CURWOOD: Over the past three decades about 700 vacant lots in New York City blossomed into community gardens. Recently, though, New York's development boom has made these urban oases desirable building lots. City officials are now quietly moving to convert hundreds of these gardens into sites for affordable homes, pitting the demand for housing against the equally vital need for open space. From member station WNYC in New York, Amy Eddings reports on nine gardens in the Bronx that could be approved for development before spring.
EDDINGS: When 82-year-old Verna Lee Judge and her neighbors decided to clean up an abandoned lot near her home in the Bronx, they had their work cut out for them.
JUDGE: It had old Frigidaires, wash basin, old toilet. You name it, everything was here.
EDDINGS: That was in 1967 when the physical fabric of the Bronx was coming apart due to arson, abandonment, and tax foreclosure. Community gardens have helped stitch these neighborhoods back together, providing safe havens for children and residents to meet, to learn about gardening and to benefit from bountiful harvests. Judge's garden is the oldest in the Bronx, with a grape arbor and cement block-lined beds of okra, tomatoes, tulips, and roses.
(To Judge) Did people think you were crazy? I mean, the Bronx was all burned out, it was a shell, and here you are trying to plant a few flowers on an abandoned lot?
JUDGE: No, they didn't think we were crazy. They'd thought it was a wonderful thing we were doing. And they would say, "Are you cleaning that? That's the city problem." I said, "Oh, but we live here. We have a vested interest here."
EDDINGS: The city once encouraged gardeners to become stewards of these lots, with the understanding that some day they would be reclaimed for affordable housing. Decades later gardeners never expected that day to come. But it has. Some garden advocates estimate roughly 100 gardens have been bulldozed and developed since the mid-1990s. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD, is now eyeing Judge's Franklin Memorial Garden and eight others for the construction of 66 homes for moderate-income families. Last year Gilda Norris and her two teenage sons bought a city-sponsored townhouse built several blocks away from Judge's garden.
NORRIS: I've never owned anything. I've never had a car or any major property, but I wanted a house. I wanted a house since I was little. I just feel a sense of accomplishment, you know? I breathe easier, actually. I just -- I don't know, I feel light-hearted about being here.
ABRAMS: We'd like to give moderate-income families the opportunity to become homeowners, many for the first time.
EDDINGS: HPD spokeswoman Carol Abrams.
ABRAMS: Homeowners are more invested in their neighborhoods than renters sometimes are. They'll lobby for sanitation, lobby for better schools, to keep crime down. There is higher educational achievement for kids. There is actually lower rates of teen pregnancy.
EDDINGS: Since 1994 the city has built or renovated about 70,000 units of rental and homeownership housing, including more than 16,000 units in the Bronx. An economic rebirth of the borough has followed. Still, the Bronx has the lowest rate of homeownership in the city, and a third of its renters pay more than half of their income in rent, much more than the one-third suggested by federal housing authorities. For his last year in office, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wants to allocate $600 million of the budget for affordable housing. But city council member Ken Fisher does not think this initiative has to come at the expense of open space.
FISHER: I don't think anybody would suggest that we ought to solve the city's housing problem by building in Prospect Park or Central Park. And while these gardens may not have the legal status that a park does, in many communities they're the only viable open space.
EDDINGS: Fisher is co-sponsoring a bill that would assess the role and importance of a community garden before the city could develop it. And state attorney general Eliot Spitzer has taken the city to court, saying it must prove it will not do irreparable harm to the environment when it builds on a garden. Until an environmental impact study is approved, a court injunction keeps the city from doing anything to any of its community gardens. Urban planner Jocelyn Chait coauthored a study on housing and open space in one of the poorest areas of the Bronx, for two open space advocacy groups. She says the city lacks development strategies that take all of a neighborhood's needs and goals into account.
CHAIT: There has to be some kind of an assessment of, you know, where are these lots? You know, what are the needs of those communities where these lots are located, you know? What is the appropriate kind of development here? Are there alternatives that communities can use? And how are the communities best served?
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EDDINGS: Housing officials say they try to incorporate open space into every development project. And they're currently negotiating with Bronx community gardeners to provide them with another site. But Verna Lee Judge doesn't want it. She says the plot, a half a mile away, will not serve her or the children in her neighborhood.
JUDGE: You know, it has always been that. They take everything away from you and give you the crumb. And I'm just fed up with that with the city of New York. I've been fighting for things since 1959. If it wasn't my work it was for a raise. Life is just one struggle. You have to fight, fight, fight. I'm tired of fighting, period. (Laughs)
EDDINGS: The city's development plan for the nine Bronx gardens must be approved by the city council. A vote on it has been stalled as council members negotiate with the city on ways to save these gardens and others while also building affordable housing. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings in New York.
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CURWOOD: Just ahead: Big, yellow, and potentially hazardous to your child's health. A new study says diesel school buses can add to the risk of cancer and asthma. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
Now this health update with Diane Toomey.
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