As volunteer-run temporary spaces, community gardens are constantly contending with issues that could result in their destruction. From the public’s basic misunderstanding of what they are to cultural clashes between volunteers to the loss of access to their garden's land, New York City’s gardeners must be flexible, responsive, and quick to adapt. On this episode of Lots to Grow, we explore the different challenges community gardens face as the demand for land and housing increase in the ever-changing landscape of New York City.
We hear from the following individuals representing the following organizations and gardens:
For New Yorkers for Parks, this is Lots to Grow, the podcast about gardens and communities in New York City. I’m Jessica Saab.
Rene Calvo: Almost immediately after they gave us access to the space, they began devising ways to take it away from us.
Zhenia Nagorny: This garden’s story is not that different from a lot of stories. I mean, what the deed thieves did, it’s done all over—everywhere, you know?
Marc Shifflet: Yeah, that’s the funny thing about community gardens in New York City is there’s always a wall. People are confronted with a fence, something, it’s kind of impenetrable.
Rodrigo Gonzalez: They put all their money in that corner, that corner that was us being afraid of them, and us not having enough money or support to defend ourselves when they were aggressively trying to take the land from underneath us, like that was so obvious...
Welcome back to another episode of Lots to Grow, the podcast about New York City’s community gardens, unique open spaces made and maintained by volunteers. You just heard snippets of the interviews we at New Yorkers for Parks did with more than 35 individuals for this project. That was Rene Calvo, Zhenia Nagorny, Marc Shifflet, and Rodrigo Gonzalez, just four of the over 20,000 New Yorkers who cultivate greenery in New York City’s 550 community gardens. Their gardens—the Nelson Mandela Garden, the Maple Street Community Garden, the Pleasant Village Community Garden, and the Eldert Street Garden—are each at different stages of potentially losing their land, a risk almost all community gardens face. Since many are open spaces on public land under the jurisdiction of different public agencies, they fall into tricky territory. Community gardens are formed when a neighborhood group identifies a piece of vacant land, finds out who owns it, and gets permission from the owner to access it and garden on it. Most are registered with GreenThumb, the community gardening program of the New York City Parks Department. The grand majority of today’s 550 gardens are on publicly-owned land; land owned by any public entity, and then under the jurisdiction of any public agency, such as the Parks Department, the Department of Transportation, or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, to name a few. They have official New York City Parks signs on them, but they differ from official parks in a major way: they are not protected by law to be preserved as open space. Instead, their volunteer groups hold temporary permission to be there, and that permission can maybe be revoked by the City within 60-days’ written notice. Community gardens on privately-owned land have even less control over what happens to them; their caretakers can be evicted whenever the private owner wants. As we discussed in our last two episodes, New York City’s community gardens sprung up in the 1970s, when the city was in a dire fiscal crisis and empty lots could be found all over the city, and over the years, they became vibrant community spaces that today provide a multitude of services to their neighbors.
New York City is now enjoying its most successful economic era. The city’s most recent budget totaled 92.5 billion dollars. The population is growing, jobs are being created by companies that keep moving here, and real estate developments are popping up everywhere. While there is a development boom, there is also a housing crisis. As prices rise and wealthier people move to New York City, some of those with lower incomes are being displaced from their homes, unable to afford the new higher rents. To address the drastic shortage in housing, current mayor, Bill de Blasio, created the Housing New York plan in 2014, which was then updated in 2017, with the goal to create subsidized affordable housing wherever public land is available. At last count, the city government owns over 5,000 lots of public vacant land, but many of those lots are unsuitable for construction—they’re too slim or strangely shaped, wedged between streets and buildings. This is where community gardens come in.
Collectively, they use 850 public lots and they’re typically on residential blocks. Many were planted where buildings had once stood, so they have the floor area public agencies look for when planning for new housing developments. As the city continues to grow and change, community gardens on both private and public land face possible displacement. Without formal mechanisms for public preservation, gardeners are struggling to prove their gardens’ worth when these are pitched against other necessary city investments, and public agencies are struggling to do right by both gardeners who have dedicated their time and resources to cultivating green spaces and New Yorkers who are desperately seeking affordable housing. Across the city, debates about the merits of open space and the best way to use public land have continued to reach new peaks. Today on Lots to Grow, we’re diving into the challenges community gardens have always faced and the new ones they now contend with in this era of economic-success-turned-housing-crisis.
To begin, we’re going to talk about one of the enduring issues community gardens deal with, which is a chronic misunderstanding about what they are.
Mike Schweinsburg: Still in our third year we are struggling to beat back the notion that this is anything other than a community garden.
That’s Mike Schweinsburg, a gardener at the Carmen Pabon del Amanecer Jardín in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He and his garden were featured on our first episode, so to reiterate the story quickly, I’ll say that Carmen Pabon, a Puerto Rican community leader, founded the garden in the early 1980s and ran it as a community center for many years. In 1999, the land was sold to a private developer. Elected officials from the neighborhood were able to argue for half of the garden’s preservation so the developer built a new market-rate residential building on the other half of the land. After letting the garden space sit abandoned for 16 years, the developer paid for a full renovation and it reopened to the community.
Mike Schweinsburg: Because it is beside this building and you’ll see certain architectural similarities like the gates and all that, people assume it’s part of the building, that it belongs to the building, but—because I’m a white man, because the lead gardener is a white woman, because a lot of our board are white people, people look in and think this is a rich white man’s garden. The best way I can illustrate that is that last year, I was close enough to the gate to overhear when this little girl—I saw her little face—looking in, and then her mother was dragging her away. And she started crying! And I could hear her mother say, “No, honey, you can’t go in there, that’s a rich white man’s garden.” And I went after them and I said, “No, ma’am, this is your garden. It’s a community garden. Please, we would love your daughter to come in.” Encouraged her to come in. And then I took my clippers out, and I said, “Now, look through the whole garden, pick your favorite flower, and I’ll cut it for you.” And I did, and that was one happy little girl, and I can tell you—I’m not here every weekend—but I know I’ve seen her back here half a dozen times.
