[HPN] urbanoutdoors: community garden update

dave.lutz@treebranch.com dave.lutz@treebranch.com
Wed, 05 Apr 2000 15:33:41 -0500

To send an e-mail post card to Council Speaker Vallone in support of 
Community Garden Preservation, Go to: www.treebranch.com/savegardens

To get the complete text of the latest draft of the proposed 
community garden preservation legislation write: 
oughtabe@treebranch.com. It will be sent to you by e-mail.

Community Garden Update          
 No. 54 – April 4, 2000 
1999 Winner, NYC American Planning Assoc. Award for Journalism

Mayor Rudy Giuliani continued his reign of terror on community 
gardens last week in the form of a Request for Proposals to develop 
market rate housing on 137 NYC owned properties. In a city with over 
11,000 truly vacant lots, to the best of our knowledge, 40 of the 137 
properties chosen from the City's vast inventory were on the same 
sites as active Community Gardens. Over 20 more gardens would be 
destroyed by this initiative alone. In the few short months since the 
cliffhanger purchase of more than 100 gardens by the philanthropic 
community, over 100 additional lots with gardens have been moving 
through the development process and are on bulldozer watch. 

Once again, the Mayor has used an administrative loophole to bypass 
the normal city processes, which allow Community Planning Boards to 
have input into their futures. Gardeners are denied the same due 
process that most land with existing uses must go through. The UDAAP 
shortcut continues to be used even after HPD Commissioner Richard 
Roberts promised two-years ago not to dispose of land without Board 
input. Once again, the City, in its press release resorts to a big 
lie, saying, “these sites are among the last unimproved, derelict, 
and vacant lots in their communities”. Once again, community gardens 
will be developed with no public discourse about the wisest use of 
city land, no planning for open space needs, and no requirement that 
truly vacant lots be developed first. Once again, community gardeners 
were not informed of the impending destruction of their green oases.  

While the Department of Housing Preservation and Development 
continues to frame the issue as gardens vs. affordable housing, the 
one to four family homes to be built under this RFP will all be 
“market rate”. According to HPD “There will be no income restrictions 
for homebuyers and no limitations on the rents which may be charged 
by any homebuyer for any rental” 

NYC has the smallest amount of parkland per thousand people of any 
American city. Brooklyn and Manhattan have 1.7 and 1.8 acres per 
thousand. Boston, the least well-served American City outside of New 
York has over 4 acres per thousand. Most American cities have over 6 
acres of parkland per thousand residents

At an Earth Day City Hall event, coming up on April 18 at 11 am, City 
Council Members will announce the introduction of city legislation to 
provide some protection for community gardens. Your presence that day 
will send a clear signal that community gardens and the urban 
environment are a big consideration at the ballot box. 

It is anticipated that the bill will be introduced by Councilmember 
Ken Fisher of Brooklyn and Adolfo Carrion of the Bronx and will be 
supported by a broad coalition of Council members.  State Senator 
John Sampson has introduced other legislation in Albany, but it is 
noted that no “sibling” bill has appeared in the State Assembly. 
Community gardens tend to be viewed as a “NYC issue” and thus state 
legislators are said to be unlikely to provide leadership, preferring 
the City to decide its own fate.

In the last two years, over 100 gardens have been preserved by 
placement in the hands of non-profit land trusts and an additional 60 
have become permanent parkland. Yet, over 400 community gardens are 
still endangered in the Mayor's effort to privatize city owned land 
without consideration of its benefit to city life. It is unlikely 
that gardens will again become parks in the present administration. 
Land trusts traditionally do not spend huge sums purchasing public 
land, thus a repeat of the recent cliffhanger is unlikely. Meanwhile, 
hardly a week goes by without a garden being bulldozed, drilled for 
core samples, losing site control, or being brought up before a 
community board or the City Council for review. 

Highlights of the proposed legislation include:
-	Recognition of community gardening as an existing use of city land. 
Presently, community gardens are classified as “empty lots.”
-	An end to the accelerated UDAP land use shortcut for community 
gardens, and a return to the traditional ULURP process. This simple 
switch could buy valuable time for existing gardens, and help assess 
community needs more effectively.
-	A requirement for environmental impact review before gardens are 
taken away.
-	A process for the development of new community gardens. Although 
there have been many requests for new gardens, only a few, in 
unbuildable locations have been approved by the city. 

The legislation is a first step in recognizing the rights of garden. 
It requires that community gardens be referred to as such by city 
officials in land disposition announcements and subsequent hearings, 
rather than misleadingly as vacant lots or “block and lot” numbers. 
Referring to a garden by numbers not only demeans community efforts, 
but also makes it difficult for gardeners to track the labyrinthine 
reviews and find out when their garden might be brought up for 

For a complete legislative package including the draft text of the 
proposed City Council bill write to: oughtabe@treebranch.com. The 
package of documents will be e-mailed back by auto-responder. 

