Autor: Steve Brooks
- Artículo Adicional: Green Guerillas: New York City’s Community Gardens
En la crisis financiera de los 1970s, grandes secciones de la ciudad de Nueva York fueron abandonadas tanto por propietarios como por las autoridades. Los residentes revivieron sus barrios reclamando lotes baldíos y transformándolos en hortalizas comunitarias. Más de 800 hortalizas ayudaron a barrios a escapar del crimen y adoptar acciones comunitarias, mejores dietas y un ambiente más limpio. Las hortalizas capacitaron a toda una generación de activistas y dieron luz a otros proyectos ambientalistas en Nueva York y mas allá.
The largest urban ecosystem in America provides a dramatic demonstration of EcoTipping Points and feedback loops at work.
The thirty-year saga of the New York City community gardens suggests that an EcoTipping Point can be an effective urban renewal program, at a fraction of the typical cost. It shows how the spinoffs from a single catalytic action can help to tip an urban neighborhood and an entire city from degradation to restoration. And it illustrates how those spinoffs can sometimes create opposing spinoffs, pushing the eco-social system into a tug-of-war.
As longtime gardener Donald Loggins sums it up, “One person, at the right place at the right time, set a whole bunch of stuff in motion.” The right time was 1973 and the right person was a landscape painter named Liz Christy. She had a studio near the corner of Bowery and East Houston, in the heart of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The Bowery had tipped in a negative direction decades before. Back in the 1600s, it had marked the southern end of a farm owned by Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam. The very name “bouwerie” was the Dutch word for “farm.” In the 19th Century, the neighborhood had become a lively launching pad for immigrants fresh from Ellis Island.
But the 20th century had brought decades of disinvestment by the city and neglect by landowners, until the street’s name had become synonymous with skid row. It was studded with flophouses for winos. The low rents attracted a few artists like Christy. Meanwhile, the poorest residents squatted in abandoned tenements and panhandled on street corners. In the vacant lot at the northeast corner of Bowery and East Houston, two homeless men had frozen to death in a cardboard box the previous winter.
The Bowery reached an environmental tipping point one evening, when Christy was walking past the corner and saw a young boy playing in the garbage that littered the lot. The boy was about to climb into a discarded refrigerator and pull the door shut behind him. Christy was horrified. She pulled the boy out, dragged him to his mother and scolded her for letting him play in the trash.
The mother didn’t take kindly to the reprimand. She responded that she had a house full of kids to watch. If Christy was so worried about the refrigerator, why didn’t she get rid of it? In short order, Christy assembled some friends and some tools and started cleaning out the dump.
The group had already experimented with tossing “seed grenades” into vacant lots: Christmas ornaments and water balloons packed with seeds, compost and water. Now they hoped to reclaim an entire strip of land. They hung a sheet on the fence and wrote, optimistically, “Watch this plot of land be turned into a garden in 24 hours.”
It took more like three months. “We thought it was kind of crazy,” recalls Loggins, a member of the original group. “You didn’t want to go into this neighborhood. One time, when I was helping here, I heard gunshots. None of us envisioned we would be here 33 years from now.”
After hauling out six feet of trash and leveling the gravel underneath, the group trucked in soil. They marked out sixty raised beds and gathered horse droppings, from a nearby station for mounted police, for use as fertilizer. They planted seedlings scavenged from a park department giveaway.
The neighbors, overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic, were at first suspicious of a passel of Anglo kids in hippie clothes. But as they saw the Bowery Houston Community Farm Garden take shape, local teens pitched in. Within a few months, they were taking home armloads of tomatoes and cucumbers.
City officials were less enthused, and made noises about clearing out the horticultural trespassers. But Christy, who worked part-time in public relations, took her case to the local media. After the New York Daily News ran an article and a photo spread on the garden, officials backed off. For a dollar a year, they leased the lot to Christy’s group, which had dubbed itself the Green Guerillas.
The Daily News story exploded like a virtual seed bomb, scattering Christy’s ideas across the five boroughs. Soon, she was working full-time, consulting with other neighborhood groups. The feedback loops were whirring rapidly as wildcat gardens sprouted far beyond the Lower East Side.
Even the city belatedly jumped on the bandwagon. Starting in 1978, a parks department program called Green Thumb offered plants, tools and horticultural expertise. It also offered dollar-a-year leases to community groups that wanted to cultivate vacant lots. The lease money often went uncollected.
At the height of the movement, in the late 1980s, the city hosted more than 800 of the homegrown gardens. A survey by Green Thumb found the gardeners were growing over $1 million worth of produce each year. If their rows were laid end-to-end, they would stretch the length of a 67-mile round trip on the “A” Train.
