New York's Community Gardens Lose Protected Status, Threatened With Development Under New Rules

new york city community garden photo

all photos: Matthew McDermott

If you're a New Yorker or just a fan of community gardening no matter where you live, pay attention: Under newly proposed rules from the New York City Parks and Recreation Department and Department of Housing Preservation and Development, many of the Big Apple's thriving community gardens are again under threat of being turned over to private developers. Here's why:TH NOTE: Before we continue, in the interests of full disclosure of my bias, it should be noted that I personally have a stake in the changing of these rules as my apartment directly overlooks one of the gardens whose protected status could change. The development of this site would essential remove the view from three windows in my unit, likely decreasing property value and quality of life. It should come as no surprise that I believe not formally protecting the City's community gardens is not right--especially when Mayor Bloomberg has made greening the city one of his key efforts and made notable strides in doing so.
Community Garden Politics in NYC: A Very Brief Overview
Since a 2002 agreement between then attorney general Eliot Spitzer and the City, all the small infill community gardens and green spaces which had sprung up throughout the city over the previous decades were preserved from development for a period of about eight years.

Prior to this time, during the Giuliani administration in a number of highly publicized and bitterly contested actions some long-standing community spaces were turned over to private developers on the grounds that the city needed more housing. More often than not these locations were in areas which probably could've used more affordable housing, even though developers had luxury condos in mind.

The Spitzer agreement prevented that from continuing to happen until September 17, 2010, when the agreement is set to expire.

These new proposed rules throw all that out the door, giving the City the option to again turn over these community spaces to developers--albeit also containing language that alternative spaces should attempted to be provided for gardeners, which considering the time and energy spent improving these spaces is likely no consolation for those who are potentially affected.

NotBored has a more extensive timeline of community gardening in New York, stretching back to the mid-60s which is worth checking out for more information.

new york city community garden photo

new york city community garden photo

new york city community garden photo

New York City's community gardens run the gamut from thriving vegetable gardens to more informal and cluttered but still passionately cultivated spaces; some rival the city's formal botanical gardens in care and artistry of layout. All provide welcome and well-used green space, often serving as outdoor extension of people's cramped indoor living quarters. Those pictured here are just within a five minute walk of my apartment in the East Village. Literally dozens of them dot the city, in varying density based on neighborhood history.
Are Community Gardens Effectively City Parks?
All of this hinges upon how New York's community gardens administered under Parks & Rec's Green Thumb program are classified: Are they official city parks or something else? The new rules clearly state that they are not parks.

Keep in mind that as it stands at the end of July, there aren't legions of bulldozers revving their engines to clear all these lots come the middle of September, but the threat of removing what has become, in many neighborhoods, one of the defining characteristics of the area, providing huge quality of life benefits, has definitely raised the alarm among those people who frequent them and are dedicated to the preventing the privatization of what has been, for over a decade in some places, de facto public space.

Privatizing Public Space & Class Concerns Hang Over Debate
Ben Shepard, a college professor and member of self-described environmental education and direct action organization Time's Up!, really does a good job of articulating the this concern:

Gardens are amazing spaces to educate students about the environment, environmental research, planting, sustainable agriculture, and urban farming, as well as positive forms of community development and democracy renewal.

In the midst of a fiscal crisis, the city could only dream of having such unique spaces which help the city so much, yet cost so little. Gardens help stabilize communities and reduce crime. They are places where people from all walks of life come together. They are places of education about the environment and the city, as well as world ecology. They are precious public spaces, which should not be privatized.

There's also a strong class issue involved, as Ray Figueroa, of Friends of Brook Park in the South Bronx, explains:

Community gardening is a way to fight the systematic injustice of poverty and other forms of structural oppression, Most of the gardens are in poor areas of the city, with much higher rates of asthma and lower rates of open space equity. From an indigenous/community perspective, gardens offer a way for our community to heal itself and to recover a humanizing sense of itself, its dignity, in an otherwise very hard city.

Though some areas with a high density of community gardens have gentrified significantly, pushing aside the poorer people who previously lived there, Figueroa's statement largely still holds true.

So how can you take action?
First off, read the rules--either the Parks & Rec version or the HPD version, take your pick; both are PDFs.

Second, you now have two weeks (until August 10th) to send in written comments to the appropriate authorities expressing how you feel about preservation of the community gardens. The appropriate address is at the top of each PDF linked above.

Then, attend the public hearing on August 10th at the Chelsea Recreation Center: 11am at 430 West 25th Street, NYC. If you want to personally testify, beyond just showing up to make sure the city knows you care about the outcome of all this, you need to register before August 9th. The appropriate contact info for that is also on the first page of the PDFs linked above.

Third, Time's Up! and other community gardening organizations will be holding rallies, bike rides and other awareness-raising events (details to be determined) over the coming weeks. Check out their calendar or contact Time's Up! for more info.

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More on Community Gardens:
Camden's Garden Club Doubles Its Community Gardens to Feed the Jobless
WTF? Vandals Destroy Portland Community Gardens
Backyards Being Converted to Community Gardens in Santa Monica
Solar Panels & Wind Turbines Power NYC Community Garden

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