Sprouting Up: Community Gardens in New York City
Episode 1 of the Lots to Grow podcast by NY4P

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New York City suffered an economic crisis in the 1970s. Residents took over vacant lots, where buildings had burned, and transformed them into gardens. For decades, these gardens flourished as healthy spaces cherished by their communities, cared for exclusively by volunteers. In 1999, 114 gardens were listed for auction by Mayor Giuliani, which made all gardeners reckon with the temporary status of their gardens and mobilize citywide. In the first episode of Lots to Grow, we explore this history and how the dramatic protests gardeners launched affected gardens citywide.

On this episode

We hear from the following individuals representing the following organizations and gardens:

  • Celeste Leon, from Brooklyn Community Board 4 and the Know Waste Lands Garden
  • Annette Spellen, from Brooklyn Community Board 4 
  • Gregory Anderson, from GreenThumb and the Walt L. Shamel Community Garden
  • Mike Schweinsburg, from the Carmen Pabon del Amanecer Jardin
  • Genevieve Outlaw, from the Manhattan Land Trust and the Hope Steven Garden
  • Irene Van Slyke, from the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust and the David Foulke Memorial Garden
  • Gloria Tellez-Tovar, from the Brooklyn Community Education Council of District 32

Music on this episode is by Audiobinger, gurdonark, PowerpuffTune, Stefan Kartenberg, Martijn de Boer (NiGiD)spinningmerkaba, Scomber, and Yung Kartz.

Archival audio of President Gerald Ford in 1975 is from History.com.

A rose at the LaGuardia Corner Gardens in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. Photo by Jessica Saab for NY4P.
A rose at the LaGuardia Corner Gardens in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. Photo by Jessica Saab for NY4P.

Start of recording - The Garden State” by Audiobinger fades in

Hey, everyone. Welcome to Lots to Grow, a new podcast about gardens and communities in New York City by New Yorkers for Parks. I’m Jessica Saab, the Leon Levy Fellow for Great Parks, here on the Research & Policy team at New Yorkers for Parks, the independent research and advocacy nonprofit that’s been championing quality open space for all New Yorkers for over a hundred years.

If you’ve walked around New York City, perhaps you’ve seen a community garden. These are tiny green spaces, typically sandwiched between residential buildings or crowning block corners, enclosed behind fences, with official NYC Parks Department signs on them. Under the Parks Department’s classic leaf logo are names like Paradise on Earth, Back to Eden, or Heaven’s Gate. If you’ve peeked into one of these, maybe you saw plant beds with leafy greens, garden gnomes or other decorative objects between paths, built structures like sheds or little gazebos, and people, either actively working, churning compost, or pulling weeds, or relaxing, taking in the nature and hanging out. While these spaces have Parks Department signs on them, they are not city parks. They are actually green spaces made and maintained by volunteers, which then register as community gardens in the GreenThumb program, an offshoot of the Parks Department that provides these spaces with materials, workshops, and administration. At one point, there were over a thousand community gardens in New York City, but today, there are about 550 across the five boroughs. How do these work and who is taking care of them? Well, many first took root in the 1970s, when New York City was in a dire financial crisis.


Celeste Leon: During that time, it was all too frequent to see vacant lots, you know, abandoned buildings, buildings that had been gutted, you know, landlords would set fire to their own buildings to collect insurance. People would go into buildings and steal the copper pipes. It was a very different neighborhood.

Sealed up tenement apartment buildings and vacant lots on Suffolk Street, between Stanton and Rivington in the Lower East Side in 1989. Photo by Paul Rice for the Dept of Housing Preservation and Development. Retrieved from the NYC Municipal Archives.
Sealed up tenement apartment buildings and vacant lots on Suffolk Street, between Stanton and Rivington in the Lower East Side in 1989. Photo by Paul Rice for the Dept of Housing Preservation and Development. Retrieved from the NYC Municipal Archives.

That’s Celeste Leon, the District Manager for Brooklyn’s Community Board 4, which encompasses most of the north Brooklyn neighborhood, Bushwick. I spoke with her and her colleague, Annette Spellen, at the Community Board’s headquarters on a chilly January morning. While she was describing Bushwick specifically, her description of vacant lots and gutted buildings at that time is applicable to many other neighborhoods, like Harlem, the Lower East Side, and, of course most famously, the South Bronx. Fires were displacing whole neighborhoods and New Yorkers there were dealing with the repercussions every day.


