By Hazel Healy
Rosa Rivera and her friends make the most of every square foot at Young Devils Garden at the corner of 116th St. and Madison Ave. She is proud to list off the garden’s produce: cherries, peaches, eggplant, watermelons, okra, green beans, cabbage, beans and hot peppers.
“We’ve had it for so long and it’s such an important part of our community,” says Rivera, a grandmother of five. “We give away all the food, put on all the social events here ourselves. A lot of elderly people come here and kids — they have nowhere else to go.”
Rivera has worked on the garden since it was founded in 1991, but that could soon change. The 116th St. Block Association, a local developer, has its eyes on the 2,170-square-foot lot that was abandoned by the city and reclaimed by community gardeners. With East Harlem rapidly gentrifying, 16 other community gardens also face an uncertain future as advocates of affordable housing and urban green spaces press their competing visions.
Citing the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, supporters of more affordable housing note that the average house price in East Harlem has increased by 69 percent since 2002 while the average median household income in East Harlem stands at $23,000. However, Aresh Javadi, Director of the More Gardens Coalition, believes the gardens remain an essential part of the community.
“These gardens have been built in neglected areas by poor communities without access to green space,” Javadi says. “They are extremely productive and a real focus for community activity. For equity, social justice and food justice we need to make sure these gardens stay.” The struggle over New York’s community gardens dates back to the late 1990s when the Giuliani administration auctioned off green space to developers. Despite fierce public opposition, a number of gardens were subsequently bulldozed.
A 1998 lawsuit by then-State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer blocked further destruction of the city’s community gardens and eventually culminated in the Community Garden Agreement of 2002. In the agreement, 198 gardens were granted permanent protection at the time while the status of more than a hundred other gardens scattered around the city (including those still being disputed in Harlem) was left to be resolved.
Saving One Garden at a Time
Javadi’s group works closely with Harlem United Gardeners (HUG ) to make sure that the gardeners’ needs are not overlooked in East Harlem’s real estate stampede. HUG and More Gardens have used petitions, staged marches and held community days at the gardens to build support for their cause. So far, results have been mixed. Since HUG formed in 2005, four East Harlem gardens have been preserved while four others have been lost.
El Gallo Garden on 118th St. and Lexington Ave. is a recent success story. Its status changed from endangered to preserved in mid-August when Hope Community Inc. dropped plans to develop the site. Hope Community’s decision followed a vigorous campaign by the gardeners.
“I was there every time the developers came, saying ‘Give me a report’, ‘Give me an explanation’,” said Peggy Morales of El Gallo.
After engaging in a bruising six-year battle in Melrose Commons, South Bronx, where 14 of 19 community gardens were ultimately bulldozed, Javadi senses that East Harlem will fare better. “I think attitudes to community gardens are changing,” he said. “From the Community Board to Borough Presidents and Council Members, and even the mayoral level, we are seeing people becoming more sensitive to environmental issues. Plus the gardeners here know how to work together.”
One of the gardeners’ most important allies has been City Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito (D-East Harlem) who has used her influence to bring developers to the table.
“I was upset when I was told my advocacy for the gardens was damaging the housing project,” Vivirito said. “I feel very passionately about working with the developers on this. It shouldn’t be one at the expense of the other. “People have stayed here strong through thick and thin,” she added. “Community gardens are a reflection of the hard work and commitment of long standing community members. We have to take them into consideration.” To find out more call HUG at 646-320-7428 or contact More Gardens at 917-518-9987 or moregardens.org.