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Brooklyn, NY: Community Gardens Ain't Permanent Unless You Ownthe Land

  • Subject: [cg] Brooklyn, NY: Community Gardens Ain't Permanent Unless You Ownthe Land
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Wed, 13 Apr 2005 22:03:53 EDT


Community Gardens Ain't Permanent Unless You're Mapped as a Garden, have a
good land use convenant, or Own the Land. This story is absolutely classic.

Adam Honigman
Clinton Community Garden

NY TimesApril 13, 2005

The Sanctuary vs. the Oasis


omewhere in the world, gardens are tranquil and churches are altars of gold.
On Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where rumbling trucks and buses make their way
past Hoyt Street, transcendence comes from humbler things.

There is the Hoyt Street Garden, just big enough for half-court basketball if
not for the forsythias and the cherry tree. It offers no silence, only
something quieter for the eyes.

"When I come to the garden, I just relax," said Paulo Soares, 76. "A lot of
friends passing by say hello."

And there is the Iglesia Presbiteriana del Cristo Vivo, pink paint peeling
from its walls as if the hand of God went at it with big divine fingernails.
cross is crumbling, the window frames are crumbling, the doorknobs are
crumbling and so are the doors.

"But the people are lovely," said Judith Mulet, who worships there. "Do you
know what I mean?"

For three decades, they stood side by side, church and garden, two kinds of
sanctuaries in a hard, noisy place, but now success is making a failure of
their harmony. The corner they share is in the heart of what people call New
Brooklyn, where a fancy apartment house has a swimming pool and where steak
can be had for $18.

For the church, which is part of the Presbytery of New York, New Brooklyn is
an opportunity. By building rental apartments on a patch of land it owns, its
leaders say they will be able afford to finance repairs. For the gardeners and
neighbors, this is a problem. Their oasis - their garden - is that small
patch of land.

The impasse is one small part of the broad transformation making the city
confront its identity one neighborhood at a time, from El Barrio to Hell's
Kitchen to Boerum Hill, in a process typically perceived as a battle between
corporate types and helpless ordinary people. But on this corner, there are no
obvious villains; there is hardly much animosity. Nothing is personal, but
something has to give.

Margaret Cusack, one of the original gardeners, keeps yellowing pages of
photographs dating back to 1975, when the Hoyt Street Garden was sown. "It was
very ugly vacant lot," Ms. Cusack said. "Tenants were out here sweating eight
hours on Saturdays."

Back then, the oak tree that now shades the benches had three leaves. A young
girl left it by the front gate in a pot with a note, and the gardeners
invited her class to help plant the tree.

The planting took, and so did the communal spirit it set off. The gardeners
began a children's story hour called Pooh & Company back when Pooh was in
fashion. They padlocked the garden gate, then handed out hundreds of keys.

"The only rules are that when you use the garden, leave the gate wide open
and encourage others to come in," a flier handed out with each key says. In
spirit, the garden thrives. There are three teetering benches of wrought iron
and wood, a brick pathway meandering past a small birdbath, a mural, some
rosebushes and flower beds, all contained within a few hundred square feet.

"It's not only beautiful, but it's done so much for the community," said
Regina Kelly, a former prosecutor who lives nearby. "I don't care how much
you have or where you're from, beauty is beauty."

A master gardener oversees what is planted, but suggestions are welcome.
Because the land is not owned by the city, it was untouched by an agreement
years ago to preserve about 400 community gardens and raze 150 others for
housing. Last month, Ms. Cusack received a letter notifying her that the
owner wanted the land back immediately.

"I said to them, 'I can't cope with this,' " she said. " 'You're telling us
something very monumental here.' "

She circulated petitions, posted a note on the garden's fence and started
talking about raising money, doing all the usual things community groups do
a beloved neighborhood fixture is threatened. Often, the next step is to
vilify the developer, corporation or sports franchise on the other side. But
gardeners of Hoyt Street quickly discovered that loaded language can be
with oversimplification and distortion.

The inside of Iglesia Presbiteriana del Cristo Vivo is wood-paneled, with 29
pews lined up crookedly under the pipes of a noisy exposed heating system.
Good Friday's service drew 12 people. The pastor, the Rev. Alfredo Ferreras,
preached in Spanish with a rising sing-song cadence. A young boy rocked back
forth. Soon the child's mother led him out, past the cracked exit sign and the
makeshift bulletin board thumb-tacked to the paneling.

The sparse attendance was typical; it was a holy day but it was also a
weekday. Mareily Nieves, 36, was there. She has attended services at the
church for
as long as she can remember. It was founded in the early 1970's, around the
time she came to New York from Cuba.

Shortly after taking over the property, the church allowed its neighbors to
turn the patch of bricks and weeds next door into a garden, for use free. The
arrangement came to seem part of the natural order of things.

"I got married in the church," Ms. Nieves said, "and we even took pictures in
the garden."

Over the years, as the church's boiler, heating system and facade fell into
disrepair, parishioners like Ms. Nieves clung to the church as a substitute
the families they could not visit in Latin America. They raised money each
September, selling sodas and rice and beans at the Atlantic Antic street fair.

But the church's troubles had deeper roots. The congregation had been coping
with the changes that would eventually be known as New Brooklyn for a long

"A lot of Spanish people used to live in the neighborhood," Ms. Nieves said.
"Now there's like, four parishioners that are from the neighborhood. Our
pastor can't afford to live there."

Pastor Ferreras travels from Jamaica, Queens, to preach, and Ms. Nieves
travels from Staten Island to hear him. Hoping to build a residence for the
minister and to finance repairs, the church leaders consulted an architect,
Nieves said. They were told that the first step was to regain control of the
property, so they sent that letter to Ms. Cusack.

The gardeners have proposed making a monthly $100 donation to the church, but
Ms. Nieves said the church leaders were uncomfortable with some conditions
attached to the money, such as sweeping and shoveling the sidewalks and
maintaining light fixtures, in part because the congregants live far away. The
gardeners are considering raising money to bid for the land, Ms. Cusack said,
that would be a formidable undertaking.

To Ms. Mulet, one of the last Iglesia parishioners who still lives in the
neighborhood, in the Gowanus Houses, the end of the arrangement between the
church and the garden seems prescribed by some force beyond anyone's control.

"It's like when you give your baby to someone to take care of," Ms. Mulet
said. "Enough is enough. It's 30 years. This is Hoyt and Atlantic. It costs a
of money now."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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