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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New York City Gardens

Air Date: Week of

An eleventh-hour deal to save some New York City community gardens from the auction block the future of other urban plots in question. WNYC's Amy Eddings reports that Puerto Rican residents who frequent traditional garden plots known as "casitas" worry that these community gathering places will be demolished.


CURWOOD: About 20 years ago, New York City officials began allowing residents to garden on abandoned city-owned lots, most of them in run-down neighborhoods. Gardeners got a chance to spruce up the community and enjoy fresh vegetables and flowers to boot, while the city maintained the right to sell the land at any time. Recently, the city tried to do just that, and began to auction off about 112 of its 700 gardens. In the process, the Mayor's Office unleashed an uproar. Two land conservancy groups stepped in and brokered a deal at the eleventh hour to buy the threatened properties. From member station WNYC, Amy Eddings reports on why the fight to save the gardens galvanized so many New Yorkers, and why the fight is still not over.

(A crowd shouts: "Save the gardens! Stop the auctions! Save the gardens! Stop the auctions!")

EDDINGS: For many New Yorkers, saving over 100 community gardens from the auction block was an easy issue to get behind. After all, they figured, what's not to love about a flower? Or a protester dressed like one? Demonstrations, like this sit-in in the middle of a busy Manhattan street, were often colorful, flower-filled, and costumed affairs. But the anger and concern were always present. This protester, arrested with 62 others for blocking traffic, voiced the frustrations of many.

WOMAN: This is what it's come to: volunteer gardeners being arrested!

EDDINGS: Hours before bidding was to start, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani struck a deal with two land conservation groups the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project, founded by singer Bette Midler. They bought more than 100 gardens for $4.2 million. Brooklyn City Councilman and garden advocate Steven DiBrienza says he's happy the gardens were saved, but no so happy about the way it was done.

DIBRIENZA: You have to be worried that good, well-meaning, not-for-profit, environmental-oriented groups had to spend time and money to save what this administration could have given its citizens for free.

EDDINGS: Although some politicians and garden advocates think Mayor Giuliani won't try to auction gardens off again, no one knows for sure. And even those gardens that aren't on the auction block have uncertain futures. Rincon Criollo is one of them. The garden stands on East 158th Street in the South Bronx. It's scheduled to be demolished to make way for low-income housing. The garden is a good example of how neighborhood institutions have grown out of a program that was intended to encourage temporary use of city land.

(Drumming and singing in Spanish)

EDDINGS: Three men and a young boy sing Plena, the folklore music of Puerto Rico. Garden members make the drums for Plena called panderitas, teach kids how to play them, and teach them how to dance and cook the traditional way. Spanish-speaking neighbors bring government documents here to get help filling them out or translating them. And member Luis Ramos says anyone can help themselves to the bounty of the garden, which he loves to show off.

RAMOS: This is Georgy Riveras' plot. The guy, you see him out here at 5 o'clock in the morning. He got peppers growing here. He got broccoli, eggplant, Yankee beans. See that green bush over there? That's medicinal. We call that in our culture yerba buena, good grass.

EDDINGS: The resourcefulness of the garden is evident everywhere you look. Old lumber forms the sides of raised beds. Bricks cleared from the once- abandoned lot are used in paths. Plastic PVC drain pipes make a fine arbor for grape vines. And in the middle of the garden, constructed out of cast-off wood, carpeting, and linoleum, is a little house, or casita, the center of any Puerto Rican garden in New York City. Carmen Serano says casitas bring back memories of her childhood.

SERANO: This is really good compared to where I was raised. So it just brings me back to my roots. My roots.

EDDINGS: Although designed to remind Puerto Ricans of home, casitas aren't meant to be lived in. Jane Weissman, a garden consultant and the former head of Operation Green Thumb, the city program that manages the community gardens, says they act like museums for the community.

WEISMAN: And when you go in, you'll see maps of Puerto Rico. You'll see newspaper articles about local politicians, or about baseball players. It's not to say that people don't sit in that casita. Of course they do. But the real life of a casita garden takes place in what is known as the batay, or the yard.

(Singing and drumming continues)

EDDINGS: In the batay, in front of the Rincon Criollo casita, the number of musicians has swelled and folks are helping themselves to cups of chicken soup steaming in an open pot set over coals. The irony of vibrant community gardens like Rincon Criollo is that in the process of sprucing up downtrodden neighborhoods, the gardens may be planting the seeds of their own doom by making the community more attractive to real estate developers. Rincon Criollo stands on the site where new houses are scheduled to be built. Jose Manuel Soto, another founder of the garden, is upset by this. He says he's not opposed to housing. He just wants to have a say in the matter.

SOTO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: When the community was looking ugly, he beautified it. Now that he's done all this work, why don't they collaborate with us? So we can continue beautifying the community, instead of trying to cut us off and not being part of the community.

EDDINGS: Similar concerns are being raised by gardeners whose plots were recently bought by the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project. These gardeners are angry they weren't part of the negotiations, and they fear the new owners will try to butt in and change the way gardens have been running themselves for years. The land conservation groups say that while some oversight is in order, they don't plan on being micro- managers. At Rincon Criollo, founder Jose Manuel Soto is more worried about losing a place where neighbors can relax, and Puerto Ricans can celebrate a culture they feel increasingly isolated from.

SOTO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: He feels not only himself, he feels bad, but also the community in general will suffer very much. Because if the government came here and saw the way we celebrate our culture and our traditions, they'll know that this is a place that's needed in the community.

EDDINGS: Rincon Criollo members say they'll go to court to try to keep their garden from being developed. Other garden sites that aren't slated for city assisted housing projects could be put up for sale in another auction this fall, but officials haven't decided whether to do that yet. Garden supporters vow to keep a watchful eye on the process, and they hope that in the meantime, the city, local politicians, and land conservation groups can come up with other ways to preserve community gardens than expensive last-minute deals. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings in New York.



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