After all the time and change, locals no longer recognized the garden as a community space for their use, and they can feel more or less welcome to enter and engage depending on who they see in the garden and what those people are doing. It takes targeted one-on-one outreach like Mike just described to spread the word about the public nature of the community garden. This case is slightly unusual for all its twists and turns, but the misunderstanding of a community garden space is common. In this case, the residents of the market-rate residential building also misunderstand what the garden is and how they can use it, going into it when it’s closed through an entrance in the back.
Mike Schweinsburg: They’re only supposed to come in when it’s open. Why? Because just the other night, we saw that they’d been down here having a brunch, but they thought nothing of bringing their dogs and their dogs crapped everywhere and they didn’t pick up after their dogs. We’ve seen wine bottles, cigarette butts, joint roaches, they—someone came and peed on that rose bush—it took us forever to restore that rose bush! They’re just totally disrespectful. They don’t have a right to come in except when the garden is open and through that gate.
Mike soon found out that this was due to the developer’s miscommunication about the space.
Mike Schweinsburg: So he’s advertising it as an amenity for the building! That’s what’s misleading them. They think it comes with the building, that they have rights. They’re not totally at fault. He’s at fault for offering it as an amenity.
The lack of clear communication leads to misuse and the perception that it’s only privately accessible. Other gardens run into similar issues but in different ways. The fences that enclose gardens act as physical barriers but also as mental ones for people passing by. If there are not clear signs that explain what a space is, when people can access it, and how they can get involved in multiple languages, then those who pass by may never know its public. Many gardeners mentioned that first-time visitors to their gardens are shocked they exist. This is something that Aziz Dehkan, Executive Director of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, touched on when we spoke.
Aziz Dehkan: I think—I think what happens is people take these open spaces for granted. You know? They walk by and say, “Oh, that’s—look at—.” So many times: “Ah, I never knew this was here.” You know, I think our goal is to make sure people know it’s there.
Casting that wider net is difficult, especially since all gardens are run by different volunteer groups. From not knowing a space exists, to knowing it exists but thinking it’s private, to knowing it’s public but trying to use it as if it’s private, the misconceptions about community gardens run the spectrum. I spoke with three gardeners in Long Island City, Queens. Their garden, called the Smiling Hogshead Ranch, is located along an industrial street that for years had almost nothing but their garden site and some law enforcement offices.
Long Island City is one of the New York City neighborhoods that best exemplifies the dramatic growth and change the city has experienced in the last few decades. Luxury apartment towers and commercial office buildings have sprouted up close to the transit lines that go through the neighborhood. Government incentives attracted industrial businesses to the same street as the garden, so now the street has foot traffic from a new daytime work population. I sat down with Gil Lopez, Michelle Arvin, Rose Moon, and Rose’s baby in the cafeteria of a neighboring business that has become a prominent corporate partner of theirs, letting garden members use the restrooms and cafeteria whenever they want. Over the sounds of the bustling cafeteria and Rose’s baby, here’s Gil Lopez, the co-founder and president of the Smiling Hogshead Ranch, explaining the strained relationship the garden has had with its new neighbors.
Gil Lopez: It’s cool, it’s great to have new neighbors, but when we have kind of like demands or expectations of us—the people that own the building that the ballet studio is in, the real estate development company came to us, they interrupted me while I was giving a tour to fourth graders, and they were like, “We really need to talk to you,” and I was like, “Can it wait?” And they were like basically demanded that our community group beautify the street. They wanted more flowers in the tree beds, they wanted less trash, and I was like, “Sure, I’m glad to organize a work day with all the tenants in your building,” and they were like, “No, no, no, how much money do you need?” And I was—that’s not what we’re about, we’re not about contracted labor. We’re about building power and respect for our community. When somebody wants to throw money at something, they don’t—inherently don’t understand what’s happening. So when this company that we’re at right now enjoying lunch decided that they wanted to clean up the street tree beds, they didn’t know—they don’t know what they’re doing, and they were in a rush to do it, they didn’t organize with us, and they ended up ripping out all of our perennial native wildflowers, and they planted office plants. They planted indoor plants that looked okay, I guess, for the rest of the fall, but as soon as it froze, everything died. And there’s just like the basic lack of understanding, of coordination, and really kind of respect for the work that we’ve been doing for almost a decade now, because they want this quick fix—what I call the “instant green.”
The new corporate neighbors misunderstood the community garden model: how they work, what they do, and why they do it.
Gil Lopez: We’re not here to make everything pretty. This is not a park.
I heard this again and again from gardeners. Visitors to community gardens sometimes don’t know this, and treat them as if they are official New York City parks with maintenance staff that’ll clean up after them. Visitors to the Smiling Hogshead Ranch have a hard time recognizing it as a community garden because it’s not very traditional. Community gardens are typically enclosed by chain-link fences with signs on them that explain what they are. The gardeners at Smiling Hogshead Ranch deliberately chose to not put up a protective fence. Unique for this reason and as one of the few gardens on land owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or the MTA for short, here’s Gil Lopez and Rose Moon explaining their decision process for not putting up a fence.
Gil Lopez: We want people to enjoy it. We don’t have—we like, actually changed the agreement with the MTA so we didn’t have to put up a fence. Because we thought it’d be ridiculous to have a space that’s been accessible for people to come and do whatever—dumping, illicit activities—for a couple decades, and then once we put a picnic tables and encourage people to have lunch, like, they want a fence? Come on.
Rose Moon: Plus it’s kind of against the ethos of us even having that direct action of occupying this public space and making it available to the public.
