calls us and says that we can’t do that. The distance is six feet,” said Ali Malone, who has been a member of the garden for nearly 40 years. So, after stopping the program, his son Al helped people sign up for New York City’s emergency food deliveries.

Now that the garden has re-opened, Malone hopes that everyone walking by will feel welcome enough to stop in, have a look around, and pick fruit off the trees.

Across New York City, other networks of community gardens have emerged to donate some of their harvest as well. For instance, in the East Village, which has the highest concentration of community gardens in the city, gardeners helped to launch and supply the Loisaida CommUnity Fridge on the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue B. The free fridge opened in June of last year as part of a broader network of fridges, continually stocked with free food by volunteers.

“We rallied up with the help of community garden members and many different local, grassroot organizations from the area to start this successful community refrigerator,” said Frank Gonzalez, a Lower East Side resident who leads the procurement for the fridge.

As relatively low-risk, freely available open space, community gardens have also served as important organizing spaces during the pandemic. As a member of La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, a community garden founded in 1978, Gonzalez frequently convenes meetings in the garden to discuss ways to keep the nearby fridge well-stocked.

Community gardens also provide social resilience, an overlooked resource that has been shown to help communities fare better in disasters. They are places where people form friendships, supporting each other emotionally and logistically.

Carlos Melendez has definitely experienced this benefit. He has been part of East Harlem’s Pleasant Village Community Garden since its 1974 founding. He has been spending his retirement tending to his garden bed with old friends. “I’ll be here every day, from six o’clock in the morning to five-thirty or six o’clock at night,” said Melendez. He has no plan to change this routine, given that “it’s the only place I can feel happy,” he said. “Everything is okay here.”

Part of the East Harlem garden is slated to be turned into affordable housing. But many gardeners say it’s not necessary for the city to pit essential community resources—access to fresh food and housing—against one other, pointing to the existing building vacancies and the a “glut of inventory” in empty luxury buildings. Figueroa characterizes this as a “false bifurcation” between connected issues.

“This is an affordable housing strategy, growing your own food,” said Figueroa. “It allows folks who are rent-burdened, and by extension food insecure, to manage that very unwieldy household economic situation.”

In response to a request for comment, the Parks Department, which operates GreenThumb, stated that “the continued success of NYC Parks’ community gardens is at the forefront of our mission at GreenThumb, and we are proud to have supported our gardens during the ongoing pandemic,” noting that the agency also started three new community gardens in 2021. The agency didn’t comment on the petition.

A Long Fight to Protect Gardens

La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez garden in the East Village is named after a community organizer and member of the Latinx group CHARAS, which took over and remediated an abandoned lot filled with trash. Later, Perez became active in pushing to protect La Plaza and other gardens from development—until he was shot on the sidewalk in 1999, in a still-unsolved murder.

Like many others, Frank Gonzalez suspects that Perez’s murder was likely connected to his work pushing back against the threat of development. The conflict reached a fever pitch under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who decided to auction off over a hundred plots of land that were home to gardens in 1998, leading community members to engage in widespread protests the year before Perez was killed.

At the height of the protests, as a city was preparing to bulldoze the East Village’s Esperanza Garden, organizers built a structure shaped like a coqui, a small tree frog and a cultural symbol of Puerto Rico, with enough room for five people. “So, we slept in it every night,” said Bill Di Paola, a longtime community organizer. Amid a court battle to prevent the auctioning of gardens, he recalls how the city bulldozed the land in 2001, with the help of police, forcing out over 100 protestors.

“The city didn’t care about the judge [presiding over the lawsuit]. They destroyed the whole garden thinking they would get away with it,” said Di Paola. But he credits the relentless protesting as spurring the 2002 agreement that preserved about 400 gardens for eight years and transferred the land to the Park’s Department.

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Community gardens weren’t always built on sought-after land, however. During the 1970s fiscal crisis, it became common for landlords to intentionally set fire to apartment buildings, recouping the insurance loss. As Figueroa explained, this coincided with a policy, known as planned shrinkage, which cut off municipal services, “with the intention of forcing residents to move out.”

Soon, the idea of turning the lots into community gardens caught on. This is how Karen Washington came to found the Garden of Happiness, in the once-rubble-strewn lot across from her home. “It wasn’t about growing food, initially,” said Washington. “It was about communities taking back their power—by taking something that was devastatingly ugly and turning it into a beautiful, garden oasis.”

Another garden that emerged from the rubble of an abandoned lot in the Lower East Side is now the oldest community garden recognized by the city. “It was a barren wasteland,” said Donald Loggins, the one remaining original member. “We spent six months cleaning out all the trash and putting better soil in there.” They originally named it the Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden, in 1973, drawing people from all over the city who often came with their own seeds.

“People were growing vegetables from Italy, China, Mexico, and they loved it,” said Loggins.

But like many community gardens, it almost didn’t make it. “We were okay for the first year. Then the city came and said, “This is our property. You can’t do that,”’ recalled Loggins. After receiving negative press, the city offered the garden a lease for $1 a year.

The garden has been growing food and serving as a gathering space ever since. Loggins notes that people come during the heat waves to cool off by the fish ponds and the shade of the fruit trees. While he doesn’t believe this garden, included in the National Registry of Historic Places, would be threatened by development, he sees the future of other community gardens as unclear and dependent on the city’s administration as it stands.

With this history of transformation in mind, the CEAs designation carries more weight—as it could offer much-delayed recognition of the value of gardening in New York City and give community member more control over these important green spaces and the food they produce.

“We’re not asking the city to ban all development forever that could affect community gardens,” said Earthjustice’s Andiman. “It’s just about respecting all of the work that these gardeners have put into their gardens—the decades they’ve invested, and the change they’ve been able to effect in their neighborhoods—and making sure they’re included in the conversation when development is planned that could harm the garden.”

As Figueroa put it, “this bulldozing and this abandonment doesn’t define us as a community. We can define ourselves.”

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

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