Where We Stand and How We Got Here


Where We Stand and How We Got Here

An Introduction to the Current Legal Status of Our Community Gardens

Note: Taken from the program notes for NYCCGC's 2010 Community Gardeners' Forum, the following essay gives an overview of the gardens' political situation leading up to that point, and a condensed history of the modern community gardening movement in New York City. Much has happened since the writing of this piece - see 2010 in Review.

WHERE WE STAND The community gardens of New York City are a true representation of our city, and are as beautifully diverse as its people. They produce food. They enlighten and entertain. They reconnect us with each other and the Earth. And they are feeling threatened and ready to find solutions. Again.

Currently twenty-seven community gardens still remain classified as “Subject to Development” by the Agreement, meaning that they are presently under the jurisdiction of the Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD), and could potentially be developed for housing or commercial purposes. Could that happen to other gardens when the settlement ends?

Today we unite with our allies to plant the seeds for legislation and policies that will make ALL our community gardens permanent, and lead the way for the creation of many more.

City agencies including GreenThumb and HPD have worked with us to keep our valued community gardens safe under the 2002 agreement. We are grateful for their ongoing participation and investment in the preservation of community gardens and in supporting the creation of new urban farms.

As the agreement expires, NYCCGC and community gardeners city-wide are united behind the precept that if one garden is threatened, all gardens are threatened. Today we unite those agencies that have helped us for so many years to plant the seeds of policy and legistlation that will make all community gardens permanent  - and create many more.

HOW WE GOT HERE Our community gardens are one of – if not the only – positive outcomes of New York City’s decline in the mid 1960’s to its complete financial collapse in the mid-1970s (the city declared bankruptcy and was denied a federal bailout in 1975). The city administration was a mess: firehouses were closed, sanitation and other services were curtailed – most notably in poorer communities. Arson became a popular way for unscrupulous landlords to cash in on insurance policies instead of renovating their properties. People were fleeing the city in droves as abandoned lots grew in number, turning into dumping grounds and dangerous hotspots for all kinds of illegal activity.

A people’s grassroots movement to reclaim these neglected neighborhoods slowly took shape as citizens joined together to transform trash-strewn lots into urban oases. Many of these gardens were (and are) tended by African-American or Latino families and groups growing fresh food and creating safe gathering places for their communities. These neighborhood heroes who built the gardens with their own blood, sweat, and tears, are now our “garden elders,” and we extend to them our deepest gratitude and respect.

The movement grew, and in 1978 a city program, “Operation GreenThumb,” was launched. It took back legal control over all community gardens by issuing short-term leases to the gardeners and encouraging creation of new gardens on city-owned lots. Our present GreenThumb serves the largest body of community gardens in the country with materials, programming and other support.

Trouble for the gardens began brewing in 1998, when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani placed all community gardens, over 700 in number, up for disposition to private interests. Over one hundred community gardens were put up for auction in May 1999. The city’s gardeners couldn’t help but feel singled out, as it was brought to light that the city owned some 11,000 empty lots from which to choose for development.

A groundswell of greening and gardening groups - including a nascent NYCCGC - coalesced into a force to be reckoned with, demonstrating at City Hall, creating colorful parades, and capturing headlines with passionate protests and acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. United with nonprofits and land trusts, they were adamant in their demands, their voice strong. At one point there were multiple simultaneous lawsuits against the city, with over two dozen organizations representing the gardeners.

On the eve of a scheduled auction, two groups, The Trust for Public Land and New York Restoration Project, negotiated purchase of 59 and 55 gardens, respectively. While we celebrate the preservation of these gardens we are mindful that they are now under private rather than public community control.

Throughout 1999, an encampment of protesters at el Jardin de la Esperanza in the East Village became a symbol of resistance for the endangered community gardens. On February 15, 2000, a federal judge, responding to then Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s lawsuit charging that the City had skirted environmental impact review laws, ordered a “cease and desist” order to halt andevelopment on or sale of garden land. The mayor’s lawyers delayed entering into the judges chambers until police had arrested 31 garden defenders and bulldozers had razed the garden to make way for a new condominium project. The judge’s  restraining order lasted for over two years.

This dramatic era climaxed in September 2002 with a mixed victory for our city, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced the signing of a “Memorandum of Agreement” we know as the Community Gardens Agreement (available on our website), which called for the preservation of 198 gardens, while 110 gardens were classified as “subject to development following the garden review process.” Thirty-eight gardens were scheduled for development for housing or other projects -- and we have lost nearly that number of gardens since 2002.

In the almost eight years that have passed since the signing of the Community Gardens Agreement, the city’s gardening scene has exploded yet again, with the gardens of New York being looked at in a new light by a new generation of gardeners interested not only in improving their local communities, but in addressing the larger issues of making our city and world a greener, more livable, and more sustainable one for all. Across the country, New York is looked to as a mecca of urban agriculture, and we vow to live up to the expectations that accompany this admiration and respect by ensuring that our gardens continue to grow and thrive for generations to come.