"Bus Pour Riquewihr" by gurdonark fades in


Annette Spellen: I’m glad you mentioned the fires because that was one of the biggest downfalls for this neighborhood, when owners started burning their own buildings, and uh, we had tenements that were destroyed. People lost their homes. And those buildings stayed abandoned for many, many years.


That’s Annette Spellen, the Parks Committee Chair for Brooklyn’s Community Board 4. Both she and Celeste are well-versed in the history of that era as community advocates and lifelong New Yorkers. I wanted to learn more about that time because it was then in that trying environment that community gardens bloomed across the city. The areas that suffered the most from fires and abandonment became those with the most gardens.


Buildings being demolished at Avenue B and East 6th street in the Lower East Side in 1982. Photo by Ingrid Dinter. Retrieved from http://6bgarden.org/
Buildings being demolished at Avenue B and East 6th street in the Lower East Side in 1982. Photo by Ingrid Dinter. Retrieved from http://6bgarden.org/

Annette Spellen: The neighbors looked at these buildings that were burned out, and the City came in and they took them down, but then they left these lots there, and no one was doing anything with the lots. And neighbors just got together and said “We’re not going to live like this. This is terrible. This doesn’t look good.”


"Denio - Amor Pirata (Bossa Nova remix)" by PowerpuffTune fades in


Annette Spellen: Neighbors just got together, block associations got together, and started making gardens. Started growing fruits and vegetables, they started having barbecues. When they had their block parties, most of the food came from the garden. No one really asked “Could we do this?” They just did it to beautify their neighborhood.


And just like that, community gardens became a part of New York City’s landscape, beautifying blocks and empowering neighbors.


"Denio - Amor Pirata (Bossa Nova remix)" by PowerpuffTune continues to play


Lots to Grow is a podcast about these enduring and unique open spaces, where communities come together across economic, racial, ethnic, and cultural lines to create space and opportunity for themselves. Born from abandonment and often created by members of marginalized groups, these gardens are powerful symbols of transformation. They are well loved by those who maintain them and interact with them regularly, but a majority of New Yorkers haven’t had the chance to participate in one or learn their history. For this reason, we at New Yorkers for Parks interviewed over 35 individuals to learn about their experiences working in and with gardens, and the challenges they face as they strive to uphold their gardens’ legacies, some of which have been around for nearly 50 years. From all of these conversations, I learned a lot about how these spaces are created and maintained, and how their communities work together to bridge gaps in communication, food access, economic stability, and culture. As I take you through the history of these spaces and their present day functions and challenges, I’m going to share parts of these conversations with you, so that you can hear and learn from these enterprising individuals yourself. To kick things off, New York City’s original gardens at the turn of the century. Prepare to travel back in time.

The 6 & B Garden replaced the demolished buildings. Here it is in 1986, a couple years into being established. Photo by Ingrid Dinter. Retrieved from http://6bgarden.org/
The 6 & B Garden replaced the demolished buildings. Here it is in 1986, a couple years into being established. Photo by Ingrid Dinter. Retrieved from http://6bgarden.org/


"Summer breeze folk" by Stefan Kartenberg fades in


Back before New York City was as built out and dense as it is today, there was more space for open air farms on public land. In the early 1900s, Manhattan had five farms on public land, one of which was a school garden in DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen. 2,000 children tended to two acres of garden plots, and figures from 1903 catalogue their annual output as 30,000 radishes, 1,700 beets, 350 quarts of beans, and 3,000 heads of lettuce. Even today, that’s quite a sum and an example of how much food can be cultivated in one of the busiest cities in the world, right on parkland. School gardens were created across the city to teach children about science and self-sufficiency—at one point, there were 80 in total. This was not just happening in New York City, but internationally, as well. One of the gardeners I interviewed told me that her start in gardening was in 1945, when she lived in Indonesia and learned to garden at school. Just at the end of World War II, she said it was mandatory as a way to teach children to survive in adverse conditions. So gardens were tools for both education and survival. During that same war, New York City became home to more than 400,000 gardens that were producing over 200 million pounds of produce to support the war effort. Called Victory Gardens, they took up more than 6,000 acres of private and public land, but after the war ended, almost all of them disappeared. Families have always planted gardens to grow food for themselves. Family gardens were often informal and impermanent, planted on vacant land with or without the permission of a private owner. As the city developed, gardens were displaced. The DeWitt Clinton garden was destroyed to make way for the West Side Highway, and informal gardens on private land were replaced by developments. Growth in the city followed a normal increasing pace until the 1970s, when the city’s finances and population began to fluctuate. Here’s Celeste Leon again describing the changes in Bushwick leading up to the ‘70s.