As the feedback loops got broader, they spread beyond the five boroughs. In 1976, a Brooklyn congressman persuaded the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support urban gardening with grants and technical assistance. The program eventually covered 22 other cities. New York gardeners joined those from smaller programs in other cities in 1979 to form the American Community Garden Association.
The Big Apple was fertile soil for guerilla gardening. Some of the seeds had been planted years before. Both world wars and the Great Depression had inspired city government to sponsor “relief gardens” and “victory gardens” on unused land. Each time, they were abandoned once the crisis had passed.
Like those earlier eras, the 1970s was a time of financial stress. New York City was flirting with bankruptcy and its services were in disarray. In poorer parts of town, whole blocks had gone vacant as landlord after landlord let their properties go. The city had repossessed thousands of lots and was closing police and fire stations, letting the houses crumble.
“People were watching their neighborhoods decline, and it was killing to them,” says Jane Weissman, director of Green Thumb from 1984 to 1998. “A house would come down. Maybe it was arson. Maybe it was abandoned. You would end up with land, end up with the city maintaining it, end up with garbage, rats, drug dealing and chop shops. People were devastated by what going on in their neighborhoods. There was a sense of, ‘If we don’t do it, it’s not going to get done.'”
What was novel about this generation of gardens was that they weren’t planned by city hall. They were springing up, literally, from the streets. Desperate neighbors, fed up with waiting for the city’s help, had launched their own urban back-to-the-land movement. “What we call the contemporary community garden movement really came out of the energy from the antiwar movement, the beginning of Earth Day,” says Weissmann. “People were beginning to take control of own environment, especially as cities began going into fiscal crises and were not able to provide services to people.”
The gardens offered an array of services that city government was no longer providing. Like vines climbing a trellis, their environmental and social services were closely intertwined.
A chronic environmental need, for most New Yorkers, was open space. As of 2002, the city had 4.5 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, according to a survey by the Urban Land Institute. By comparison, Philadelphia had 7.1 acres and Boston boasted 9.3.
The gardens made up a mere 200 acres, a small fraction of the Big Apple’s 36,000 acres of parkland. But many were concentrated in areas underserved by city parks. Fifty were on the Lower East Side, where the ratio was only .6 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.
Much of the space was filled with greenery. Some called the gardens the “lungs of the city.” The plants pumped oxygen into the exhaust-laden streets and provided islands of shade and cooling in the long, hot Manhattan summers.
Recent behavioral science suggests that green space can aid mental as well as physical health. A 2001 study by New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell researcher Nancy Wells found that children who moved to greener surroundings improved their attention spans. At Texas A&M, professor Roger Ulrich has found that “healing gardens” in hospitals can speed the recovery of patients, primarily by reducing measures of stress.
In the New York gardens, much of the greenery was edible. Low-income residents could eat healthier diets in parts of town where fresh produce had previously been impossible to buy. Green Thumb found that 75 percent of the gardens also gave food away, to food banks and to hungry neighbors.
In other cities, a survey by the Philadelphia Urban Gardening Project found that urban gardeners ate fresh produce from their gardens five months of the year. A Rutgers University study in Newark found the average community gardener invested $25 a year to harvest $504 worth of food.
Immigrants to the Lower East Side (or, as they called it, Loisada) often sowed native crops from Jamaica and Puerto Rico. “Besides our beautiful flowers and vegetables there are many herb plants that we share with the neighborhood,” wrote Harry Lebrun of the El Bohio Boricua garden in Brooklyn. “Many of us who come from Puerto Rico believe these herbs are medically useful for high blood pressure, heart disease, earache, back pains and ulcers. Sunflowers are especially good for ulcers and they bring good luck.”
Plants weren’t all that flourished in the gardens. The diverse flora created habitats for a diverse array of birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals, echoes of the Manhattan that Peter Stuyvesant had known.
At Christy’s original garden (renamed the Liz Christy Memorial Garden after she died from cancer and her ashes were spread on the garden), a manmade pond attracted frogs. It was further stocked with turtles, fish and snakes. Gardener John English, a beekeeper, introduced a beehive that still turns out 100 pounds of honey a year. Once a year, garden volunteers are invited to bring jars and stock up.
In small ways, advocates say, the gardens performed several other environmental services. They reduced toxic wastes, though soil experts at some gardens still cautioned against eating vegetables like lettuce, which absorbed lead. Corn and tomatoes were safer.
The gardens were recycling urban land, and most used recycled materials, from manure to scrap lumber – an economic necessity as well as an environmental one. Even many of the plants were recycled. Rockefeller Center donated plants, as it changed exhibits every month.
