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NY Times article


Here's the NY Times article Adam mentioned
 

March 29, 2001

Human Nature: New Hope for Community Gardeners

By ANNE RAVER

IT'S an old New York story. The snow melts, the crocuses are up and
community gardeners start wondering if this is the last year the roses will
bloom on their patch of land. Their fears are not unfounded. Over the last
15 years, 100 gardens have been leveled, and 80 are on sites singled out for
development. 

But this spring, things look a little different. A lawsuit by Eliot L.
Spitzer, the state attorney general, has blocked the sale or destruction of
any of the city's remaining 650 community gardens without an environmental
impact study. The suit argues that gardens in existence for 20 or 30 years
have in essence become public parkland, said Christopher Amato, an assistant
attorney general working on the case.

There is also action on other fronts. A growing number of elected officials
are making distinctions between historic community gardens that deserve
preservation and gardens of lesser import. A bill filed more than a year ago
by Councilman Kenneth K. Fisher of Brooklyn and others would require a
case-by-case review of all the gardens on city-owned land, preserving the
ones that anchor their communities.

And a new study argues that higher-density housing would not only supply
more affordable housing but leave more room for gardens and parks.

This growing support for open space, however, doesn't mean that gardeners in
the South Bronx don't still feel the sword of Damocles hanging over them. A
21-year-old garden on Bristow Street in Morrisania lies across the street
from Community School 134; many of its students grow vegetables and flowers
there. "That little teddy bear belongs to the Teddy Bear Club," said
Cordelia Guilford, a retired assistant teacher, pointing to a weatherworn
bear guarding a raised bed where the club grows peppers, eggplants and
tomatoes. She showed off the strawberry beds, the blackberry bushes, the
crab apple and dogwood trees, the irises poking up beneath the big beech
tree that survived when the house that once stood here burned to the ground.

William Smith, 80, has a garden one block south that commands a large sunny
space on the corner of Chisholm and Freeman Streets. "This is my 24th year,"
Mr. Smith said. "We moved about 70 cars, just pushed them out on the street
until the city carted them away." His garden grows corn, tomatoes, okra,
strawberries, but it also sprouts toys, rocking horses, tables and folding
chairs, and a hodgepodge of trellises made from bedsteads.

Both gardens were approved for preservation by their community board, but
the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development is asking Mr. Smith,
Ms. Guilford and members of eight other gardens in Morrisania to move to a
50,000-square-foot space behind an elementary school on Bristow Street.
Their garden spaces would then be filled by new homes built by the New York
City Housing Partnership.

The new census reports that 85,000 new residents have moved into the Bronx
in the last 10 years. Since a housing plan was put into effect in 1985,
District 3, where Ms. Guilford and Mr. Smith garden, has gained 2,822
subsidized housing units, largely under the New York City Housing
Partnership home ownership program. In the Bronx, the partnership model has
been two- or three- family houses, with gated parking spaces filling what
could be a yard.

The new study from the Design Trust for Public Space, "Achieving a Balance:
Housing and Open Space in Bronx Community District 3," suggests that
higher-density housing  60 to 120 units an acre in five- or six-story
buildings  would not only create a stronger tax base and more commercial
development, but save space for the community's best gardens and much needed
parks. The report maintains that early projects that lured homeowners back
to the South Bronx, like Charlotte Gardens, with 16 suburban-style ranch
houses to an acre, privatized too much open space.

Mr. Smith remembers Morrisania before its tidy row houses with their porches
fell into ruin during the white flight of the 1950's and 60's. For years he
and others created community gardens that became bona fide day care centers.
"Some of the kids are too old for a baby sitter and too young to be left
alone, so the parents allow them to come here," said Mr. Smith, a jaunty
presence in his baseball cap. "Even some of the parents come and sit and
watch the kids play."

The new site for the 10 gardens is hidden behind the school. For some, it
will require a mile walk. And how many elderly gardeners have the body and
soul to start over?

In seeking answers to some of these dilemmas, the Design Trust report
suggests changing the zoning of vast lots now earmarked for industry to
mixed use, which could include more housing and open space. It also notes
that lack of staffing and money for Bronx parks has left potential jewels
like Rocks and Roots Park, an undeveloped acre on Fulton Avenue, and the
Charlton Garden, a half-acre park on 164th Street complete with Greek-style
pergola, padlocked.

In nearby Melrose, another scenario is being played out: community leaders
want to displace one of the city's most significant gardens. "Rincon Criollo
has to move," said Yolanda Garcia, the director of Nos Quedamos ("We Stay"),
which was formed in 1993 to stop an urban renewal plan that would have
destroyed many businesses and homes. "We need that block for housing."

Rincon Criollo, a garden carved out of rubble on 158th Street more than 20
years ago, is a little piece of Puerto Rico. A rooster crows outside the
casita, or little garden house; a map of Puerto Rico, complete with
mountains and rivers, has been poured in concrete and painted green and
blue. People flock here to learn how to make and play the panderetas,
traditional drums.

"The governor of Puerto Rico sends people here," said Pedro Figueroa, a
gardener who reconnected with his own roots at the garden. "They stand at
the fence and cry. Because it brings back their own home before concrete
came to our island."

But Nos Quedamos has other plans. When it organized the community eight
years ago, it persuaded the City Planning Commission to forge a new plan
with local residents. Now, with $80 million to develop a plan for 1,700
housing units and an ambitious vision for commercial and community space
including four acres of open space, Nos Quedamos wants to displace 16
gardens.

The group's plan would move Rincon Criollo one block, to 157th Street,
behind Ms. Garcia's family carpet store. "If we don't take out the garden,"
Ms. Garcia said, "we cannot take out the methadone clinic," which is just
down the block. The gardeners, who have lived peaceably with the methadone
clients, even helping some get jobs, don't have the same objective.

Jose (Chema) Soto, who started the garden in 1979, said, "We supported her,
and now she's turning her back on us."

This is the very conflict that the legislation proposed by Councilman Fisher
would resolve; it would recognize gardens that have become more than a place
to grow corn. The Design Trust, along with other groups like Trust for
Public Land, the Green Guerrillas and the Municipal Arts Society, are
backing the legislation.

"Some gardens have a sense of identity that has made its way through very
hard times," said Jocelyne Chait, the project director of the Design Trust
report. "I don't think that there are so many gardens that those can't be
preserved." 

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
          


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