Celeste Leon: You know, the ‘50s and ‘60s you started seeing more families of color coming in. The neighborhood was primarily German, Italian, you had a few families of color but then more and more started coming. And then as more families of color came, more white families left to Long Island, so you’re seeing a mixture of Puerto Ricans, of African Americans. There was a great migration of African Americans from the South that came and they ended up in Bushwick. So there’s always been a diverse culture in the neighborhood.


Children planting seeds at the DeWitt Clinton Park Farm in 1908. Photo retrieved from the NYC Parks Department, "History of Farm Gardens in NYC Parks."
Children planting seeds at the DeWitt Clinton Park Farm in 1908. Photo retrieved from the NYC Parks Department, "History of Farm Gardens in NYC Parks."

The population shift Celeste describes was one that was occurring nationwide. New York City’s affluent families, who were predominantly white, were leaving, while those with lower incomes, predominantly people of color and immigrants, continued to arrive. This can be drawn back to some large-scale changes that were happening in the country. In the decades following World War II, the federal government invested billions of dollars into social programs and into a national interstate highway system to connect cities across the vast footprint of the country. New roads and more affordable cars made a bunch of new places accessible, which led to a housing development boom in areas outside cities. Suburbia was born. The Federal Housing Administration, or the FHA for short, offered loans with low down payments to middle class families to help them purchase homes in new suburban towns, but the FHA was also enforcing segregation through these programs. One of the main ways this was done was through “redlining,” the practice of classifying mapped areas as good or bad for investment based on race and ethnicity. FHA maps graded areas on a color scale from green to red, with green meaning an area was populated mostly by whites of European descent, and red meaning an area was populated mostly by people of color. Red and yellow areas covered almost all of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and big parts of Manhattan, and because loan officers used these maps to determine if they could approve a loan for a home purchase, residents there had difficulty buying new homes or upgrading their properties to better their value. This also meant they were more vulnerable to exploitation.


Greg Anderson: During that time, it was a lot of redlining. So real estate agents would take advantage of that, buy the houses very cheap, and then mark the prices up and sell them to Caribbean and African Americans.


That was a part of my conversation with Gregory Anderson, a gardener from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He was telling me that history because he was describing one of the ways in which communities of color worked together to solve the problems they were facing in that era. His garden, the Walt L. Shamel Community Garden, was founded on the burnt remains of two homes that belonged to an African American real estate agent who had such a light complexion, he could pass as white. With that advantage in his appearance, he sold homes to black families at a fair cost to help them avoid being exploited. Redlining, real estate exploitation, and other policies contributed to systemic poverty and disinvestment, leaving areas to deteriorate and residents to rely on non-federal and unofficial financing. Industrial jobs were also leaving the city in this time. So even though new families were arriving to New York City from the South and from other countries, the city’s population decreased overall by 10% in the decade of the 1970s, which was an unprecedented drop. Less people meant less taxes, which meant less tax revenue for all the city’s many services. To balance the budget, the city government began to cut services, what they called “planned shrinkage.” They tried to save the best parts of the city, which meant that many low-income working class neighborhoods in the outer boroughs and on Manhattan’s edges were cut first from basic city services. Despite these measures, the city faced bankruptcy in 1975, and the president at the time, Gerald Ford, turned his back on the city. He refused to bail them out.


Compilation of redlined maps of New York City. Retrieved from @gregory8jost on Twitter.
Compilation of redlined maps of New York City. Retrieved from @gregory8jost on Twitter.

"Bus Pour Riquewihr" by gurdonark fades in


Gerald Ford: I can tell you, and tell you know that I am prepared to veto any bill that has as its purpose a federal bailout of New York City to prevent a default.


