War of the Gardeners


After a night of heavy sleeping, Aresh Javadi awoke one recent summer morning in the South Bronx and found he had transformed into a giant, 130-pound ladybug.

There were seven others. Four butterflies, two other ladybugs, and Ben Nature, the hippie with a squirrel mask who was to climb the tree and hang banners outside the day’s target, a city housing agency. They also had “black bears,” L-shaped devices made from reinforced steel, covered in tar, then wrapped in duct tape, which are designed to let people hang onto trees and to withstand the blades of law enforcement power saws.

These eight human insects weren’t circus performers or misguided vigilantes, but activist gardeners on a renegade mission to save all the city’s unprotected community gardens—about 380 remain—from developers’ wrecking crews.

But lately, the small swarm, some of whom are members of the nonprofit More Gardens, has taken aim at an old friend: Green Thumb, the parks department agency created during the Robert Moses urban renewal years to groom more gardens.

The insect people are charging that Green Thumb’s director, Edie Stone, in cahoots with other green-friendly advocacy groups like the Municipal Arts Society and the League of Conservation Voters, has been helping to write and pass fast-track legislation that would secure Green Thumb’s funding stream but preserve fewer gardens—especially in the boroughs.

The “secretive” effort was made, More Gardens members said, without any feedback from the general public, and without input from the gardeners themselves—a ragtag group that collectively put in an estimated $53 million a year in sweat equity, and even more from their own pockets to keep many of Green Thumb’s gardens prim. “Betrayal” is how the activists dub the move. “Bureaucratic backstabbing.”

It started this spring, in the South Bronx, in Cabo Rojo, the former garden turned Seavey Organization construction site. On April 25, public workers came to clear the grounds. In protest, Javadi affixed himself to a casita using a black bear; another climbed a 29-foot steel sunflower. They were arrested and made the news.

The next morning, reports surfaced from City Hall: The mayor and the state attorney general were attempting to settle the gardens feud and related lawsuits left over from the concrete-hungry Giuliani days. No plans were made public, but insiders said Mayor Bloomberg’s initial offer was to give 150 gardens to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and to shift control of many of the other 230 to private land trusts, like Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project.

Quickly, a variety of green groups began to draft Introduction 206, a legislative countermeasure to trump the mayor’s deal. Under 206, Green Thumb would morph into a quasi-public, quasi-corporate land trust—a unique policy move that would open the small agency up to private funding and could allow them to keep their $700,000 annual federal grant. Gardens would also be obliged to take part in the state’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), according to Holly Leight, spokeswoman for the Municipal Arts Society, the bill’s primary author. Stone, she said, acted as an “unofficial adviser” to the project. Stone herself did not return repeated Voice phone calls.

So far, Intro 206 has the support of more than half the City Council. It’s made a few enemies, though, and not only bug people. HPD claims it, too, is already close to making a deal, and the bill only complicates matters. “There are 2922 homes and apartments waiting for the garden settlement,” said Barbara Flynn, chief of staff for HPD commissioner Jerelyn Perine.

Midler’s group also feels a bit betrayed. “The mayor’s first plan was almost a miracle,” said Joe Pupello, the trust’s director. “Now it’s turned into an ego game, like they [Green Thumb and others] felt like they weren’t the ones solving the problem, so it wasn’t good enough.”

Egos aside, More Gardens claims everyone truly green loses with Intro 206. Javadi claims a “Green Thumb Corp.” will alienate private trusts and won’t be able raise enough money to develop open spaces. He also maintains that the disorganized alliance of community gardeners lacks the political savvy to win ULURP approvals.

So on the morning of June 10, the bugs, butterflies, and squirrel-faced hippie arrived at HPD. Javadi and the others jumped from a car and surrounded seven trees outside 100 Gold Street. Nature scurried up one tree to hang a banner: “Racial Justice Makes All Gardens Permanent.”

The others put on the black bears. They hugged the trees with tar-covered steel and waited with smiles for the cops and media trucks. The cops came first—with four different kinds of saws, from power saws to a diamond cutter. All eight bugs were cuffed—after about 90 minutes of sawing—charged with obstruction of governmental authority. Nature spent a night in the Tombs.

“It’s too bad there can’t be an easier way,” said Leight. “The onus, unfortunately, will be placed on the gardeners to become more sophisticated. It will be difficult. But it’s definitely possible.”

Research assistance: Jessica Backus