Battle Sprouts at Risse Street Garden
March 28, 2018
In the last five years, Elizabeth Carson has enjoyed cultivating her horticultural passions at Risse Street Garden, a tiny oasis insulated from the malaise of traffic at Jerome Avenue and Risse Street on the tip of Norwood.
She’s proud to have put in the time. As a full-fledged volunteer gardener, Carson is entitled to keys to the city-owned garden, allowing her time to work the landscape, tend to perennials and enjoy the therapeutic thrill of seeing the birth of plants.
But since last year, Carson’s sense of tranquility at the garden has been disrupted by a war of words with fellow garden members whose steering committee voted to dramatically reduce her gardening privileges. Carson views her punishment as illegitimate since the committee issuing the vote was short one member. Garden bylaws dictate all steering committee members must be present for a vote. Carson, steadfast, is unwilling to concede.
“I may not win, but I can’t accept what’s been done,” she said.
The Risse Street Garden saga has also raised questions on the role played by GreenThumb, a division of the New York City Department of Parks, which licenses the space to Risse Garden. GreenThumb mandates gardens create some organizational structure, which includes enacting bylaws.
And though the 28-year-old garden falls under GreenThumb, Carson says the garden’s bylaws are played fast and loose with little recourse. The agency, for better or worse, leaves it to gardens to enforce their bylaws.
“Responsibility that the gardeners have is to operator above board, on the record, in some agreed upon fashion,” said Carson.
A Growing Problem
The seeds of friction were sown in Oct. 2016 when talk of a pond project inside the garden was in the works. The project’s pre-construction phase hadn’t gone as smooth as it should have, Carson said, citing costs and a vague plan to build it.
The criticism drew the ire of the pond’s volunteer project manager, Brendan O’Regan. After writing an email outlining ways to improve construction of the project while also relaying her concerns to Community Board 7, Carson alleges that O’Regan lobbied garden members to remove most of her privileges. O’Regan told the Norwood News the situation could’ve been handled without Carson bringing it to CB7.
“All she had to do was say put a motion out on the garden and then say, ‘I want a vote to do this or do that or stop the pond,’” said O’Regan. “She voted for the pond at that time. If she had any problem, all she had to do was call immediately a steering [committee] meeting or a general meeting of the garden. Call a motion for anything she chooses too. And she never did that.”
Adding to the issue were two residents advocating for Carson, claiming to be CB7 members. Though Carson insisted she did not send them, O’Regan said their presence violated the garden’s bylaws which mandate friends or guests of garden members must be civilized.
Despite only four of the five steering committee members on hand, a vote was passed to remove Carson’s plant beds though keeping her membership status.
“I’ve been punished for speaking out,” said Carson. “That’s not against the rules.”
O’Regan admits the steering committee was down a member but a sanction was still approved by GreenThumb. “We did many things in the past without full steering memberships, which is very normal. The director of GreenThumb told me. It’s very normal,” said O’Regan.
Elizabeth Carson’s relentless crusade for garden governance (she’s collected nearly 40,000 signatures in a petition supporting her right to keep her garden beds) has raised the question of enforceability of a garden’s bylaws. Though GreenThumb offers mediation, it does not police gardens. Rather, garden groups are encouraged to resolve conflicts internally. This contradicting approach confounds Carson, who at one point wrote to the director of GreenThumb questioning its paradox. For Carson, bylaws should be enforced by GreenThumb.
“They want to say to a garden, ‘Write your bylaws, follow your bylaws. It’s on you,’” said Carson of GreenThumb. “We have bylaws, but they are terribly weak.”
Carson should know. She co-wrote the bylaws. GreenThumb gardens are now in the beginning stages of updating their bylaws, supporting Carson’s view that GreenThumb is involved with the garden governance but absolves itself from enforceability in messy situations.
O’Regan wants the laws amended too, though he notes the by-the-book sanction on Carson was just. “And [GreenThumb] would have stepped in if there was something unfair or unjust being done,” said O’Regan. “That’s their job. And they would have. And they told me that they would. But they can’t because there’s nothing unfair or unjust being done.”
Lack of funds is to blame for an understaffed agency as GreenThumb.
“New York City Parks has worked closely with Risse Garden over the past year and continues to do so, offering resources and conflict mediation assistance. We strive to help our gardens maintain harmonious environments,” said Kelly Krause, a Parks Department spokesperson.
Currently, GreenThumb’s executive team staffs 10 outreach coordinators who work with members for each of the nearly 600 sponsored gardens.
Workloads for each coordinator appear heavy. In the Bronx, for instance, one of the two coordinators oversees 69 of the 115 community gardens scattered across the borough’s city-owned properties. The other oversees the rest, with 20 more in Manhattan.
GreenThumb, created in 1978, holds monthly gardening workshops while offering technical support. The Department of Parks could not provide a total budget for GreenThumb, though revealed its cost on supplies stands at $774,000, with much of the funds coming from New York City than ever before. That’s largely due to the Trump Administration’s constant threat to do away with its Community Development Block Grant program, which at one point funded 43 percent of GreenThumb’s budget.
“GreenThumb dodged a bullet last year when the Community Development Block Grant wasn’t cut. Working with New York City Parks, we advocated for the protection of the program, and it did receive additional city funding in fiscal year 2018,” said Lynn Bodnar Kelly, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, a park advocacy group. “However, it’s risky to have a local program depend so heavily on federal funding, particularly when the politics of New York City are so different from the politics of Washington.”
Among the only things that O’Regan and Carson could agree on was a faster outcome on the part of GreenThumb.
“Maybe that’s part of the reason why this has dragged on for so long,” said O’Regan of the staffing.