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Jane Weissman's Short NYC History of NYC Community Gardens

  • Subject: [cg] Jane Weissman's Short NYC History of NYC Community Gardens
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Tue, 5 Apr 2005 02:36:57 EDT


Jane Weissman, former director of Green Thumb, wrote this "Short History of
NYC Community Gardens," that appears on the NYC based Neighborhood Open Space
Coalitoin website. As we have newbies on the list, and I'm a big fan of
folks from making avoidable mistakes in this community garden, "thing of
ours," not revinventing the wheel - I've reproduced it here;

New York's Community Gardens -

A History by Jane Weissman

New York in the 1970's. A bit like today - difficult economic times and city
coffers unable to meet budgetary needs. But different in important ways, too.
So far, basic services, like Police and Fire, have not been reduced. And
rundown and arson-destroyed buildings that require their being demolished, no
longer exist or come into city ownership for nonpayment of taxes - the source
much of the vacant land that supports GreenThumb community gardens.

New York in the 1970's. New Yorkers, propelled by the political activism of
the 1960's and the environmental movement catalyzed by Earth Day 1970, refused
to watch their neighborhoods deteriorate. Vacant lots were terrible eyesores.
Garbage mounted up. Rats roamed with abandon. "Chop shops" sprung up, selling
stolen car parts. Overgrown land created "mugger cover" hiding drug deals and
other nefarious activities. Neighborhood activists did what the City could not
do. They saw community gardens as a powerful way to make New York whole and
healthy again. Their efforts successfully anchored and revitalized
neighborhoods and, in the process, community gardens wrought a significant
change on the
urban landscape.

Community gardens existed in New York before the 1970's. The Depression of
the 1890's and the Great Depression of the 1930's spurred many municipalities,
including New York, to permit citizens to grow food on city-owned land. The
world wars with their accompanying food shortages brought about Liberty and
Victory Gardens. However, these were temporary measures, abandoned as the
precipitating crises passed. New York's community gardening movement grew out
the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970's, but it laid down deep roots. Its strength
and vitality endures despite the recent events described below.

New York's contemporary community gardening movement is grounded in the work
of three extraordinary women:

Liz Christy, founder of the Green Guerillas (1973), "bombed" Lower East Side
vacant lots with homemade "seed grenades" and created the Bowery-Houston
Garden, New York's oldest community garden. She then went on to develop the
Space Greening Program (1975) for the Council on the Environment of NYC.

Hattie Carthan, whose successful efforts beginning in 1969 to preserve three
brownstones slated for demolition in Bedford-Stuyvesant, also saved a tree
that had no business growing in New York City, the southern Magnolia
Committed to planting and protecting her neighborhood's street trees, she
then established the Magnolia Tree Earth Center.

In the late 1960's, fashion designer Mollie Parnis encouraged volunteer
efforts rewarding neighborhood clean-ups and beautification projects with a
check at a recognition ceremony hosted by City Hall. The Mollie Parnis Dress
Up Your Neighborhood Awards, administered by the Citizens Committee for New
York City, have supported hundreds of self-help initiatives throughout New

In 1976, Cornell University Cooperative Extension was chosen by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture to implement the pilot Urban Agricultural Program to
provide New York's backyard and community gardeners with horticultural
and assistance. This pilot program was so successful that by 1990, 23 cities
were offering such services. (Unfortunately, the program was reorganized
several years ago, eliminating this valued and valuable assistance.)

By 1978, scores of community gardens were flourishing by dint of hard labor
and donated plants from nurseries and residents replanting their outdoor
spaces. The one thing, however, that the gardeners did not have was permission
garden this city-owned land; technically they were squatters. Government
resisted legitimizing gardens without liability protection. Neighborhood Open
coalition created a low-cost liability program that gardeners could buy into.

This led to the creation of Operation GreenThumb in 1978. (The program's name
was shortened to GreenThumb when it was transferred, in 1995, to Parks &
Recreation from the Department of General Services [DGS], now known as the
Department of Citywide Administrative Services [DCAS].)

For a year, GreenThumb operated with one part time staff  person whose sole
function was to issue leases. Permission to garden the land was authorized by
city-wide land use committee (this committee had many names over the years)
that determined the disposition of city-owned land, e.g., to be sold at
auction, selected for housing and commercial development, assigned to other
for open space, parking, or building construction. Leases were issued to
community gardeners who requested land for which no immediate use was
From the beginning, GreenThumb was described as an "interim site" program,
access to land between demolition and development.