That was the voice of President Ford addressing a crowd in October, 1975. The next day, the headlines in the newspapers read, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The city was on its own, and those neighborhoods that had been cut from services were even more on their own. What did this mean? It meant there was less trash pickup, less park maintenance, and less police and firefighters. Parks were overgrown and littered, and crime was rampant in public spaces. All of these conditions caused property values on homes and buildings to drop. Here’s Celeste Leon again describing how Brooklyn was perceived at the time.


Celeste Leon: This was the time when yellow cabs left people at one side of the bridge and didn’t come deeper into Brooklyn. It was a very different borough at that point in time. And Bushwick really suffered, I think, and a lot of the people here, they suffered as well, a lot of people left.


"Unsettling Status" by Martijn de Boer (NiGiD) fades in


Graph depicting the population of New York City and its five boroughs from 1900 through 2010 with data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the New York City Department of City Planning. By Jessica Saab for NY4P.
Graph depicting the population of New York City and its five boroughs from 1900 through 2010 with data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the New York City Department of City Planning. By Jessica Saab for NY4P.

People were leaving in droves. The economy was spiraling. Landlords were committing arson on their own properties to claim the insurance money—that’s how little they valued their property and how willing they were to ditch their investment in those communities. According to a New York Times article from 1976, between 21,000 and 50,000 apartments were being abandoned every year in the 1970s. In today’s constrained housing market, where the creation of a couple hundred affordable housing units is celebrated, it is difficult to imagine so many abandoned and vacant apartments. But that’s what was happening in New York City. Abandoned buildings and vacant lots became the city’s property. As vacant lots proliferated, residents saw spaces of opportunity.


"Staying Positive" by spinningmerkaba fades in


A group led by a woman named Liz Christy began the practice of “flower-bombing” in the 1970s. Groups of “guerilla gardeners,” as they called themselves, would throw water balloons filled with seeds and water into empty lots with the hope they’d take root and grow into wildflower fields.


Celeste Leon: There was no shortage of lots and land back then, so, you know, when there was the opportunity to take what is an eye sore and turn it into something that’s beneficial for the community, it was an automatic response. And since then, I think we’ve seen more and more gardens pop up, because it is a way to have a block engaged to provide them with a resource and, you know, overall in the neighborhood, we are underserved when it comes to parkland. And I think the garden was the in-between that most people said, “Well, you know, maybe I don’t live in walking distance to Maria Hernandez or to Irving Square Park or to some of our smaller playgrounds, but there’s this lot that we can make into a green space right here.”


So these community gardens became the safe parks and playgrounds that families needed, and the community centers that neighborhoods lacked. They exemplified their caretakers’ culture, spirit, and desires.

The city government noticed this new movement immediately. In 1978, the office, Operation Green Thumb, was established to register gardens, supply them with resources, and create agreements between the gardeners and the city to both acknowledge their work and reaffirm the city’s ownership of the land. Operation Green Thumb issued very cheap leases to gardens on public land and registered those on private land. Mayor Ed Koch, who was in office from the end of the ‘70s through the ‘80s, saw the value of gardens and other pockets of green space and encouraged their growth. Through the ‘80s, garden leases were extended from one to five to ten-years, allowing gardens to flourish with long-term prospects. It is estimated that in 1985, there were over a thousand gardens in New York City. Operation Green Thumb was eventually transferred to the New York City Parks Department where now it’s simply called GreenThumb, and there it started to license land for free instead of brokering leases. Even though community gardens were just meant to be temporary, that didn’t and doesn’t stop their caretakers from dedicating many hours and resources to cultivating them. While the Koch and later the Dinkins administrations were friendly towards gardens, some were reclaimed by the city and destroyed for the development of affordable housing, which stirred a recurring controversy in the gardening community regarding open space and housing. But it wasn’t until the ‘90s that the true controversies began.