Everyone benefits from a community garden – even if it's just to walk 
by and witness the serenity and beauty of nature in an overbuilt 
city. But anyone who has spent any time in the green oases realizes 
that our gardens provide for many community benefits and needs. 
Police departments in Miami and San Antonio recognize that community 
gardens are a leading indicator of community cohesion and provide a 
positive atmosphere that helps young people stay away from bad 
influences, and in those cities the departments have helped organize 
the little parks. In other cities, including London and Toronto, 
Health Departments nurture the gardens in an effort to encourage 
healthy eating and physical activity. NYC gardeners will be reaching 
out for support well beyond the environmental community to civic 
associations, law enforcement support groups, health professionals, 
educators, housing advocates, architects, religious organizations, 
and businesses. 

Thousands of postcards are being sent to Council Speaker Peter 
Vallone and other officials. The postcards, designed by Jon Crow of 
Brooklyn Alliance of Neighborhood Gardens, are snappy reminders that 
there are 11,000 city-owned vacant lots and only 500 unprotected 
community gardens. The theme is “There Oughta Be a Law,” which 
underlines the point that over 130 people have been arrested in New 
York in the last two years for defending the gardens. An e-mail 
campaign will be added to the effort at 
www.treebranch.com/savegardens. The postcards, petitions and sample 
letters of endorsement are being disseminated widely at public events.

An organizational support package is also being circulated in an 
attempt to get the formality of a “sign-on” from many of the 
thousands of groups organized in the city for the public benefit. 
Gardening support groups are looking for assistance with the outreach 
campaign. Volunteers can call 212-352-9330.

Although the vise continues to close on some of the best-developed 
and well-organized community gardens in NYC, a moratorium is in 
effect halting any further destruction for the time being. Attorney 
General Elliot Spitzer has lifted the torch on behalf of the emerald 
treasures and NYS Supreme Court Judge Richard Huttner has put an 
order in place barring the city from destroying GreenThumb gardens 
until the issues he has raised are addressed. The Attorney General is 
arguing that the gardens have legal standing as parks because they 
are used as parks and because the GreenThumb program is housed within 
the Parks Department. Mr. Spitzer's office is also arguing that the 
gardens are in fact an existing use of city land and thereby entitled 
to environmental review before new development takes place. While the 
Attorney General is referring to existing case law in an effort to 
save the gardens, it is not known how or when the case will be 

The earliest hospitals, formed as charities in Europe, included 
gardens, and American hospitals followed the European example until 
many expanded into the garden spaces. Studies have consistently shown 
that plants enhance an individual's psychological and physical 
health. In our smoggy city, gardens act as miniature oxygen tents for 
those who spend time in them. Recent reports about the increases in 
area trucking to haul trash now that the Fresh Kills landfill is 
closing, and the link between diesel fuel and cancer, just add to the 
need for green spaces in the city. 

Think of community gardens as healthy living centers that provide 
fresh fruit and vegetables and physical activity for tens of 
thousands of New Yorkers. Better diet and/or moderate physical 
activity is the preventive medicine for many urban maladies, 
including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and some 
cancers. With a significant and growing percentage of governmental 
budgets going toward treatment of these diseases, surely some effort 
should be made to fund prevention with more than pamphlets. Instead, 
NYC answers the preservation pleas of gardeners with bulldozers, 
although community gardening costs NYC government nothing. 

The gardens have also functioned as nonprofessional, peer-assisted 
social service centers, providing a sense of worth to people at the 
very bottom of society's pecking order. Volunteers sometimes arrive 
with a history of substance abuse or with severe family problems. 
Gardening gives them small, but tangible successes and a consequent 
understanding of the fact that good things take time to happen. After 
they have picked themselves up, their new experience with group 
interaction helps them in networking access to job opportunities at 
the entry level.  

Gardens are not only sanctuaries for people – other species benefit 
too. A healthy bird population reduces the number of mosquitoes, 
which are responsible for the spread of the West Nile Encephalitis 
virus. Seven city residents died last year from the disease. While 
city residents debate the value of Malathion spraying to control the 
outbreak, in the gardens, an informed and environmentally-conscious 
citizenry works for healthy communities in a different way. The 
Claddagh Garden in the mosquito filled Rockaways has established a 
“sentinel” flock of birds, which is routinely tested for disease. The 
flock is housed in a mobile coop, which when moved from plot to plot 
in the garden, provides fertilizer! 