Whether they have a fence or not, community gardens are green spaces made and maintained by individuals who volunteer their time, money, and expertise, and who open them to the public at will. As volunteer-made spaces, they can seem messy or scrappy. You might look into one and see materials or tools in random places, plant beds that are overgrown or underwatered, or you might always walk by one that is rarely open. This is the nature of a volunteer-run space. The voluntary structure creates a lot of issues for garden groups, especially when they are registered with and accountable to official city agencies like the Parks Department. Community gardens on publicly-owned land under the jurisdiction of a public agency must register with GreenThumb and sign license agreements with their presiding public agency every four years that renew their commitment to uphold certain standards. Under these license agreements, the last of which were issued in 2014, community gardens agree to maintain at least 20 open hours a week from April to October, five of which should be on the weekend, and ten of which should be posted where the public can see them. Some garden groups struggle to maintain these hours. They may have too few members with too little time. While GreenThumb is not known to strictly enforce these hours, it does reflect negatively on a community garden if it is not open to the public enough—one of the most common complaints the public has about community gardens is their lack of access to them. In some cases, it comes down to trust—after all the hours of work and out-of-pocket expenses, it can be difficult for gardeners to trust the public to treat the space right or to give new members keys. Some gardens are better than others at exercising this kind of trust. Their caretakers are able to relinquish control and accept that things might get ruined, broken, or misused, and they trust in the restorative powers of nature for their plants to be able to recover. Here’s Kofi Thomas, a gardener in Bushwick, Brooklyn, on how he has managed to maintain public access to his garden space, which is called the Good Life Garden. If you heard the second episode of Lots to Grow, you’ll remember him from then.
Kofi Thomas: You can give space and access to a lot of people. You know, like if you want to go check on your eggplants, it’s like go ahead, you can just open it up yourself and go walk around and the more people that you make part of it, that’s the easier—I mean, that’s like, you know if you got 20 people who are a part of it, if each one of them hangs out there for two hours a week, that’s already 40 hours you’re open a week, like it’s not—I don’t mean to down talk anybody who is struggling with that, but you should—you should do better. You should let more people in. I know it’s hard to trust new people but even—like there’s ways. There’s ways to like have a few volunteer days, see who comes in, see who gets the vibe and the culture of the garden, and then give them a key or tell them when they can come by. But keeping in mind that it’s not your garden is important. It’s important to stay humble and realize it’s our garden, it’s for everybody.
Garden elders can feel threatened by newcomers who come in with new ideas or a different vision for the garden. Here’s Arif Ullah, who was also featured on our second episode, speaking further on the complicated relationships between garden old timers and eager newcomers.
Arif Ullah: Newcomers approach a garden with humility, with respect for the work that has happened. Old timers are more open to having discussions in those instances, and it works well. But then there are of course examples where newcomers come and in their excitement about being in New York City or being in this neighborhood that, you know, they’re happy is changing in a radical way and they’re sort of anticipating all the new restaurants that are going to open up, etc. right? So they have an idea of what they want the neighborhood to be, right? The aesthetics of the neighborhood from everything from grocery shops to restaurants to community gardens, right, so they might approach a community garden with that vision, like “This is how it should be done, this is how it should look.” And, as experts—you know, I think a lot of people move into neighborhoods, particularly when we’re talking about gentrification, you know, professionals considering themselves experts and then old timers feeling threatened and wanting to hold on to that space, and that doesn’t work. And then there are variations of both those examples where people do come in with humility, old timers still feel besieged upon and not being open, but for the most part, I think if people approach an existing space with humility, approach that neighborhood and the history of that neighborhood with respect, and aren’t focused on the future of that neighborhood as aligned with their aesthetics, right, but rather value that neighborhood for what it is, like I feel like that goes a long way to assuaging any fears that old timers who are feeling threatened may have.
If newcomers don’t understand the culture and ethos of the garden, then they might not work well with the existing group. One gardener in East New York told me about someone who came to them with the idea of selling the plants that were in their garden. While perhaps a savvy business idea, it wasn’t in line with the garden’s culture and goals. Another typical scenario gardeners told me about is newcomers coming in with a lot of enthusiasm, but then not committing to the work needed. Here’s Carlos Melendez, gardener and Vice President of the Pleasant Village Community Garden in East Harlem, detailing what he wishes people understood about community gardens.
Carlos Melendez: Sí, lo mucho que la gente no entienden es que quieren ser miembros de la yarda pero no dan la solución completa de ayudar en la yarda. Por ejemplo, vamos a poner cuando llega el invierno se supone que si el garden tiene un espacio afuera de la yarda que sea la acera y cae una nevada, hay que limpiar. Tú sabes, que ellos nos vengan a ayudar a uno porque si se supone que somos miembros todito, todo el mundo tiene que poner de su parte.
Translation: Yeah, the thing that people don’t understand is they want to be members of the garden but they don’t really come help in the garden. For example, let’s say when the winter comes, and it snows, we’re supposed to clean the snow from the sidewalk. You know, they should come and help out because if we’re all members, then everyone has to put in their part.
Keeping the area around a community garden clear of trash and snow is another responsibility that can be a challenge for gardeners, especially if the majority are elderly or do not live close by. According to my research, if someone slips on a slippery sidewalk or trips on its uneven surfaces next to a garden on publicly-owned land, the city can be liable for the damages, which means gardeners must be diligent in informing the public agency within whose jurisdiction they fall about any sidewalk repairs that are needed. Another thing community gardeners agree to in their license agreements with public agencies is that no one will be discriminated against based on any government-protected characteristic, like their age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. All members of the public are to be welcome into the volunteer-run public spaces. Beyond individuals with protected status, some gardens make internal rules to be especially inclusive of other individuals that are sometimes rejected from public spaces, such as those experiencing homelessness or drug addiction. Others though are not as concerned with providing that public resource, to populations in distress or to anyone else, for that matter.