"The Little Things" by Scomber fades in


Rudolph Giuliani became mayor on a platform of cracking down on crime and privatizing the city’s land and services, and within a few years, he ordered the cancellation of all the GreenThumb agreements on 741 community gardens and requested they be transferred to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD for short. He was not interested in encouraging interim garden uses of vacant land and instead wanted to develop as many lots as possible into both affordable and market-rate housing. Because of the arson and abandonment of the ‘70s, the city owned over 10,000 vacant lots, which Giuliani began to happily auction off. Most lots sold at auction were actually vacant—they’d been sitting fallow for years accumulating trash—but many others had active gardens on them, and advocates struggled to keep up with the breakneck pace of sales.


The sculpture and mural at the Carmen Pabon del Amenecer Jardín, in the Lower East Side. Created in 1986, elected officials were able to argue for its preservation on the basis that it was not just a mural, but a sculpture, too. Photo by Jessica Saab for NY4P.
The sculpture and mural at the Carmen Pabon del Amenecer Jardín, in the Lower East Side. Created in 1986, elected officials were able to argue for its preservation on the basis that it was not just a mural, but a sculpture, too. Photo by Jessica Saab for NY4P.

Live music recorded at LUNGS Spring Awakening Festival on April 14, 2019 fades in


At a Spring Awakening festival in the Lower East Side organized by its network of community gardens, I met Mike Schweinsburg, a gardener whose garden was sold by Giuliani in the ‘90s. Called the Carmen Pabon del Amenecer Jardín, it was founded by Carmen Pabon, a Puerto Rican community leader who ran the garden as a community center for over twenty years. As I was speaking with Mike, a parade was coming up Avenue C, passing right by the arc entryway to the garden.


Mike Schweinsburg: She pioneered the concept of giving individual plots to low income residents to grow produce for their own tables. She also fed the homeless from here. She used this as a community center so that when neighbors came to her with their problems they were having with their own landlords or with city services or whatever, she would advocate for them for three decades. Too good a job, some say, because in 1999, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani came and sold the garden out from under her.


If you didn’t catch that last bit, Mike said that the garden was sold out from under Ms. Pabon to a private developer. But because of powerful councilwomen who were savvy negotiators, half of the garden was preserved. They were able to argue that a mural on the building adjacent to the garden was actually a sculpture and thus should be protected. Half of the art piece is a mural, while the other half features a concrete painted figure that seems to grow from the building. Though the councilwomen negotiated its preservation with the developer, the garden sat locked behind gates for 16 years during which it fell into severe disrepair. It reopened a few years ago following community advocacy and a renovation paid for by the developer. In this case, the garden was saved even though it was sold, although it did lose half of its original footprint and was left abandoned for years. Other gardens were not so well connected and could not make similar cases for their preservation; they just disappeared without a trace. In 1999, the sale of gardens reached its peak.


u know” by Yung Kartz fades in


In the fall of ’98, a list of lots for auction was published by the mayor’s office. Of the almost 400 lots for sale, 114 of them were active community gardens. Advocates from across the five boroughs jumped into action.


Genevieve Outlaw: It didn’t matter if you were in the Bronx or in Brooklyn and there was a call for a protest meeting at City Hall, you had people that came from the Bronx downtown or people from Brooklyn up into Manhattan to go to City Hall.


That was Genevieve Outlaw, a gardener from Hamilton Heights, Manhattan, whose garden, called the Hope Steven Garden, was on the auction block. When we spoke, she told me about the collective indignation gardeners felt and the dramatic measures they went to to bring attention to their cause.

Map from "Community Gardens and Politics of Scale in New York City" by Christopher M. Smith and Hilda E. Kurtz, published in the Geographical Review in April 2003. Original caption reads: Fig. 3 More than 100 gardens across the five boroughs of New York City were put up for auction in January 1999. Sources: Council on the Environment in New York City 1999; New York City Department of City Planning 2003. (Cartography by Hilda Kurtz)
Map from "Community Gardens and Politics of Scale in New York City" by Christopher M. Smith and Hilda E. Kurtz, published in the Geographical Review in April 2003. Original caption reads: Fig. 3 More than 100 gardens across the five boroughs of New York City were put up for auction in January 1999. Sources: Council on the Environment in New York City 1999; New York City Department of City Planning 2003. (Cartography by Hilda Kurtz)

Genevieve Outlaw: I mean, you had people dressed as flowers, they’re dressed as carrots, you know, they did all they could to bring focus onto saving the gardens. And a lot of people who were protesting were people who had been in those gardens for years and to have now the city or the mayor, whatever, decide that they wanted to take those gardens and turn them into parking lots and people have worked for years and the garden had been open for years, that people felt they had to stand up and make a stand, take a stand, take a stand.


