Rudy Deflowers New York

Across the City, Communities Fight the Mayor's Garden Auction

May 11, 1999

In Manhattan Valley, a group of mentally ill adults garden as part of their therapy. In the Far Rockaways, seniors living in public housing rely on fresh fruits and vegetables from a plot on Seagirt Avenue. In the South Bronx, Boy Scout Troop #139 studies nature in a Melrose Garden developed by disabled people living in a nearby group home. And in Harlem, People Sentenced To Community Service Have Spent More Than 7000 Hours Maintaining A Garden On 126th Street.

You'd think a mayor would put such community gardens on a pedestal. But not Rudy Giuliani. He's putting them on the auction block. Barring a court order to stop him, the mayor plans to sell 109 community gardens from Loisaida to Douglaston to high bidders on May 13. While City Hall promises the auction will yield new economic development, buyers are free to let the lots sit idle. If the past is any indication, most will do just that: A study by Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden found that of 440 vacant lots that the city sold in that borough between 1990 and 1995, 423 remain undeveloped; 148 of those are used to store vehicles; 240 are filled with litter.

The mayor's motive? Money, and a profound belief that most things— including community land— are best placed in private hands. Together, the gardens have a minimum price tag of $3.5 million, and sources say the auction could generate three or four times as much, plus tax revenue. But with the city swimming in its most swollen surplus ever— $2.1 billion— selling the gardens is not only unnecessary, it is, says one political insider, "an awful and punitive policy."

Some of the lots have been used as gardens for decades, some for only a few years. They typically came into the city's portfolio when private owners abandoned buildings; the city tore the housing down and the empty lots turned into eyesores. Eventually, neighbors turned trashed terrain into vibrant yards under the city's Green Thumb program, with the proviso that the gardens were temporary and could be taken by the city at any time. There are 750 community gardens citywide. Most of those up for auction are in minority communities.

So far, a few gardens headed for auction have been spared, and on May 3, a lawsuit was filed to save the rest. In state supreme court, garden advocates argue that the land-use review that qualified the gardens for auction fails to meet city and state law. At press time, a judge was considering a motion to halt the auction, at least temporarily.

Opposition to the auction has come from sources both predictable and surprising. Reliable rabble-rousers, especially Lower East Side activists, are planning a major civil disobedience at a May 5 preauction session for prospective bidders; earlier this month, the stately Municipal Arts Society dunned the plan as destructive and unnecessarily cruel. "There is no point on the political spectrum that hasn't tried to shake the administration loose on this issue," says Richard Kassel, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the organizations bringing the lawsuit.

But Giuliani's administration has repeatedly rebuffed appeals to keep the gardens. The mayor himself best articulated his position in February when 30 garden advocates who held a sit-in at City Hall were arrested. "Welcome to the era after communism," gloated the mayor. A more apt Giuliani greeting might be, "Welcome to the era after democracy."

Patchen Avenue Garden

In her 21 years living in Bed-Stuy, Erma Winslow can't remember a building occupying the long, deep lot in the middle of the block across from her Lexington Avenue building. She does remember "junk and debris and cars and anything you can think of" strewn about, attracting rats and vandals, until 1992. That's when she revived a slumbering block group and took over the dump. In 1994, with the help of Green Thumb, neighbors planted flowers, carrots, collard greens, tomatoes, and beets in a dozen beds; apple and peach trees blossom each year, and Winslow is especially proud of a rose bush that "blooms up a storm" each year.

Now seniors like Winslow (who won't give her age) spend hours in the Patchen Avenue Garden; neighborhood kids have planted beans and strawberries, and are drawn to the oasis after a rain. "They get a kick out of looking for bugs under these rocks," says Winslow, who worked for 34 years for the board of education. "I just sit here and feel the joy of watching them discover nature, and I get a kick out of that."

The city wants to sell the 25-by-95-foot lot for a minimum of $9000— an amount beyond the reach of Patchen Avenue gardeners. Winslow has written the mayor repeatedly, and finds his response unsatisfying. "All he did was circumvent the issue with a whole bunch of poppycock," says Winslow. She says she has support from her community board and councilwoman. "They're all in my corner, but there's just one stubborn old man in my way," she complains. "I would really like to talk to him."

The former junior high school counselor has tried to reach out to mayoral aide Jake Menges "to find out what they found wrong with this particular garden." In March, Menges visited the Gil Hodges garden in Park Slope and took it out of the auction, saying the lot's best use was as a garden. "I want him to give me a civil answer about this," says Winslow, whose main complaint is that the city has not evaluated gardens individually before putting them up to bid.

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