Arif Ullah: And let’s also be clear that there are some community gardens that are like private spaces, you know? And far from newcomers coming into the garden, they don’t want anyone else coming into the garden except like the five of them who are there, and that is an issue that I think any community gardener will acknowledge. I think it’s starting to change and that’s a good thing. You know, community gardens are not closed private spaces, they’re community spaces that everyone should have access to.
Communication also poses many challenges. Amongst gardeners, there are issues that arise based on differences in age and culture, which can affect the way they communicate and the frequency with which they do. If a garden group communicates primarily through email or on the internet, then those who might not use the internet frequently or who do not keep an email account might be left out, which can lead to miscommunication and feelings of resentment and disrespect. Here’s Annette Spellen, the Parks Committee Chair of Brooklyn Community Board 4, describing this more in depth. If you listened to our first episode, you’ll remember her and her colleague, Celeste Leon, from there.
Annette Spellen: You have your seniors who are set in their ways and they want things done a certain way, and then you have the newer generation and they have their ideas, and like Celeste says, more than likely they’ll be on Facebook on emails and have a computer. That senior doesn’t want to be bothered with that. So we have to find a way to communicate with that person and we have to find a way to communicate with that person in a way that they don’t feel like this young person, this new generation, is being disrespectful. Because once they feel they’re being disrespected, they’re not gonna be able to cross that line.
Gardeners must navigate differences with tact and care to avoid conflicts. More and more young people are studying different topics related to agriculture, sustainability, and the environment, and if they’re part of a garden, they may be eager to bring back information and techniques they learn in school to their garden group, but they can be met with resistance from others who feel they have perfected their techniques over decades of experience. Here’s Annette again.
Annette Spellen: When you talk about compost, it wasn’t what you see here today. Because of where they come from, my family comes from South Carolina, and it’s about what they used to call slopping the pigs. Whatever you didn’t eat for dinner was fed to the animals, and used to till the ground. And regardless where our elders in this neighborhood came from, most of them had the same thing when it came to compost. It’s not the compost that you hear about today.
New techniques and changes in operations must be communicated clearly so that others don’t feel blindsided or excluded. If some gardeners speak other languages, they also need clear explanations in the language they understand best. Language barriers can make collaboration and the relaying of information difficult, but gardeners must work around them if they want everyone to feel represented and included. Here’s Amantina Duran, who you’ll remember from episode two, on how her Williamsburg garden’s composting methods have changed over the years.
Amantina Duran: Siempre nos dijeron “no carne” pero vamos a decir, el arroz que sobraba, después hace como para tres años que cambiaron. Entonces nos dijeron “nada que contenga aceites.” Todo lo que contiene grasa, no lo debemos de llevar. Porque eso afecta el desarrollo natural de lo que se quiere producir con el compost. Y sí, hay un poco de—a mí me costó ¿pero por qué? Y preguntar porque la razón que no se puede hacer, pero entonces después me explicaron y además como es un proceso a través de tubos, si hay grasas entonces eso también puede dañarse, la maquinaria también. No es simplemente porque no se quiera hacer sino hay razones el por qué para mantener que sea lo más natural que puede ser. Pero sí, es un conflicto entre entender cuando vienen y explican y uno escuchar y ser abierto que esto es algo que es para el medio ambiente de todos y hay que buscar la mejor manera de hacerlo.
Translation: They always told us “no meat” in the compost, but let’s say, leftover rice, about three years ago they changed it and told us “nothing with oil” will be accepted. Everything that has grease, we can’t take. Because that affects the natural development of what we are trying to create with the compost. And yes, there’s a bit—it took me some time, like why? I had to ask why we no longer could, what the reason was for not accepting these things anymore, but then later they explained it to me, and also since it’s a process that happens through tubes, if there is too much grease then that can damage the machinery, too. It’s not simply because they no longer wanted to do it, it’s because there are reasons, to try to maintain the compost as natural as possible. But yes, it’s a conflict between understanding when they come and explain, and one listening and being open because this is something that’s for the environment for everyone, and we must find the best way of doing things.
As both Arif and Amantina mentioned, the successful collaborations come when people keep open minds and communicate with humility. It’s common for conflicts to happen within garden groups. Many gardeners want to simply garden, so having to deal with regulations and a larger group can pose problems. Community gardens are very individual, which makes organizing across garden groups a difficult task, as well. It can be done, however, like it was in 1999, when the Giuliani administration listed over a hundred gardens for auction and, in response, gardeners organized citywide to protest and bring attention to their cause. This resulted in the garden sites being purchased by nonprofits, as we discussed in the first episode of this podcast. As the city continues to grow, develop, and change, both community gardens and the gardeners that care for them feel they are at threat of being pushed out.
Since community gardens are most concentrated in the areas that were the most abandoned, their populations have long been mostly people of color with incomes lower than the rest of the city’s, which has made them vulnerable to the rising rents and instances of tenant harassment. Gentrification is what happens when an area starts getting renovated to attract more affluent residents. This pressures community gardens in multiple ways. For one, the social change can be jarring. Here’s Greg Anderson, who you heard from on our previous episodes, describing the change in his neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Greg Anderson: So we experienced, just like every other neighborhood in the city, we experienced what’s being called gentrification, and we have gained a lot of new members. My whole neighborhood has changed. I would say my neighborhood was, I would say about 99.9% Caribbean and African American. The population has changed over. I will say there are a lot more whites of different ethnicities in the neighborhood now, the prices of the homes have really pushed people out that don’t have the income to pay really high rents and people don’t speak. They will walk right past you as if you’re not there, and that’s a problem for me because I grew up down South, where even if you didn’t like me, you spoke to me out of courtesy. You know, there’s no secret how racism worked down South but I would tell you, in Selma, Alabama, where I grew up, if a white person passed me most of the time they would say hello or nod, just to kinda acknowledge you, it’s just a southern custom. You know, and I had that when I first moved to my neighborhood, but now with the population change, the customs of the community have changed. For me, that’s the worst of it. But the garden is a way to kinda bring people together, if people are willing to take that chance of coming in and meeting new people and working with people that you may not have experienced in your life before.