Despite the public outcry, Giuliani was not backing down. His administration was not budging for the community members who were testifying on behalf of the gardens’ merits. Citywide organizations like the New York City Community Garden Coalition and Green Guerillas began to formalize in this new effort to organize. Gardeners recognized that there was no chance they could pull together enough resources to buy their gardens themselves. They wrote letters, sought meetings with council members, performed art to raise awareness, and protested—but nothing was working. Here’s a part of my conversation with Irene Van Slyke, a lifelong gardener whose garden in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn was also on that list.


Irene Van Slyke: The City was holding hearings as well, and we were organizing around that, and going and visiting City Council Members, and whoever wanted to listen. And the hearings on the city level were really more or less a kangaroo court. There were a lot of people sitting on the dais but they made it clear to us that it didn’t matter what we said. So there were people that decided, “Well then, it’s our event.” And they would read poetry or dance or dress up and have like impromptu plays. And the media started covering it, and saying, you know, “Look what’s going on here.”


The local news covered the garden supporters’ antics and elevated their plight. A week before the auction was to happen, over 60 people were arrested for shutting traffic down. Even the attempt of a national organization dedicated to the conservation of land to stop the auction via a lawsuit was unsuccessful.


Protests to save the community gardens from being sold. Photo retrieved from GrowNYC.
Protests to save the community gardens from being sold. Photo retrieved from GrowNYC.

Irene Van Slyke: The Trust for Public Land actually approached us and said do you want to be a part of a lawsuit that we want to file, a federal lawsuit that is sort of a civil rights lawsuit. And we signed onto it and people on the block were interviewed and we created like a history book of events that had happened in the garden that we still have.


The courts found the city to be within its right to sell the land. The license agreements garden groups signed with the city stated their lack of ownership clearly. The day of the auction, May 13, 1999, was fast approaching and gardeners were losing hope. Then, on May 12, one day before the auction was to happen, this headline on a press release.


"Sunday Afternoon (Ex Machina Mix)" by spinningmerkaba fades in


“Mayor Giuliani Announces Agreement to Sell 114 GreenThumb Gardens Slated for Auction to the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project for $4.2 Million.”


Genevieve Outlaw: It took time but it worked out because we won! So it was like, it was a fight, but you know, we were able to win, and have organizations step in that understood the importance of keeping them, like TPL and Bette Midler and GreenThumb, that knew how important it was to keep those gardens open and keep them as green spaces because they are like little oases.


A sale had been negotiated in the nick of time. The Trust for Public Land, or TPL for short, bought 63 gardens for $3 million, and the New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit founded by Broadway star Bette Midler, acquired 51 gardens for $1.2 million. This sale was celebrated by the gardeners of the purchased gardens and by the Mayor, who called it a win-win, but it left the rest of the city’s community gardens—of which there were over 600—at risk. No definitive protection had been enacted for community gardens, so all those on city-owned land could be overturned for private or public development, or sold at the next auction. It was not the best position for gardens to be in.


Irene Van Slyke: If you wanted to save your garden at that time, it wasn’t really the safest thing to stay with the city because they were looking to sell and they were selling lots of empty lots.


All the city-owned gardens were still in limbo. New York State Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, filed his own lawsuit against the city because he alleged they’d circumvented the public review process required when public land is sold on the private market. His lawsuit in 1999 halted any potential development on the gardens in question. This bought all the city-owned gardens some time while they awaited a solution with bated breath. This ended up going on for years, during which Giuliani actually left office. 


Irene Van Slyke: This came right at the time that there was a change from Giuliani to Bloomberg, and then of course 9/11 happened. So when Bloomberg came in, he said “Settle with the gardens, just, you know, it’s not my issue.”


