Some anxiety about our gardens’ future is growing


By Carolyn Ratcliffe

Painting a mural in the Children’s Magical Garden de Carmen Rubio on Stanton St. last summer.

The community gardens of the Lower East Side are flourishing, lovely islands of green space nestled amid the rapidly changing landscape of our developing neighborhood. Ponds, waterfalls, arbors, greenhouses, children’s nests or tree houses, casitas and pathways winding through new plantings, all abound in the 51 community gardens that remain on the Lower East Side.

Sept. 17, 2003, is a day many community gardeners revere. The then-attorney general, Elliot Spitzer, signed a settlement with New York City ending several years of intense, heated public debate, demonstrations, countless meetings and lawsuits to stop the city from disposing of and or bulldozing community gardens.

In the Lower East Side there were originally more than 60 community gardens. They had become an integral part of life for neighborhood residents — they were in many respects our backyard, front yard, lawn, nature walks, source of fresh vegetables and space for cookouts, performances, poetry and art workshops. Many of us still remember the Rites of Spring and the Winter Pageants that brought so many of our neighbors together to celebrate the gardens and people’s relationship to nature. Where else could neighborhood children dream of being fairies and butterflies taming the devious, wily trash monster, or freeing Gaia from the evil developers to be reunited with Simon Verde.

This settlement left 51 gardens remaining on the Lower East side, and all are doing well. GreenThumb has been able to assist many of the gardens to obtain necessary improvement; and the gardeners themselves are more secure in investing time, money and energy into the gardens now that many (37 to be exact) come under the umbrella of the New York City Parks Department. Two belong to the Department of Education, five to the Trust For Public Land Manhattan Land Trust, three to The New York Restoration Project (Bette Midler’s group), four are under the city’s Jointly Operated Properties program and one belongs to the New York City Housing Authority.

In a phone interview with Edie Kane, director of GreenThumb, I learned that each of the GreenThumb community gardens under the Parks Department has been assigned a Parks number. I asked what would happen when the 2003 agreement expires next year, since some gardeners, myself included, who had read the agreement, had reservations about some of the clauses. Kane said she thought the gardens were very secure and that it would be difficult for them to be developed now that they are officially part of the Parks Department.

However, there are only two gardens that are mapped and designated as “mapped parkland” — Clinton Garden in Hell’s Kitchen and a small green space on Pearl St. in Lower Manhattan. La Plaza Cultural Armando Perez, the large community garden on the southwest corner of E. Ninth St. and Avenue C, had been mapped but never designated as parkland. What does this mean? If green space has been mapped and designated as parkland, it cannot be sold or disposed of by the city unless it is approved by the New York State Legislature. Yet the agreement specified that as long as it was in existence, no gardens covered under the settlement could be mapped and designated. Does the Parks number convey almost the same status as mapping and designation to the remaining community gardens? It remains to be seen.

Clauses in the 2003 agreement caused some of us to worry a bit, such as Section 2: It states that of the 86 gardens (gardens already designated as part of Parks, such as 6th & B; Ninth & C; Green Oasis; and 6th BC) listed under this category that:

“These gardens are identified on the annexed Exhibit as ‘Subject to Development/ No Development Currently Planned.’ The aforementioned gardens shall remain in the GreenThumb program as community gardens or as open space, and will continue under the jurisdiction of the individual agencies mentioned above, until such time, if ever, that the City determines to sell or develop the garden lot, or until the garden no longer participates in the registration and licensing process administered by the GreenThumb Program Office.”

Then, too, if the agreement ceases to exist and a community garden is not mapped and designated as “mapped parkland,” what could happen? According to Kane, the Parks number indicates that these gardens are part of the Parks Department and that it would be difficult for the city to dispose of these properties.

Another area of concern among some community gardeners is corporate sponsorship. How intrusive is it on community-managed green space? A few gardens on the Lower East Side have corporate sponsors: 6th & B Garden has MetLife as a sponsor, Miracle Garden is sponsored by Whole Foods Market and Disney just sponsored new arbors, paths and a brand-spanking-new barbecue pit, all things near and dear to a gardener’s heart, in 5th Street Slope Garden. However, a recent article published in The Los Angeles Times, sent to me by a fellow green-space advocate, raised some serious questions about private/public management of parks. It specifically focused on the private management of Bryant Park and Central Park and how it affects public accessibility. Although the corporate entities that presently sponsor community gardens do not seem to be headed in this direction, it has given some in the gardening world food for thought about what steps their gardens should take when funding sources are sought for capital improvements.

One community garden on Avenue C, which was led by Carmen Pabon, remains locked to the public and the community gardeners by the developer, Donald Capoccia, who was to return the garden to community. Terms of use are presently being negotiated.

The gardens offer so much to their surrounding communities. They make for a quality of life that is unusual in large metropolitan areas. It’s hoped the ending of the garden settlement in 2009 will not alter their status and that they will continue to be cherished and remain an integral part of life in New York City.

Ratcliffe is a member of La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez Garden.