By reducing the fruits and vegetables that had to be shipped into Manhattan, the gardeners saved gasoline and cut down air pollution. Nutritionist Joan Gussow calculates it takes 435 fossil fuel calories to fly a 5-calorie strawberry from California to New York.
While gardeners created natural habitats, they were transforming social ones, as well. “We call them outdoor community centers,” says Rebecca Ferguson, associate director of the Green Guerillas, “places where neighbors know each other, where maybe there are no other opportunities for neighbors to walk out the front door and socialize. I also think they increase a level of safety and accountability.”
Several studies nationwide suggest that gardens and green space might help to lower crime rates. In San Francisco’s Mission District, the Trust for Public Land reported a 28 percent drop after a garden led to the formation of a neighborhood watch group. In Chicago, professors Frances Kuo and William Sullivan compared crime rates among 98 apartment buildings in a public housing project. They found buildings with high levels of vegetation had 52 percent fewer crimes than buildings with low levels.
The story of the Little Puerto Rico garden, at 10th St. and Avenue B, paints a vivid picture of how a garden can tip a neighborhood away from crime and other social ills.
After five corner tenements were knocked down in 1977, their lots became home to a junk dealer who stripped empty buildings. They also became a shooting gallery for junkies and crack addicts. A decade later, neighbors cleared the site of abandoned cars and twelve dumpsters of garbage. After some fights with hoes and baseball bats, they accomplished what city police had not: They cleared the corner of drugs.
In its place they put in vegetable plots, a brick patio and two Puerto Rican-style casitas or small houses, complete with a propane-fired stove and flush toilet. Among the garden rows, and the clucks and snuffles of chickens and rabbits, they recreated a bit of their faraway homes in the big city.
“It was a place for all people on our block to go and bond together,” recalls Sara Ferguson, a journalist who moved next door to the garden in 1994. “People had weddings there and birthdays there. People came and cooked meals there. On Friday and Saturday nights, people would all be out there eating together and playing drums. There was a huge Halloween party, when the casitas would become haunted houses.”
She got to know her neighbors as she dug the soil alongside them. The elderly Don Garcia taught her how to mound a tomato plant, and which weeds were worth keeping for medicinal purposes. Lydia Cortes, a mother of five, oversaw the garden while her husband, Isais, fixed cars in the back.
Other gardens hosted more formal activities, from plays and dance to yoga and poetry readings. Artists in the Gardens planted paintings and sculptures on walls and pathways, while the Youth Murals Project gave more than 2,000 teens an alternative to grafitti.
Each space had its own character and a unique set of services. The Garden of Eden on Eldridge St. was featured in National Geographic. It was a painting in plantings, with meticulous floral displays and 45 fruit and nut trees, surrounding a central yin-yang symbol. On E. Ninth St., La Plaza Cultural featured an ampitheatre and a geodesic dome built by R. Buckminster Fuller.
El Rincon, in the Bronx, sat next to a methadone center. Recovering addicts came over to pick apples. “You would have to pay somebody grant money, city money, to do this stuff,” says Ferguson. “To provide community space for programs, to reintegrate drug dealers. You’re always trying to find money for parks funding, and people are already doing this on a volunteer, ad hoc basis.”
As a social and ecological welfare program, New York’s gardens were a stunning success. But their very success became a threat to their existence. As they tipped their neighborhoods into more desirable stability domains, they spun off a new feedback loop: rising property values. As the city recovered from its slump of the 1970s, officials began to eye the garden lots for uses other than flowerbeds.
In a 2002 memo, city council staffers wrote, “The communities in which they are located have, in many cases, seen a dramatic resurgence, causing many of these abandoned lots to now have value as sites for development, such as affordable housing, or as locations to be auctioned for private development, at which point they would return to the tax rolls.”
The Green Thumb gardeners had always had a sword dangling over their heads. The city viewed them as temporary and reserved the right to sell most of the lots at its whim. In the late 1980s, the sword began to fall. At first, only a handful of gardens went on the chopping block, making way for low-income housing and drug rehabilitation centers. The Garden of Eden fell in 1986 to make way for a HUD project.
A full-scale plague of bulldozers descended after 1994, when Rudolph Giulani became mayor. As U.S. Attorney, Giulani had helped plow under the Garden of Eden. As mayor, he wanted to auction off vacant properties to help the city pay its bills. This time, the buyers were not Section 8 builders but conventional real estate developers.
With little warning and no legal rights, gardeners found city council selling their ground from under them, often on the basis of staff reports that portrayed their urban oases as blighted wastelands.