Gardens can bring people together and help teach others about the culture of a neighborhood. While garden caretakers have always exchanged gardens throughout their years of existence, the displacement of old timers is happening at a faster rate now and the loss of elders can mean a loss of institutional knowledge about the gardens. I spoke with another gardener who told me about another problem his group was facing: increased immigration enforcement. Here’s Rodrigo Gonzalez, cofounder and manager of Eldert Street Garden, in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Rodrigo Gonzalez: From 2009 to 2018, Bushwick has seen a lot of brown and black families move away. When we first started the garden, we had a Mexican family with three kids. They would come and they would help us, they would plant stuff. During the transformation within the United Stated administration in terms of immigration and things, they got into a lot of trouble. They were illegal—I can’t use that word, that doesn’t make any sense, nobody is illegal. They didn’t have any papers to stay in the country so the husband was arrested and deported and the mom—just the last time I saw her she had moved away from Bushwick, she was struggling with the three kids, didn’t really have much in terms of work. So they got kicked out one of the buildings that was, you know, a neighbor to the garden. And that’s one example of over a dozen. Different families that we’ve seen come and go.
Just as residents are seized and pushed out, the same can happen to garden spaces. As we’ve discussed before, community gardens exist under temporary terms if they’re on publicly-owned land, and if they’re on privately-owned land, they can be there at the owner’s will. Across the city and especially in the neighborhoods that have many community gardens that are now gentrifying, land values are increasing to new peaks in the millions. For private owners that have long let a community group garden on land that was once almost worthless, the new value is very enticing. Homeowners and landowners alike are being contacted by development companies that want to buy their property. Agents call them, email them, send physical mail, leave flyers, and come to their door with a check in hand to try to purchase their lots. For some longtime residents, this has been a blessing, and they’ve sold their property and moved away. For others, the sustained efforts are bordering on harassment. I spoke with gardeners from two different gardens on private land that almost lost access to their gardens because of others’ criminal actions. Rodrigo, who you just heard from, is one of those gardeners. But before all the drama began, he and other neighbors were just trying to find out who owned the vacant lot on their block so they could turn it into a garden. They learned that it was an old Bushwick nonprofit.
Rodrigo Gonzalez: They were a defunct nonprofit that had been gifted the land by a previous owner and they had it but it was just sitting picking up, you know, garbage, and we approached them with the potential to use it as a community garden so people could grow their own vegetables, we can educate families and kids on horticulture, and just make it like a green open space, which we thought was very desperately needed.
After much back and forth with the former board members of the nonprofit, they were able to secure access to the space, but it was only ever verbal confirmation, and as much as they tried to get written proof of the agreement, the board member they were working with always dodged their requests.
Rodrigo Gonzalez: 2009 is when we actually like dug in for the first time and started to clean the place up as a unit because it was a small group of us that all lived on the block.
Things were going well for a while—with gardeners who were bilingual and energetic, they were able to get many neighbors involved. A couple growing seasons in, they began to notice some suspicious activity around the garden.
Rodrigo Gonzalez: One of our neighbors—he’s not around anymore—but he came up to me one day and was like, “Hey, there were some people in the garden, and they were digging,” and I was looking at him like, “Yeah, that happens a lot,” and I remember the conversation because we were laughing and he’s like, “No, dummy, they were like construction workers, not the members, not the community people.” They were just these guys who walked in one day when the gate was open because we leave the gate open when the days of—when the garden was open, you know, even if we walk to the store or whatever, so people can come in and relax. They came in, they started taking soil tests. So I do landscaping in the city and I work with gardens a lot so I know what you’re doing when you’re doing soil tests.
Soil tests are typically a sign of land use change and done before construction begins. According to Rodrigo, the next thing the gardeners knew, construction workers showed up one day and told the four people who were in the garden that they needed to fence the lot off. When the members refused to leave, the workers called the developer who’d hired them who ended up yelling at the gardeners through the phone. The gardeners called the police who made the workers leave, but it was clear that something was wrong. Shortly after, Rodrigo and a couple others were in the garden when a sheriff arrived and served them an official eviction notice. They scrambled to find out what had happened, and they were able to enlist the help of Paula Segal, a well-known environmental justice lawyer who has helped multiple community garden groups fight for their claim to land in court. Together, they got to work.
Rodrigo Gonzalez: Turns out, that there was a woman that said she was acting for the garden.
This woman served as the nonprofit’s chairperson over 20 years ago.
Rodrigo Gonzalez: She basically came out of the blue, saying she was still the chairperson, had a copy of the deed to the land, was able to make a business transaction, selling the land. And yeah, we discovered everything.
The legal battle took three years of monthly court dates. Midway through this dispute, the developers decided to sue Rodrigo and the other lead gardener personally for squatting.
Rodrigo Gonzalez: But, you know, the irony of that is how do you bring up a case of squatting against us when the actual more relevant decision hasn’t been made—like, who owns the land? So they played so many games with us and they stressed us out so much that to this day, like I hope I run into one of those guys, just to get a chance to be like, “Now I can tell you all the things I’ve been wanting to tell you.” Because they never showed face. They just hid behind their money and their lawyers. And for us, it stressed—it made our lives impossible. We spent so much of our personal money just to keep this going that I was like, “You know what, these guys are the reason why New York is not a place where you can consider families of like middle- to lower-income bracket, that’s why you can’t consider this a place for them.”
