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.
Gardeners have not planted on Patchen Avenue this season, anxious about the auction’s outcome. But in summer, the garden’s yield is generous. “We give food away, we share it,” says Winslow. “We don’t have many selfish people around here but Giuliani,” she chides.
Winslow also admits that she voted for the mayor in 1997— “I liked what he did in his first term”— but regrets her ballot now. “He’s become a spoiled brat, like, ‘This city is mine,’ like he owns it. There’s nobody else living here, you know; we’re just tenants here.”
Winslow has been aggressive about making phone calls, sending letters, and generally agitating to save her garden, but, unlike some gardeners, she won’t risk civil disobedience for the cause. “That’s for the beatniks and the yuppies, and I did enough of it with Martin Luther King,” says the Alabama native. “I shouldn’t have to do it for this. Rudy Giuliani should have enough compassion without us having to lay down in the street for a garden.”
La Perla Community Garden is one of the city’s most beautiful. Three-time winner of the Dress Up Your Neighborhood award, the spacious lot teems not only with bulbs and bushes; it sprouts murals, portraits, sculpture, and poetry. La Perla is also a winner in all three standards that make real estate appealing: location, location, location. Situated on a three-lot spread along West 105th near Columbus Avenue, La Perla is one of the most vulnerable gardens in the auction.
The city owns one of LaPerla’s three lots, but the 1700-square-foot slice runs right up the middle of the 5000-square-foot garden; the owners of the two lots that flank it allow neighbors to plant on the land, but La Perla gardener Robert José says the owners are also willing to sell the spot. Says José, “The auction for the middle strip is just an invitation to take the rest.”
Sandy Walker, who has lived in the neighborhood for 19 years and who helped start La Perla with Green Thumb in 1992, says she can’t even think about how much money the lot could draw (the city’s minimum price is $13,500). “I’m trying to remain positive,” says Walker. “Maybe the mayor will back down.” La Perla’s location just above the Upper West Side draws a variety of neighbors— working-class blacks and Latinos, Columbia students and trendy youngsters driven uptown in search of cheaper rents, medical staff from nearby hospitals and, says Walker, a young Orthodox Jewish woman who hails from Scarsdale. “Her mother was terrified of her daughter living in the city, but after she visited us in the garden, she said she wasn’t worried anymore.” Seniors from a local rest home visit La Perla, and adults from a nearby facility for the mentally disabled plant in one of the garden’s 26 beds.
Before it was cleaned up, the garden was a haven for drug users and sex workers who set up shop on couches along a concrete slab that is now a stage for music and art. Now, one flower bed is an AIDS memorial garden to remember neighbors who have died. Gardeners decorate their plots with statues— a reclining nude, a kitsch friar, the Virgin Mary— or architectural remnants. In one corner, school children are building a totem pole, and 10 paintings by gardeners hang on a trellis, part of what Walker calls the La Perla Museum.
Another decoration— new and somewhat ad hoc— is the pastel ribbons tied along the wrought-iron fence at La Perla’s entrance. Each was placed by someone hoping the garden will be saved; dozens fluttered in the breeze at a La Perla rally May 1.
“When you see the city brought together by community gardens, especially ones like this that win awards, I don’t understand it,” says Walker, who has abandoned her instinctive dislike of politics to fight for La Perla. “When someone is trying to take something away from you that you worked so hard on and that means so much, you just have to get involved.”
Sherman Avenue Garden
“Mira! Gallinos!” shrieks a gaggle of grade-school girls who, on a fine spring day, tumble into the Sherman Avenue Garden, just up the street from Yankee Stadium. Chasing the two roosters around the pleasantly chaotic garden, the children’s delight is obvious.
That joy is what Melanie Rodriguez works so hard for. Since 1987, she’s been in charge of this 4800-square-foot garden. “The kids come here and that’s exactly what I want,” says 72-year-old Rodriguez. “They plant; I teach them about the trees, the flowers. But I also teach them manners: I tell them, don’t touch the flowers, they will break. You can look at them, you can sing to them, but don’t touch them, or they will cry.”
Tears come to Rodriguez’s own eyes when she talks about the upcoming auction that will put the Sherman Avenue Garden up for sale for a minimum $18,000. “My heart is so broked after 15 years of working here,” says Rodriguez. “If they sell it, I will be so depressed. Not just for me but for these kids. They have nothing to look at but walls around here, and they are the ones who suffer the consequences.”
Five-year-old Rafael is one such child. He regularly comes to play in the yard with his four-year-old brother, Irwin, and three-year-old sister, Araleidis. Rafael wants to be a firefighter, but for now is happy to eat fresh tomatoes and peppers in the summer, chase the roosters whose crowing wakes him many mornings, and, indeed, sing to the flowers, on this particular day, “Feliz Navidad.”
Sherman Avenue is not a formal garden by any stretch, but what it lacks in primness it makes up in ingenuity: Decorative steel headboards substitute for wrought-iron garden railings, and toppled bookshelves form beds that give each child a three-by-one-foot “shelf” section to plant. Cilantro, nectarine trees, fig saplings, grape vines (concord and green), pear trees, tomatoes, green peppers, potatoes, jalapeños, tulips, and a rose bush surrounded by mint are planted amidst Madonna statues, carousel horses, plastic ducks, and three casitas.
Rodriguez fears if the garden is sold, it will degenerate into a car graveyard or parking lot; her block already has one of each. These days, Rodriguez is focused on the garden’s annual Mother’s Day party. She has plans for new walkways, flower beds, and play areas for the 50 kids from the Sherman Avenue Day Care Center who come in the summer, and talks about the garden’s future as if it were not in peril. In late April, she tells a visitor to come back when more blooms are up.
“We call this the ‘Oh my God garden’ because that’s what everyone says when they come here. Come back in the end of May, and you’ll say it, like everyone else.” The Sherman Avenue Garden is scheduled for auction on the afternoon of May 13.