As Irene mentioned, there were bigger issues to deal with, and the new mayor didn’t have the political will to fight with community gardeners. In the ensuing settlement agreement issued in 2002, about 200 gardens were offered to be transferred from HPD’s jurisdiction to the Parks Department’s. About 100 gardens were to remain in the GreenThumb program under other public agencies, and 110 gardens were left with HPD to be developed into more than 2,000 housing units within the next year. In total, Mayor Bloomberg’s deal preserved 400 gardens, while reserving over a hundred as potential building sites. Those on private land were left to be subject to the private owners’ own determinations. The settlement agreement also established a clear process that had to be completed before any development could happen on a garden, which included a more rigorous environmental impact review process and required the offer of alternate sites for gardening within a certain distance. These resolutions were not ideal to many, but as spaces born from resilience and creativity, New York City’s community gardens continued to thrive and adapt under the circumstances.

Map of New York City community gardens registered with GreenThumb as of January 2019. Made by Jessica Saab for NY4P.
Map of New York City community gardens registered with GreenThumb as of January 2019. Made by Jessica Saab for NY4P.


"More Than Just A Dream" by spinningmerkaba fades in


Genevieve Outlaw: People feel—and I know from experience, personal experience—that once they step foot into the gardens, it’s a different environment. It’s like an oasis they can come in to sit, meditate, read, have lunch, and just enjoy. And a lot of the other gardens, they have birds and a lot of them also have plants that draw the butterflies and some even have bees, you know, so it’s a place where people can come and relax, and most people that go into the gardens, that’s their attitude. It’s a place that people enjoy.


Today, there are about 550 gardens on 850 city lots registered with GreenThumb. Their caretakers adhere to their license agreements, which require many things of them, like being open to the public 20 hours a week from April to October, shoveling snow from the sidewalks around the property, and using the land explicitly for gardening. They must also vacate the land within 60-days written notice if the city decides to develop their parcel. Despite the restrictions and bureaucracy, many gardeners are happy for the chance to grow plants and participate in this unique culture. The gardens that were purchased by TPL and the New York Restoration Project also continue to thrive. Those under TPL were split into three individual land trusts—the Manhattan Land Trust, the Bronx Land Trust, and the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust. After a rocky start hindered by communication and organization hiccups, they are now doing well, holding onto their gardens and operating by their own rules, and still registered with GreenThumb for access to resources and events. Those under the New York Restoration Project have mostly been transformed and renovated. The organization has brought in corporate sponsors like Disney, Home Depot, and Target to steward some, and has tried to rally neighbors to become active garden members. New York City is also thriving. Crime has dropped about 82 percent citywide since 1990, more industries and people are relocating here, and new developments are popping up across many of the lots that were long abandoned eye sores. The change can present a paradox to people who have witnessed it over time.


Gloria Tellez-Tovar: But now it’s like a double-edged sword, where it’s like, “Oh, this is beautiful but now it’s changing and going so fast that now some longtime residents are having trouble keeping up, they’re like, “Oh wait, now the rent is going up, oh wait.”


That’s Gloria Tellez-Tovar, a Bushwick resident and advocate. I talked to her about her childhood in Bushwick in the ’90s. When she was growing up, the streets and open spaces were so dangerous that she and her siblings rarely went outside for recreation. Here’s what she recalled about the neighborhood’s largest open space, Maria Hernandez Park.


Pumkin Spice” by Audiobinger fades in


Gloria Tellez-Tovar: Back then, it was just Knickerbocker Park. “Hey, meet me by Knickerbocker Park.” Knickerbocker Park back then was riddled with so much drug problems and that’s where all the junkies and all the gangs would congregate and people knew by the time it starts getting dark, you are to leave that park. And you are not to be in the streets. I mean, if you want, OK, if you know the people around you, you can get away with that, but as an immigrant… no, because then you’re an easy target. Because you don’t speak English, because you look different, because whatever the case may be. So we knew—my parents always told us, “Come home. Just come home. There’s no need for you to be outside. There’s really not much outside for you.”


Today, both that park and the neighborhood are completely different. Maria Hernandez Park, renamed after a neighborhood advocate who was killed for her activism against the drugs in the neighborhood, is now almost always bustling with healthy activities, ranging from organized volleyball leagues to children’s festivals to a dog run with its own stewardship group. While most of the changes in neighborhoods like Bushwick are positive, there are negative consequences from the waves of renewal and development. New buildings are charging rents that are higher than average, which pressure the surrounding buildings to raise their rents, as well. According to the NYC Department of City Planning, from 2000 to 2016, rents in Bushwick rose 60%, almost double that the rest of Brooklyn and New York City. Since Bushwick was one of the neighborhoods that suffered the most under “planned shrinkage” and other disinvestment policies, a lot of its longtime residents rent their homes still and don’t have a lot of accumulated wealth or social safety nets. For those who do own their homes, the changes can also be detrimental, because the new developments can be out of character with their neighborhood’s, and they are increasingly pressured to sell their property by developers looking to build new buildings. Here’s Annette Spellen again describing the changes in Bushwick.