This was all very stressful and taxing on the gardeners. Their lock to the garden gate kept getting clipped and changed. They’d find their garden supplies thrown all over the space. It got to a point of such extreme stress that Rodrigo took a four-month hiatus to his home country of Colombia.
All of it paid off though, because in the end, the courts sided with the gardeners, and they declared the land transfer between the old board member and the developers illegitimate. For the gardeners, this fight had gone on to represent something larger than them.
Rodrigo Gonzalez: Running a community garden became a fight for not just like, “Hey, I want to grow some tomatoes because I like my food fresh and I want to teach the generations and the people around me to do the same.” It became a fight like, “Hey, you know what? We’re standing for the rights of humans everywhere and for the rights to have a community that isn’t just charging us to live in it, it’s a community where we can feel at home, and a place where we can communicate as neighbors.”
Other gardens on private land have experienced similar attempts. The gardeners at Eldert Street were lucky in that they knew their rights, felt safe enough to call the police, were connected to elected officials, and got help from a pro-bono lawyer as well as another one they paid for with funds they raised online. Other groups have folded much faster under the pressure of an outside developer. I spoke with some gardeners at the Maple Street Community Garden in Prospect Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn. Their story was actually covered really well and in depth in the episode titled “Trickery, Fraud and Deception” of the podcast There Goes the Neighborhood by WNYC. I recommend listening to it for some more context. To give you the backstory, neighbors got together to clean up a vacant lot and create a garden on their block. After a couple years, a brother-developer duo tried to fence them out claiming they’d purchased the property for a couple thousand dollars from the previous owners. They had a deed and a record of the purchase but missing details on the documents made them seem dubious. In this case, Paula Segal once again represented the gardeners in court. Here’s Earl Bonas, one of the founding garden members recounting what happened.
Earl Bonas: Somebody came and put a padlock on the gate. I said, “No. This belongs to Maple Street Garden! And we’re not moving!” And that’s the reason they took us to court and we won, right? If we didn’t stand up for what we believe in... because there’s no place to be! Where should we go? Exercise and get some fresh air and meet people. Just build up everywhere. I feel we do not have enough community space around.
The court ruled that the developers did not have a claim to the land, and in a surprise twist, in 2017, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and local City Council member, Mathieu Eugene, together allocated $1.25 million to purchase the land parcel for the Parks Department. Going forward, the garden will be redesigned to be half a small park and half a community garden. Both the Eldert Street and Maple Street gardens were fortunate to come out of court battles regarding gardening on private land intact. For community gardens on publicly-owned land, their status is also temporary by design. Those within the Parks Department’s jurisdiction are more secure in their long-term prospects; the agency has previously stated that its goal is to preserve all community gardens under Parks jurisdiction as open space. However, if a garden parcel is not designated as official ‘parkland,’ then it is not guaranteed protection at the state legislature level, so many gardeners often worry that they may one day lose their access to the land. Here’s Kofi again, elaborating on this in regards to his garden, which is under Parks Department jurisdiction.
Kofi Thomas: Since it is Parks, it is city-owned property, and thus it’d be very hard for—I mean, it’s hard for a developer to put pressure on the city. The city doesn’t need to sell. And at the same time, there could be a different commissioner, different mayor, different governor, somebody new can get elected that decides, “Hey, now I have this agenda and I want to sell off these properties so that they can become ‘x,’ or I want to sell them off so we can have more money for the budget.” The power is still not in the hands of the people who use the space, so I think it would be naïve of me to say it’s safe or utterly protected.
Elected officials pursue agendas that prioritize certain public investments over others, and often, open space is not one of the top priorities for a new governmental administration. Today in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is prioritizing affordable housing creation and preservation. As we’ve discussed, land values are rising, rents are rising, and New Yorkers are feeling the increased economic pressure. According to the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, over half of New York City’s renters are considered rent-burdened, which means they pay over half of their full income towards just their rent. The ideal amount is typically calculated at not more than 30 percent of income, so the fact that so many New Yorkers live with these high costs is troublesome and means that there are likely sacrifices to their quality of life. For this reason and others, Mayor de Blasio has identified affordable housing as his administration’s most critical priorities. To fulfill this mandate, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD for short, had to step up and exercise creative tools to spur additional affordable housing creation and preservation. Throughout its history, HPD has been the city agency tasked with maintaining the city’s existing housing and activating and developing land in its portfolio. Different mayoral administrations have had different priorities for its land. With limited resources and dwindling publicly-owned land, HPD and other public agencies must make difficult strategic decisions regarding land use to try to get the most benefits out of a parcel of land. As New York City's stock of available land has diminished, and as the city has developed, there are increasingly limited parcels for public development. In 2014, HPD created two new development programs to spur affordable rental and homeownership opportunities across smaller, under-utilized land parcels. Almost 200 land parcels throughout the city were listed as eligible for these new programs. Of those, about 10% were home to community gardens. While many of the parcels were actually vacant and could benefit from a new use through these new programs, the gardeners quickly sought to preserve their gardens from being listed as potential sites for development. Despite the city’s urgent need for housing, HPD conducted an internal review of its inventory and, in December 2015, chose to transfer 34 parcels within its jurisdiction on which there were gardens over to the Parks Department. Most of the gardens that had been listed as development sites were transferred, but HPD chose to retain nine garden sites for future developments. This decision came as a surprise, and the gardeners from the 34 gardens celebrated the transfer, while those from the last nine felt shock and defeat. The HPD Commissioner at the time, Vicki Been, is quoted in local news sources as saying that as an agency, they tried to be as fair as possible, and evaluated gardens internally based on their membership, active use, and nearby alternative site availability for both replacement gardens and housing. In background conversations, we at New Yorkers for Parks also heard about the lengths HPD officials went to preserve well-used community gardens from development, acknowledging their value as critical open spaces in areas underserved by parkland. To some community garden activists though, the loss of even just one garden is one too many—there was a clash of expectations on both sides regarding the decisions about these spaces. I spoke with two different garden groups, both in Harlem, that are currently in disputes with HPD over this 2015 decision. Rene Calvo is the leader of the Nelson Mandela Community Garden, one of those slotted for development.
