When community gardeners protested Rudy Giuliani’s plans to auction off about 115 city-owned lots in January 1999, the mayor snidely reminded them that “this is a free-market economy,” then welcomed the protesters ‘to the era after communism.’ Now, those gardeners are planning to celebrate the beginning of an era they call the one after fascism, when Giuliani leaves office. And they hope to usher it in with a most democratic tool.
Since June, a coalition of activists has been gathering signatures to get a referendum on the November 6 ballot to undo a Giuliani move that imperiled community gardens across the city. In 1998, the mayor transferred the control of more than 700 garden sites from the city’s parks department to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), essentially fast-tracking their transfer into the hands of developers who build housing on the sites. The referendum, which would be binding rather than merely advisory, would return the gardens to the parks department, and forbid their sale, lease, or disposal without the department’s approval.
“We know it’s not perfect because the mayor would still have some power over the gardens, but it won’t be this mayor anyhow,” says Aresh Javadi, an activist working on the referendum. Garden supporters have until August 1 to give the city clerk 30,000 valid voters’ signatures to get the referendum on the ballot. Because the clerk typically finds thousands of signatures flawed, activists realistically need to get 50,000 signers. So far, they have under 20,000, primarily from petitioning crowds at SummerStage, ball games, Shakespeare in the Park, the green markets at Union Square and Prospect Park, and parks citywide.
“From the beginning we’ve known that getting it on the ballot is the dream, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” says Mark Read, an organizer at voteforgardens.org. “But short of that, a key strategy is to get it on the political radar in the mayor’s race.”
For years, activists have resisted framing the garden debate as the mayor does, pitting housing against the gardens and insisting the city cannot provide both. The administration reasons that because many of the lots were once used for housing that was later abandoned or torched, constructing housing there now is simply a reversion to its earlier use. Using the lots for gardens was legally termed “interim,” even for sites covered by the so-called Green Thumb program, under which the city leased the lots and supported gardeners with materials, technical support, and awards.
Garden advocates argue that the lots have done more than provide oases for many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. They are often the centerpieces of community programs. In Harlem, juvenile offenders have sometimes been sentenced to work in gardens rather than spend time in jail or pay fines. And while gardeners acknowledge the need for housing, they note that the city has many other truly idle parcels that could be developed. Moreover, they contend, the housing built on garden sites is often unaffordable to long-term members of the community.
The Harmony Garden on West 122nd Street in Harlem, for instance, was to be developed into two- or three-family homes; the two-families were to sell for about $300,000 to buyers whose income was under $48,000 a year. “That’s certainly not affordable for most people in this neighborhood,” says Cynthia Worley, who has worked on Harmony Garden since it was started in 1985. Once a destitute midblock expanse, the garden is now a haven of picnic tables and benches nestled among a thicket of mulberry trees, black hollyhocks, petunias, and a myriad of spices. Worley and her husband Haja run a summer day program for local kids, who plant seeds and learn about the urban environment.
“Of course we need housing,” says Haja Worley. “But there are so many abandoned buildings here and vacant lots. Why start with gardens first?”
Even without the referendum, most of the city’s community gardens have a modicum of protection because of a lawsuit filed in 1999 by state attorney general Eliot Spitzer. Arguing that the city failed to make required environmental reviews when it transferred the gardens to HPD, Spitzer won a preliminary injunction prohibiting the development of the 115 lots scheduled for auction that year. In February 2000, the injunction was expanded to include all remaining gardens. The city protested that decision, but an appeals court upheld it.
Indeed, the city has harbored an animosity for Spitzer that rivals the hostility gardeners feel for developers. For months, HPD devoted part of its lobby space at 100 Gold Street to an exhibit showing derelict lots. The display labeled Spitzer an “enemy of housing.”
Both sides are due in court July 25. The city is asking Supreme Court Justice Richard Huttner to dismiss the entire case; sources say Huttner is unlikely to do that. Spitzer’s lawyers will ask Huttner to force the city to provide them with information they requested last fall but which has not been forthcoming.
And they will ask the judge to allow a truly remarkable accomplishment to go forward: In six cases, Spitzer’s office has brokered deals to the liking of both developers and gardeners so that housing can be built and gardens preserved. So far, the city has refused to sign the agreements.