Annette Spellen: A little bit prior to 2000, we start to see changes. We start to see buildings that were abandoned and now being restructured, and that was the good part for the neighborhood. The bad part of that was that we had a problem with the zoning. If you go around Bushwick, you’ll notice that in certain areas, you see that the buildings are structured to be no taller than three or four stories. The new developers are coming in and they’re coming in to make money. And they want to increase the height of the buildings that they were putting in, which takes away from the homeowner whose been here forever and whose house is only three stories, and now you want to put a four or five or ten story building next door. What happens to the sanctity of this person’s home?


These communities are now facing the painful irony that their neighborhoods, once abandoned and left to their own resources, are now the first to change and be revitalized for a new generation of residents due to the abundance of empty lots, abandoned buildings, and cheaper than average real estate. Furthering this wave of development is current mayor, Bill de Blasio’s mandate and goal to build or preserve 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026. To achieve this, his administration is studying 15 different neighborhoods for rezonings, which are changes to the land use rules about what can be built on each lot. Rezonings typically allow taller buildings to be built along commercial or transportation routes, encouraging density, use of public transportation, and incentivizing the creation of subsidized affordable housing units. Longtime residents often have mixed feelings about this type of change as it can spur the same rent pressures that are already happening but in an exponential and speculative way. East New York and East Harlem, neighborhoods that suffered similarly through the intentional abandonment and disinvestment in the ’70s and that have legacies of community gardens, have already been rezoned to much controversy and community backlash.


Gloria Tellez-Tovar: And now they’re having this rezoning happening in Bushwick, we have mixed emotions about the rezoning. We have those that are in favor of the rezoning, those that want to put a cap on heights. some afraid of turning into downtown Brooklyn or Williamsburg or other places that were affected by rezonings. I’m seeing the pattern of Bushwick. One crisis after another. And now it’s another one. Morphing change evermore.


For community gardens on public land, this may also mean the beginning of the end. Every city-owned lot is up for consideration. After the garden settlement from 2002 expired in 2010, the Parks Department and HPD both released new rules for gardens. The Parks Department guaranteed that garden groups in good standing and under their ownership would be preserved as gardens for as long as possible. HPD made no promises for preservation. Instead, the agency made it clear that they retained the right to the land and had no responsibility to renew garden licenses. Over the years, there have been numerous clashes between garden advocates and public agencies, continuing what seems to be a never-ending debate about the merits of open space versus other public investments. How can the city include community gardens into plans for growth and should they? Will gardens always be considered temporary uses, precursors to buildings to be forgotten with time? If the history of community gardens in this city has taught us anything, let’s not hold our breath.


The Garden State” by Audiobinger fades in


Thank you for listening to the first episode of Lots to Grow, the podcast about gardens and communities by New Yorkers for Parks. I’m your host, Jessica Saab. Next week, we’re jumping into gardens today; their functions, their cultures, their services. Tune in on your favorite podcast app. For our sources, photos, and further reading on some of the topics covered, check out our website at ny4p.org/general/lotstogrow. That’s “N,” “Y,” the number four, “P.” This project was made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation, and WeWork—we thank both of them for their support. I’d also like to thank all those who lent me their time and answered my questions. On this episode we heard from: Celeste Leon, Annette Spellen, Gregory Anderson, Mike Schweinsburg, Genevieve Outlaw, Irene Van Slyke, and Gloria Tellez-Tovar. Our music is by Audiobinger, gurdonark, PowerpuffTune, Stefan Kartenberg, Martijn de Boer (NiGiD)spinningmerkaba, Scomber, and Yung Kartz. Last but not least, thank you, our listener, for joining us. Please share this show with your network and connect with us on social media to let us know what you thought. Talk to you next week!  



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