Rene Calvo: They invited everyone down to City Hall and they listed 35 HPD gardens that were being transferred to Parks, and then the rest of us, which included Elizabeth Street, Pleasant Village, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Robinson, Chechitas, Santurce… like 11 other gardens that were going to be developed.
Rene is referring to a meeting that was held by HPD the morning of December 30, 2015, during which the agency announced the transfer of the majority of the gardens within its jurisdiction to Parks’ and the future development of a smaller group of garden sites. The revocable license agreements gardeners sign with public agencies such as HPD clearly state that gardeners have no permanent claim to the land: the land of their gardens can be revoked, with notice, at the agency’s will. These agreements are similar to other city-issued licenses, like those issued to vendors in parks or to cultural institutions on publicly-owned land. Despite this information, it is often still a devastating blow to those who have dedicated time and effort to cultivating a piece of publicly-owned land. Gardeners we spoke to expressed feeling cheated and angry that they did not have a say in the decision-making process. Here’s Rene again.
Rene Calvo: And then they patted themselves on the back for their transparency, and whatever, and there was never like any discussion, like we were never invited to talk about which were being included and which were not being included, it was just like… it was just a charade.
HPD’s deliberations took place internally and were announced during that December 30 meeting as final decisions not meant to be negotiated further. Many gardeners felt blindsided by what they viewed as the lack of public input and by the time and day of the meeting, which happened when many people were out of town for the holidays. The gardeners of the sites slotted for development also resent that the land their gardens are on is categorized as “vacant” or “undeveloped,” which to HPD, in city-speak, merely means without a building. While the garden lots may not have buildings on them, gardeners argue that the land is actually developed and occupied—it’s developed with community gardens. The other Harlem gardeners I spoke to are from the Pleasant Village Community Garden. You heard from Carlos Melendez earlier, who’s the Vice President there. Their garden is very large and spans multiple lots. While most are under the Parks Department’s jurisdiction and thus considered open space to be preserved for the foreseeable future, one of them is under HPD jurisdiction, and that is the one HPD wants to develop. The problem the gardeners perceive is that that particular lot creates enough of a gap between buildings to fill the garden with light, and if something is built there, the rest of the garden will suffer in darkness. Here’s Chris Johnson, the President of the garden.
Chris Johnson: You know, and the sad thing about this was, they didn’t—they acted as if this was vacant land, and I know you can’t see, but you can see, Jessica, this is not vacant land by any stretch of the imagination. We have the chicken coops, we have this community compost bin that’s doing 4,000 pounds a year, we’ve got a grape arbor, we have a native pollinator plant field, we’ve got a garden—a plot where kids tend and we donate that food to the needy. This is not vacant land. As far as I know, no one ever looked at this garden. Nobody ever came and scoped it out. You know, if this goes up, it actually is going to reduce the production of the food that we grow in the other parts of the lot. It’s not just about taking away this land. It’s about taking away the light.
There is not much the garden groups can do once the City’s priorities are set. Multiple garden groups have launched lawsuits against HPD to try to preserve these open spaces, and while decisions are yet to be issued, it is likely difficult for gardens to overcome the clear language regarding the revocability of the land in the license agreements. As HPD progresses with its plans, some of those garden sites identified for development have already been closed and taken over, while the other 34 have been successfully transferred to the jurisdiction of the Parks Department.
The Nelson Mandela Community Garden, which was in its third season as a wildflower garden, was locked up in October of 2018. Bulldozers tore all the wildflowers up. Today, it lies barren behind a chain link fence. Per the process established in the 2002 settlement agreement following the events in 1999, which we covered in episode one, the garden group was offered some alternate spaces, but none could compare to the large space they’d had, and even if they’d accepted one, the process of starting all over again was difficult to think about for the gardeners.
Rene Calvo: They offered us these tiny, pitiful, little slivers of land that all five of the different spaces they gave us to select from, if you put them together, was barely half of the size of Mandela Garden.
If a garden group is losing their access to the land they garden on, they may find themselves floundering for extra funds, assistance, and support. Some of New York City’s community gardens are permanently preserved under land trusts. Land trusts are private entities that own land for nonprofit conservation purposes. The three in New York City were established by the Trust for Public Land after they bought and saved 69 gardens from being auctioned in 1999, as we discussed in the first Lots to Grow episode. So while these are established and secure in their land ownership, they struggle with finances, too. Here’s Aziz Dehkan again.
Aziz Dehkan: You know, the Manhattan Land Trust, the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust, we all have—and the New York City Community Garden Coalition—we all have financial burdens on ourselves and funding is difficult, and we’re in an environment where funding doesn’t necessarily come to organizations like us. That’s why we need to make ourselves more visible. And going back to your original piece of metrics, maybe—I’m not a huge metrics person, I mean that’s not where my head goes—but I understand the value of it and I think that’s probably—not even probably, that’s what we have to show. What’s the value of this? And once we can show a value, maybe we can find funding. I mean, there’s so much funding out there they built a Highline for Christ’s sake with mostly private money. Why can’t that kind of money come into community gardens?
A lack of funds is a perpetual problem in the gardening community. Gardens often have their supplies stolen so volunteers must cobble together funds to build their stock up again. Land trusts have to pay fees GreenThumb gardens don’t. Here’s Genevieve Outlaw, Board President of the Manhattan Land Trust, who you might remember from episode 1, explaining more about the extra costs they have to pay for.
