No one but the local hookers cared when Cynthia Nibbelink-Worley started puttering in a vacant Harlem lot back in 1985. The ladies who’d been turning tricks in an abandoned camper on 122nd Street were less than enchanted to see Nibbelink-Worley arrive. But Nibbelink-Worley and 91-year-old neighbor Joseph Wilson took their chances with disgruntled prostitutes and got a $100 Harlem YMCA grant to transform the area from a museum of broken glass, animal carcasses, and dead Frigidaires to a garden.

They put in lilies and one optimistic Rose of Sharon. They cut paths. The garden thrived and attracted volunteers and became part of a Fresh Youth Initiative project to teach students from Hans Christian Andersen School, just east of Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, how to grow and preserve their own food. They named the garden Project Harmony. Nibbelink-Worley and a man who would later become her husband planted cherry and poplar and honey locust and mulberry trees. They learned as they went. Maybe what they learned would not make a persuasive case if your ideas about gardens come from the Martha Stewart school of horticulture. The truck-tire planters are kind of scroungy. The arbor sags. The trees are overgrown and tangled. But there’s a shed and vegetable patch and compost pile where kids are taught the benefits of the earthworm. Who knows the practical effects of this kind of greening? Maybe it just helps offset the sense that crackheads are the inevitable centerpiece of one’s ecosystem.

Most of Nibbelink-Worley’s efforts took place at a time when the economy was lousy, well before Harlem was a blip on anyone’s real-estate radar. Hers is a same-old-same-old kind of story. Change the particulars and you could be talking about the Lower East Side. The sole difference is that gardeners downtown have a long history of grassroots organization, pardon the pun, not that it’s ever saved anyone’s garden from the wreckers.

The city came for the nearby Children’s Garden of Love on 121st Street on November 2. Although gardeners there had been promised a relocation site, and plans were under way to repot all the valuable plant material, on that Monday morning Tom Goodridge, a special-ed teacher at P.S. 76, headed for the garden with a class only to find a backhoe clawing down the fence. Gardener Mary Emma Harris was given no warning time to replant her specimen roses into whiskey barrels. An attorney at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance informed the gardeners the only tactic left was to lie down in front of the bulldozer blade.

The following evening, Nibbelink-Worley got a call saying Project Harmony was next. “We were told we had three days to get our plant materials and structures out,” she says. “I said, ‘Give us a month. We’ve got a gazebo. We’ve got a sun shed that cost $3500. We’ve got a greenhouse. We can’t possibly root-ball the trees in two nights.’ ” The garden had been reclaimed by the Housing Preservation and Development department, which last year reassumed administration of the city’s 750 community gardens from the Parks Department’s Project Greenthumb. The plan was to facilitate construction of multiunit dwellings. But these blocks already have so many brownstones and tenements under renovation that, for the first time in memory, Harlem may soon have a housing glut. “We’re not, as the mayor says, ‘bitter and angry,’ ” says Nibbelink-Worley. “Bitterness has got to go. He’s the one who’s bitter. But we’re angry all right, at the insanity he has in mind.”

It’s less “insane” than cynically commonplace to seize community gardens for housing. They’re there for the picking, after all. Gardeners who first reclaimed rubbled lots in most
cases understood they were squatting. Assurances from city agencies that de facto tenancies would be honored were as hollow as most municipal promises. What’s curious about the recent wholesale ransacking, however, is how the issue has been falsely framed.

While it’s true that the roughly 200 acres of community gardens in the city occupy more space than the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and true also that housing always comes first, it helps to know that there are 14,000 vacant city-owned lots. Community gardens occupy a mere 10 percent of the available land. You don’t need impact studies to understand the beneficial environmental effects a garden’s quiet and light and air have on the city. As for the economics . . . well, talk to the landlords who crank up rents for apartments with garden views. “What’s bizarre” about the mayor’s current agenda, says Terry Drach, president of the Garden Coalition and a former member of the Upper West Side’s Dome garden, which was demolished one May morning in 1993, “is that we’ve been living by the rhetoric of all the social scientists in the world: ‘Go clean up your neighborhood, go clean up your block, make your community livable.’ Gardens are the embodiment of that. We’ve made our case. We’ve done the cost-benefit analysis.” By building housing at any cost, the city risks burning out people’s sense of community.

“Unless you have big bucks, you can never stand in the way of the so-called larger picture,” as Nibbelink-Worley’s husband, Haja, claims. “At some point, people are going to see that open space is the way to go with development.” Unfortunately, by that time Project Harmony will have joined Adam Purple’s fantastical Garden of Eden— with its giant paulownia tree and concentric walks made of scavenged tenement lintels— in memory’s boneyard. “The mayor thinks that by demolishing the gardens the gardeners are going to go away,” Drach says. “Wrong. They’re just creating more gardeners to fight even harder for the ones that are left.”