By Sarah Wali
Last month, Tanya Fields got a call she had been dreading from Michael Holosyzk, regional manager at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Liberated Urban Farm, the plot of land she had spent $500 and four months cultivating, would be cleared to make room for a playground.
“He called me on Thursday and told me they are excavating on Monday so if there’s anything you want you should go tomorrow and get it,” said Fields.
She chuckles at his suggestion. To start an urban farm, Fields and a team of community volunteers had to make raised beds, a gardening tool used to protect fertile soil from possibly polluted city soil by lining the dug-up earth with plywood. Where would she put the plywood? They had also planted decorative plants known to urban farmers as ornamentals. They had no place to put them either.
So she left the garden untouched. When she came home from work that Monday, Parks and Recreation had cleared the land. The newly planted flowers and trees were replaced with a half-acre of overturned dirt.
“It’s gone,” she said. “It was bulldozed, it’s gone. The raised beds, the flowers — they’re gone. “
Of 152 community gardens in the Bronx, 72 are currently facing the same fate as the Liberated Urban Farm. Started by neighborhood activists and financed through their fundraising efforts, these plots aren’t legal and so the gardeners can’t stop the city from tearing them down.
Aresh Javadi, board member of the gardening advocacy group More Gardens!, works with threatened gardens to create awareness and political support for their cause. According to Javadi, the main problem is the lack of clear legal framework for obtaining and keeping community gardens in New York City.
Instead, prospective gardeners must contact the Department of Housing and Preservation to make sure the city doesn’t have plans for the lot, and then wait for approval, a process that could take months and sometimes even years.
Javadi instead urges would-be gardeners to just plunge in.
“Buy bolt cutters at the local hardware store and open the garden gates,” he said.
Javadi encourages green-thumbed activists to clear the land they are interested in farming and rally support from neighbors and politicians to expedite the licensing process. By winning this battle, says Javadi, they are helping to fight the legal war.
No laws insure the security of the more than 600 community gardens in the five boroughs. While yearly licenses can be granted by Green Thumbs, there are no guarantees for renewal.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani made this clear on Jan. 10, 1999. The city was in an economic boom, and housing was scarce. In an effort to raise more money, he announced he had allocated 115 of 700 community gardens for sale to the commercial market in May. “This is a free-market economy,” he said on a WABC radio show that January. “The era for communism is over.”
The city’s community gardeners were furious. Protests in front of City hall blocked the streets for hours, and 92 activists were arrested for civil disobedience. But demonstrators weren’t the only ones in court. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer charged that Giuliani’s attempted sale of the gardens would break state environmental laws.
Finally, two days before the auction, Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project and the Trust for Public Land struck a $4 million deal with Giuliani. They would buy 60 of the lots, be caretakers for the other 55, and, in return, the lawsuit against the mayor’s office was dropped.
In 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg began the first of his three terms, he revisited the issue of community gardening. An agreement between Bloomberg and Spitzer laid out, for gardeners, a system that required the approval of politicians and council members for the city to take back plots from gardeners.
Four years later, Bloomberg signed another agreement with Spitzer that gave gardeners five years to rally support from community leaders and prove their worth to their communities.
That’s why Javadi encouraged prospective farmers to take up guerilla farming. By first putting their money and efforts into the gardens and then rallying for support, More Gardens! hopes to keep community gardens on the political agenda.
For urban farmers like Field, this can be risky. The single mother of four has been living on Fox Street in a small two bedroom apartment since 2002. She could see the huge playground and basketball court across the street from her living room window.
“It seemed really strange to me that there was a plot of earth near a playground that hadn’t been built on,” she said.
But she brushed her concerns aside and focused first on completing her B.A. in Political Science at Baruch College then finding work. She began as an Environmental Justice Activist with Mother’s on the move. Her work with mothers on the move had opened her eyes to economic, social and environmental issues facing the people of Hunts Point. So when she decided to start her gardening adventure, she was determined it would yield more than just tomatoes, sunflowers and basil.
“I live in a community that has five shelters in a three-block radius,” she said. “I can’t fart without hitting someone who might be touched by this.”
Eventually she became an Outreach coordinator with with Sustainable South Bronx, a non-profit whose mission is to create programs that address policy and planning issues in the Hunts Point area. As a program assistant with Sustainable South Bronx, she worked to inform the community of their role in creating and implementing laws and procedure. She was shocked by the abundance of health problems in the Hunts Point area, including asthma, diabetes and obesity.
Fields decided to attack the root of these problems. “One of the parts that I really looked at that affects so many communities is lack of access to food,” she said. “What people are consuming because of that lack of quality food, and how the psychosis of poverty manifests itself in the choices that we make in terms of what we put into our body.”