Genevieve Outlaw: One of our main things that’s a challenge is raising money. Financing. To make sure that we have money to take care of things for gardens that we’re responsible for. Like last year we spent over $6,000 for sidewalks. We had to cut down a tree. So there are things that sometimes that we have to do, that we’re responsible for, and then we do, because maybe gardens—individual gardens themselves—have a hard time raising money. ‘Cause we have to pay for water, ‘cause we have 14 gardens, 10 gardens out of the 14 have water meters, and that has to get paid. So what we established was each garden pays the Manhattan Land Trust, once a year, between a certain time period, $300. We pay the bill, and if they don’t have the $300, we pay the bill so their garden doesn’t get into a problem and look at somewhere down the line having a lien put against the garden for not paying the water bill.
Gardens can fundraise but there are limitations to their fundraising efforts. According to their license agreements, they can only hold two fundraisers a year in their garden. They can also sell their vegetable output, but as we discussed last episode, while some gardens operate more as farms, others do not create a ton of food, and what they do create, they eat themselves. Here’s Aziz with more information.
Aziz Dehkan: It’d be really great to loosen up some of the restrictions on how the food gets—excess food in particular—gets moved from the gardens into farmer’s markets, into food banks or whatever. And getting paid for that. We can always—we can bequeath it, and we can give it away but I think the incentive would be if they could sell and be able to do it that way, I think you’d see more. But you know, the Coalition has always believed in the food justice part of this and to a large extent that’s what community gardens are about. Not every community garden is a food garden, but those that are, produce quite a bit of food.
Community gardens address a lot of issues and also deal with a lot of them. Running a community garden requires a lot of work. While gardeners get busy every growing season with their plants and activities, the temporary status of their garden looms over them. For those who are actively engaged in lawsuits, the ongoing stress and expenses can be very disruptive to their lives and can end up with the garden being replaced anyways. To ensure that community gardens are successful spaces that allow for new members to join and for the public to benefit from their continued existence, GreenThumb, the Parks Department’s community gardening branch, enforces rules that aid their development and ensure their smooth operation. The primary tool they employ to ensure community gardens provide the most public benefits is the license agreement they have all the gardens under the Parks Department’s jurisdiction sign every four years. This year, GreenThumb issued the latest version of their license agreement for all the Parks Department garden groups to sign, but this new version differed from the one four years ago, and as soon as it was released, gardeners citywide arranged meetings to discuss whether or not they should sign it. The general sentiment among some gardeners is that GreenThumb is shifting from an agency that aids and supports gardens to one that monitors and regulates them, with stronger enforcement of rules. To date, garden groups are still in negotiations with GreenThumb, and some gardens have refused to sign the agreement by the deadline this month. GreenThumb has now extended the deadline to September 20, next month. In May though, I spoke with Charles Krezell, the President of LUNGS, the Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens. LUNGS is an offshoot from the citywide New York City Community Garden Coalition, which Aziz heads, so while its similar in mission, it organizes at a smaller neighborhood-specific scale. Loisaida is an alternate name for the Lower East Side. I asked Charles to explain what he felt was different about the new 2019 license agreements.
Charles Krezell: GreenThumb has always been our helpmeet as far as the gardens are concerned. They always aided us in keeping the gardens going. And this license seems to take that role and make them more of an enforcement agency rather than an agency that is nurturing the community gardens. And so they have brought about a lot of different rules that are onerous to many people. There’s a lot more paperwork involved. They are imposing upon the community gardens rules that are used for parks, and we’re not parks, we’re not parkland. And they’re treating volunteers as if we are employees. And so we spend a lot of time, the people that are volunteering in these gardens to steward the land and they’re imposing many more restrictions upon us and we feel it’s unfair. They are asking us to have written permission to have any kind of an event in the garden, which is kind of unheard of. We always told them we were having events, we were supposed to tell them, but we didn’t have to have written permission, and the permission as its written, has to be gotten at least 30 days in advance. And that takes away the entire idea of a community garden being able to just sort of be spontaneous and joyful. So they want us to do a lot more—a lot more paperwork, and while they are restricting us in other ways, they’re giving us certain liberties that seem to be excluding the public rather than including the public. So there are a lot of issues about this.
What does the future hold for community gardens in New York City? Will their existence continue to be regulated until it’s so burdensome that gardeners can’t keep up? Or will new policies legitimize them as public open spaces in the city?
On Lots to Grow next time, we’re going to examine the different policies and changes that have been proposed over the years related to community gardens to understand which may have the best chance of becoming a reality. Tune in on your favorite podcast app. Thank you for listening to our third episode of Lots to Grow, the podcast about gardens and communities by New Yorkers for Parks. I’m your host, Jessica Saab. For our show notes, sources, and photos, check out our website at ny4p.org/lotstogrow. That’s “N,” “Y,” the number four, “P.” This project was made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation, with the help of WeWork. Special thank you to all those who spoke with me and answered my questions. On this episode we heard from: Rene Calvo, Zhenia Nagorny, Marc Shifflet, Rodrigo Gonzalez, Mike Schweinsburg, Aziz Dehkan, Gil Lopez, Rose Moon, Michelle Arvin, Kofi Thomas, Arif Ullah, Carlos Melendez, Chris Johnson, Annette Spellen, Amantina Duran, Greg Anderson, Earl Bonas, Genevieve Outlaw, and Charles Krezell. Our music is by Audiobinger, airtone, Yung Kartz Snowflake, Analog By Nature, spinningmerkaba, Quarkstar, texasradiofish, and Martijn de Boer (NiGiD). Last, thank you, our listener, for joining us and for sharing our show with your network. Let us know what you thought on our social media and join us again next time!