Little Puerto Rico was flattened the day before New Year’s Eve, 1997. The city had denied it a Green Thumb lease, citing imminent plans for development. Residents celebrated a pyrrhic victory when the first bulldozer sank headfirst into a sewage trench. Within a year, however, four-story townhouses were rising from the rubble.
But city officials had not reckoned on the deep roots the gardens had put down among New Yorkers. By threatening all of them at once, the administration galvanized gardeners from potting soil into politics. They formed the New York Garden Preservation Coalition, and another new feedback loop began turning.
“It was the first time in community garden history when gardeners were working together to that degree,” says Rebecca Ferguson. “Before that, they worked in their own lots and did their own thing.”
Some groups went to court, while others returned to the locales where the gardens had first bloomed: the streets. At Giulani’s second inauguration, on New Year’s Day 1998, a group of gardeners unfurled a protest banner. In July, protesters released thousands of crickets into an auction hall. At the leveling of El Jardin de la Esperanza, 31 were arrested while sitting-in at a shelter shaped like a coqui, a Puerto Rican tree frog.
The administration responded by raising the stakes. In April 1998, it moved all 741 Green Thumb gardens from the parks department to the department of Housing, Preservation and Development, with orders to liquidate the property. Soon a block of 114 gardens were put up for auction.
As the feedback intensified, larger players came to the gardeners’ aid. The largest was state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The day after El Jardin de la Esperanza was destroyed, he won a temporary restraining order from an angry judge, putting most sales on hold. Just as a variety of species strengthens an ecosystem, a variety of tactics was putting the brakes on the bulldozers.
“All our organizing and the media coverage we received for our events, rallies, letter writing, and lawsuits, finally shifted the thinking from, ‘The gardens are temporary,’ to, ‘The gardens are permanent – and should be preserved forever,'” says organizer Felicia Young of Earth Celebrations.
In May 1999, the 114 gardens were rescued, hours before the auction, when two nonprofits bought them for $4.2 million. The money included a high-profile, $250,000 contribution from New Yorker Bette Midler.
Three years later, Giulani’s successor, Michael Bloomberg, was ready to settle Spitzer’s lawsuit. The city agreed to offer 198 gardens back to the parks department or nonprofits. Another 114 sites could still be sold, but only after a “garden review process” in which the city had to offer the gardeners a substitute piece of ground.
With that settlement, the gardens and the city had settled into a deeper stability domain. No new gardens were springing up, while the movement turned its attention to developing the 600 it had fought so hard to preserve.
But the momentum from Liz Christy’s first, defiant enviromental tip goes right on spreading, in unexpected directions. One spinoff is the Rites of Spring, a day-long parade, puppet and costume pageant that stops at 40 Lower East Side gardens every May. The garden saga is re-enacted in a character named Gaia, who is first kidnapped, then rescued. Her salvation is marked by the release of 50 butterflies.
More practically, movement veterans are sprinkled throughout city agencies and nonprofit groups. They putting their experience to work to turn the Big Apple into the Green Apple.
“We sort of infiltrated most places,” says Tessa Huxley. Director of the Green Guerillas from 1981 to 1985, she still remembers the time she was planting a dawn redwood in the Liz Christy garden. Her pickaxe broke through the roof of a subway tunnel that rumbled just beneath the soil.
Today, that redwood is 65 feet tall, and she’s executive director of the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy. She manages the parks in Battery Park City, a city-within-a-city that’s home to 25,000 people.
“The parks are completely toxic-free,” says Huxley. “We don’t use any herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. We do enormous amount of composting. We take vegetable waste from local groceries and Starbucks coffee grounds. We look at our soils as what’s gonna make plants healthy. We look at the chemical and biological components, and we develop the compost accordingly.”
Her example helped inspire the Battery Park City Authority to set “green” standards for all new buildings. Its first “green” residential highrise opened in 2003, with features like solar panels, recycled building materials, rainwater storage and vaporless paints. The first building leased out in six months, despite rents that started at $2,300.
Looking back, says Weissman, “The gardens were tipping points, tremendous trifles. People were always coming into your neighborhood, saying, “Could you come into our block and show us how to do this. Our gardens inspired other gardens. There was a tremendous ripple effect of other gardens happening.” Those ripples are still fanning out, far past the Hudson, says Loggins. “Two years ago, people from France were coming in. They wanted to start community gardens there. People from China were coming in, trying to learn how to start community gardens in China. People in Sweden also. So, apparently, it’s still spreading.”
- Green Guerillas
- Liz Christy Bowery Houston Community Garden
- Sara Ferguson, A Brief History of Grassroots Greening in New York City (Videos and stories from gardeners). Online link
- Green Thumb (NYC parks department resources for community gardens)
Click here to see another version of the New York City gardens story written by the EcoTipping Points team.