In 1979, GreenThumb applied for and received its first federal Community
Development Block Grant, funding which continues to today. This allowed
to hire staff and provide gardeners with materials to develop their gardens -
fencing, tools, lumber for growing beds and garden furniture, soil, seeds,
shrubs, and bulbs - and with training in how to design, build and plant their

Over time other organizations were created or established programs to assist
the city's community gardeners. In addition to GreenThumb, Green Guerillas,
Council on the Environment of New York City and Citizens Committee for New
City, organizations assisting gardeners include the Neighborhood Open Space
Coalition, Trust for Public Land, Brooklyn Botanic Garden/ Brooklyn
New York Botanical Garden/Bronx Green-Up, New York Horticultural Society and
Trees New York. Working singly and cooperatively for the past 20 years, these
organizations eagerly offer materials and advice. The resources they provide
are more than matched by the resources every neighborhood can supply in
abundance - the people who live there.

Until the mid-1990's, a minimum of housing was developed in New York City.
During that time, the number of GreenThumb community gardens grew to 750. Over
the years, concerns about the gardens' future were addressed by GreenThumb's
Long Term Leasing Program, which issued ten-year leases to qualifying gardens
(the fair market appraisal value of the land could not exceed a certain
threshold). Not only did over 30 gardens secure a long-term lease, but also
gardens, whose appraisals were beyond the qualifying threshold, were
designated as
Preservation Sites. Although the Preservation Site gardens remained under DGS
jurisdiction, they were removed from the agency's inventory of disposable
With the transfer of GreenThumb to Parks & Recreation in 1995, gardens could
be preserved garden by being transferred to Parks jurisdiction.

However, by 1994, requests to create new gardens were no longer being
approved. In 1996, a mayoral directive mandated DGS auction its entire
vacant land inventory within five years. With all properties now in the
pipeline, DGS approvals ground to a halt.

The Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) was charged to
develop, in the same time period, not only the vacant land in its own
but also the DGS land for which it had an "administrative hold." Thus, any new
GreenThumb gardens approved for these properties had a short life span (and
there were very few approved). For the hundreds of established gardens on
properties, the future was bleak. For gardens on DGS land, the future was
unclear. Traditionally, if unofficially, as long as gardens were actively used
and well maintained, they were exempt from auction except in special cases,
e.g., the construction of a health center in a neighborhood. Now, however, no
knew or would say whether that exemption would continue.

The one ray of hope was HPD's willingness, at the end of 1997, to release
over 30 gardens from its development plans and to transfer them to Parks
local community board approval. Community boards were required to conduct a
formal review of the gardens and to determine two things: that the land was no
longer a priority housing site and that it would better serve the community as
permanent open space.

Only a handful of gardens in Manhattan CB 3 and in Brooklyn CB 6 - had been
approved for transfer to Parks when, in May 1998, a reversal in City policy
regarding its community gardens nearly dealt a death blow to them. In order to
grant HPD quicker access to properties for which it had administrative holds
management of all gardens on DCAS land was transferred to HPD. (Although
these gardens were under DCAS jurisdiction, they had been, since 1995, managed
Parks.) GreenThumb licenses, which offered some measure of protection, were no
longer valid. At one point, transferring the GreenThumb program to HPD was
discussed. However, it was decided that GreenThumb would remain a Parks &
Recreation program.

The real blow came in December 1998 when The City Record, the official
newspaper of New York City, issued over a three-week period a list of 114
that the City planned to sell at auction in May 1999. Over half the gardens on
the list were over ten years old; several were 15 and 20 years old. They were
well established, attractive, and activity hubs for their communities. Selling
them without restrictions, as the City planned to do, did not even guarantee
housing on the land. The new owners could do anything - build, pave them over
for parking, land bank them. The reality was not promising. A study by the
Office of the Brooklyn Borough President determined that the majority of
land sold at unrestricted auction had never been developed in any way. It
seemed that these community gardens were destined to be uprooted and become
neighborhood eyesores they replaced.

Immediately, greening advocates mobilized to stop the auction. Meetings with
City Hall were unproductive. Garden activists took to the streets with good
humored demonstrations of a kind that had not been seen in New York City since
the 1960's. Four separate lawsuits, on both the state and federal level, were
introduced. Foundations, led by Trust for Public Land, joined forces to try to
purchase the gardens.

At the eleventh hour, the day before the auction, Brooklyn State Supreme
court issued an injunction to stop the auction. Within a half-hour, City Hall
agreed to sell the gardens to Trust for Public Land and New York Restoration
Project. While these 114 gardens were saved, hundreds were still threatened

In February 2000, the New York State Attorney General (OAG) secured a
temporary restraining order (TRO) which prevented the City not only from
land to a developer, but also from entering the garden to perform test
The City's appeal to stay the TRO was denied in October 2000. From that time
until September 18, 2002, the OAG and the New York City Corporation Counsel
were negotiating a settlement agreement. The agreement calls for the
of an additional 200 community gardens (they will either be transferred to
parks or sold to a land trust), establishes a review process for 115 gardens
that the City wishes to develop, and allows the City to proceed immediately
the development of an additional 38 gardens

The American Community Gardening Association listserve is only one of ACGA's services to community gardeners. To learn more about the ACGA and to find out how to join, please go to http://www.communitygarden.org

To post an e-mail to the list:  community_garden@mallorn.com

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