New Yorkers remember that before the junk-filled lots became gardens, 
the littered spaces provided huge procreation opportunities for 
mosquitoes. Better monitoring of dead birds and eradicating mosquito 
breeding grounds is now mandatory. If a dead bird is found in a 
community garden, it's a good idea to turn it in. Call the Dept. of 
Health (212) 788-9636. 

Some of the best-watched trees in America are in NYC community 
gardens. At a time when an imported insect is potentially endangering 
all of America's forests, that fact may be increasingly important to 
the federal and state officials that are monitoring the spread of the 
inch-long black insect with white spots and long, striped antennae.  

The Asian longhorned beetle kills trees by boring into them to lay 
eggs. When the eggs become larvae, they eat their way back out, 
flying away as adults and leaving their ravaged hosts pocked with 
perfectly round, dime-sized holes. The insects have no natural 
enemies in the United States. Once a tree is infected, it is doomed. 
Thousands of trees have been felled and ground into bits to try to 
check the beetles' advance. Federal and state officials have spent 
several million dollars and expect to spend millions more in fighting 
the beetle, which was first spotted in the Greenpoint, Brooklyn four 
years ago, and has spread to Little Neck, Harlem, Fort Greene and 
even Chicago. Citizens who spot Asian longhorned beetles or round, 
inch-wide holes in trees should call 1800-554-4501 ext.72087

Despite the enormous victory last spring in which over a hundred 
gardens were spared in the eleventh hour, gardens are threatened by 
many diverse agents. Surprisingly, a nonprofit group, church or arts 
organization is often the culprit, placing its needs higher than 
those of the present users. At La Plaza Cultural, 9th Street and 
Avenue C, plans have been approved by Community Board 3 to build 
senior housing. For the time being however, in response to the 
Attorney General's petition, Judge Huttner has issued a TRO 
(Temporary Restraining Order) protecting all the gardens in the city. 
La Plaza, a 25-year-old park, boasts the largest outdoor amphitheater 
in lower Manhattan and is the host for scores of cultural activities 
throughout the year, including poetry readings, choreography, 
concerts and theater. It is also one of 15 gardens participating in 
The City Farms project which helps provide produce for local families.

Likewise, the 10-year-old Peach Tree Garden on East 2nd Street, named 
for its 3 peach trees, is the target of the Nuyorican Poets Café. The 
Café's director, Miguel Algarin, wants subsidized housing for retired 
artists to be built on the spot. Reportedly, site control has already 
been taken from the garden.

To make sure community gardeners are counted in both municipal and 
statewide elections, the Green Guerillas (GG's) have launched an 
effort to see that every gardener is also a voter. GG's “Plant the 
Vote” campaign will not only go to gardens and events to register 
voters, but will also enlist gardeners to conduct registration drives 
in their neighborhoods. For more information call 212-674-8124 ext. 
100. GG's is also promoting census participation, noting the 
importance of a proper count to the future of NYC. 

Community gardening is a volunteer activity, which provides an 
extensive array of services to neighborhood residents, often in the 
communities with the least access to NYC's sparse parkland. A 
volunteer presence on the streets cuts crime and policing costs. 
Sharing common interests brings people together across the boundaries 
of age, ethnicity, education, religion and income, reducing tensions 
and improving communications skills. Gardens serve as science labs 
for children, improving local education at no taxpayer cost. Local 
composting cuts sanitation costs. Performers benefit from using the 
valuable spaces for rehearsals and presentations, while the residents 
enjoy the shows. Some gardens such as 6th and B, actually host more 
cultural events than any of the nearby parks.

Community gardens have become centers of fierce local pride, with 
gardeners acting as advocates for many community improvements, 
including housing. These improvements have brought people back to 
formerly devastated neighborhoods. Those that followed the municipal 
instruction “Don't move… Improve” are now being punished with the 
loss of over twenty years of dedicated volunteer labor. With the 
passage of City Council legislation, Community gardeners will at 
least have a chance to take their case to the court of public opinion.

There have been many references in this newsletter to computer-based 
actions and information sources. We recognize that many New Yorkers 
are not online. We hope that the newsletter has been written in a way 
that does not leave them out. If you need help accessing 
documentation, your local library will help with the computer 
sources. Our phone number is 212-352-9330. During working hours the 
phones are usually answered by a real live person, otherwise please 
leave a message!
Neighborhood Open Space Coalition / Friends of Gateway
356 Seventh Avenue ¥ New York NY 10001 ¥ 212.352.9330
Fax: 212-352-9338 e-mail: dave.lutz@treebranch.com

COMMUNITY GARDEN UPDATE is published periodically by the Neighborhood 
Open Space Coalition. It reports on the struggle to preserve 
Community Gardening and the work of thousands of volunteers that take 
an interest in the spaces. It is a companion publication to URBAN 
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