New Yorkers Rally for Community Garden Protection

On August 4th, community gardeners from across the five boroughs gathered on the steps of City Hall to show their support for the New York City Community Garden Coalition(NYCCGC). There were countless speakers working to influence the Parks Department and the Department of Housing and Development (HPD) to include protection from development in the new proposed legislation. The 2002 Memorandum of Agreement is set to expire next month and the draft legislation set to replace it will determine the future of gardens all around the city. Community gardeners are asking the city to protect gardens from uncertain futures, like the one faced by the Bed-Stuy Farm, or worse, of LA’s South Central Farm, which was bulldozed to make way for a soccer field (that was never built) in 2006.

Karen Washington, president of the NYCCGC, always an energetic force, was first to speak and got the crowd fired up about the importance of growing food for their communities. Supporters showcased their loyalty with bunches of carrots, Swiss chard, and catchy slogans.

Christine Quinn, New York City Council Speaker and frequent supporter of local food systems (check out her recent farm tour in Red Hook, NY) also spoke and said she would like to see “community gardens become a permanent fixture of the city.”

Local garden advocates have employed a creative flair to bring attention to the issue. The New York Times reported on a group of young revolutionaries who rode their bikes, Paul Revere –style, from the East Village to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office to demand community garden protection.

The August 4th rally and press conference was in preparation for the public hearing, held last Tuesday at the Chelsea Recreation Center. I was among three hundred energetic New Yorkers who gathered outside, some in costume, many with signs, all eager to lend their voices in support of the city’s gardens.

Shortly after people lined up to get inside, there was some confusion, then unrest as it became clear the Parks Department was not letting everyone in, claiming to be “at capacity.” I was not able get inside at first, and as a result, missed Christine Quinn’s statement, though I did get to hear a fair number of community activists. Speakers were limited to three minutes (which many said they were not informed of when they signed up to speak) and frustrations rose during the hearing.

One of the speakers, Sean Michael Fleming, a Bushwick gardener, expressed the value of gardens on a personal and interpersonal level, saying that for him, “gardens offer a connection with the earth and healing power for his community.”

Zachary Schulman, another community gardener, complained about the Parks Department’s unwillingness to back up their statements with actual written policy stating their intent not to develop community gardens. He asked that “gardens in good standing be protected from development and HPD gardens in good standing be transferred to Parks Department.” He triumphantly shouted, “let’s make all gardens permanent structures in New York!”

New Yorkers have done their part and now we wait. The Parks Department will review the comments, a process that could take from six months to one year. From where I was standing, it seemed clear (clear enough that it shouldn’t take a year to decide, but hey, I don’t work for the Parks Department) that people care about their communities and think that community gardens make for greener, happier city.