She immersed herself in her work with Sustainable South Bronx, and eventually became a program assistant for Majora Carter LLC, the private for-profit consulting group that lead by Majora Carter, creator of Sustainable South Bronx. The harder she worked, the more concerned she became about the community around her. She could still see the half-acre of empty land from her window, but didn’t consider starting an urban farm until the issues she had been addressing at work hit home. Fields had gained more than 25 pounds since she moved to Fox Street, and her kids had developed serious respiratory problems.
“I’m doing this out of need,” she said. “I was tired of buying the bad avocados at the supermarket. I was seeing children in the community get too big and I watched myself get too big.”
Fields found that in her Hunts Point neighborhood, part of the second poorest congressional district in the country, single women just like her ran three out of four households. Convinced that poverty is tied to gender, she decided to create a community garden that would teach as well as feed.
“I was thinking about the real business side of that would teach them real skills, things they could put on a resume,” she said.
The idea was to create a community garden that would force those participating to create a viable business model to sell their produce. The women would develop a marketing plan; find buyers; identify aspects of the project they would not be able to do themselves, such as transporting their products, and create partnerships with other vendors in the community.
So, in June she found a partner in field manager Dwaine Lee, a co-worker at Sustainable South Bronx who had experience in farming. Over the summer Lee provided technical assistance on how to set-up the plot of land for growing, and assisted with funding. He also helped Fields get in touch with Just Foods, a non-profit organization that connects local growers with the communities around them. They gained the support of Just Food’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network, a program that allows community members to pay an annual fee of $400 to $600 and receive enough vegetables to feed a two or three people on a weekly basis.
The project seemed to be moving along smoothly. Fields and Lee began to raise awareness on their project, and a steady stream of volunteers came to assist with the garden. They cleared the debris, and put in raised beds. They planted hydrangea, an ornamental flower, cherry sandalwood trees and butterfly bushes to attract pollinating bees.
With the garden created and the community behind them, they focused their efforts on garnering political support. On Sept. 26, Fields threw the Liberated Urban Farm Family Fun Block Party, and invited neighbors, politicians and community garden advocates. Over 100 people attended the event, including council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo.
Yet her political activities and hard work couldn’t stop Parks and Recreation from tearing down the garden in November. Now, Fields has turned for help to the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, a grassroots organization that promotes community gardens through political advocacy.
Karen Washington, president of the coalition and a long-time community gardening activist, created the group to insure the security of community gardens around the New York area. Like Fields, Washington started with the empty lot in front of her house on Prospect Avenue in 1988. From there she has created a group of 10 community gardens in the Bronx that regularly supply fruits and vegetables for the East Tremont Farmer’s market, called La Familia Verde (The Green Family).
Because of her success in creating almost a dozen community gardens in the Bronx, Washington has emerged as a leader in the legal fight for community gardens. She attributes her success to being able to make informed arguments that politicians will listen to.
“You always follow protocol,” she said. “Then when you go and meet your adversary, you know you’re facts and you go in there educated strong and with the nonviolent quietness of a mouse. You don’t have to raise your voice because your words are so powerful people listen.”
It is with this philosophy that Washington began the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, and has expanded beyond the Bronx and created partnerships with some of New York’s biggest community gardening activists. Their goal is to get politicians to understand the impact and significance of community gardens.
“What I try to do is make people accountable,” she said. ”I know the politicians hear what is going on in the neighborhoods, but some of them don’t take the time out to go and see.”
To carry out this task, she created the Legislative Committee of the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, made up of three community gardeners, including Javadi. The group has created a list of nine recommendations for legislation. They ask for classification as state parks, first pick when lots become available and the opportunity to create gardens in communities that lack open space.
While pro-green politicians such as Rep. Jose E. Serrano have stood beside the gardeners, the coalition still faces strong opposition from proponents of affordable housing.
Yet for the gardeners, affordable housing and urban gardening should go hand in hand. Urban gardens create a sense of community, and are a way for people to have a direct interest in their neighborhoods. This, says Fields, could help instead of hurt housing development.
“It gives people an investment in the community,” she said. “When you do have people who have money who come into the community it’s not as scary because they feel like they do have a vested interest in the community.“
Standing in front of an empty field, Fields watches her children play in the playground adjacent to the plot. It is they, she says, who give her the determination to make the Liberated Urban Farm dream a reality.
“When I first took them out into the garden they were digging up the soil,” she said. “That was the first time my six-year-old had seen an earthworm,” Fields said. She’s hoping for many more “firsts” when her next garden takes root.