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Activists Call to Safeguard Community Gardens Against Development

Mary Heglar Aug 12, 2010

PHOTOS: SAKURA KELLEY

More than 400 garden activists came out for a midday hearing on Tuesday, Aug. 10 to protest the city’s proposed regulations to govern community gardens.

With the 2002 Community Gardens Agreement set to expire on Sept. 17, advocates fear that the city’s nearly 300 gardens will no longer be protected from land developers. While many of the new regulations are identical to the 2002 agreement, the new regulations do little to ensure the future of these green spaces throughout the city.

“If you put the agreement and the new regulations side by side, they mirror each other. Passages from one were lifted straight into the other. Except when it comes to the question of garden preservation,” said Karen Washington, the president of New York City Community Gardens Coalition (NYCCGC).

The hearing, which was held at Chelsea Recreation Center, was preceded by a rally in a nearby park where activists from the NYCCGC spoke over a bullhorn and led chants for more gardens. About 150 people turned out for the rally armed with floral signs, vegetables, hula-hoops, and even Superman costumes.

“We are thankful to the city,” said Aresh Javadi, a member of NYCCGC and an environmental activist in the South Bronx, “because this brought the gardens together and made us remember how important we are.”

Community gardens are no strangers to fighting with City Hall. In the late 1990s, the Giuliani administration threatened to auction off hundreds of community gardens to developers. However, the gardening community organized effectively to stall and eventually defeat these auctions by gaining the support of the City’s then-Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer.

“It’s not like we just stuck our heads in the soil and let the mayor do what he wanted,” Washington, a long-time community garden activist, said.In 2002, in the first year of the Bloomberg administration, an agreement between the city and the Attorney General was reached in which community gardens were granted protection from development. But many activists worry that those protection will vanish when the agreement expires on Sept. 17, 2010.

“We don’t feel that the rules go far enough to protect the gardens,” Washington said.

Some gardens have more protection than others. Gardens on land owned by the Parks Department are apparently under little threat, even though the proposed rules do not include provisions to make them permanent. Gardens on land owned by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, on the other hand, are afforded less protection.

Those who had fought for the 2002 agreement had a particularly strong showing. “The proposed rules and regulations are of concern to me, because they allow our gardens to be destroyed at a moment’s notice in total disregard for all the hard work that has gone into them,” said Magali Regis, a gardener from the Lower East Side.

In testimony after testimony, gardeners spoke about the wealth that gardens have brought to their communities. There were stories of gardens keeping kids off the streets, allowing immigrants to maintain their relationship with the land, creating community and simply adding beauty.

Lynne Serpe, a gardener from Astoria, Queens, told the panel, “At our garden, we grow food, flowers, friendship, and fun. And those are things worth making permanent.”

When the hearing began at 11:15 a.m., there was still a considerable line outside of the building, snaking down West 25th Street. However, despite the abundance of empty seats, the last group of audience members were not permitted upstairs until 12:30 p.m. This proved to be a constant theme as names were called, but the speakers were unable to testify because they had not yet gained admittance.

When Harry Bubbins, a gardener from Brook Park in the Bronx, was called to speak, he went forward with about three other gardeners and demanded that the people waiting in line outside be admitted into the hearing. The panel insisted that people were being allowed in as space was made available in compliance with the fire code capacity of 299. In the brief ruckus that ensued, Bubbins led a group of about 15 audience members outside to be with the crowd that had yet to be allowed upstairs.

“This hearing was a distraction. These rules are a distraction,” Bubbins told The Indypendent. “What we need is legislation to keep all gardens permanent. They [the city] will have to respond to the overwhelming demand for permanent gardens that now exists.”

To get involved or to learn more, join NYCCGC for a public meeting on Thurs., Aug. 19 at the Garden of Happiness from 6 to 8 p.m. The garden is located on Prospect Avenue between East 181st and East 182nd Street in the Bronx.

You may also join gardeners from across the city on Saturday, August 21st at 4 p.m. at Generation X Garden, located on East 4th Street between Avenue B and Avenue C, for a barbecue, celebration and teach-in.

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