As pact with city expires, gardeners worry

Park users relax at Brook Park.Photo by Joe Hirsch

City officials insist community gardens have nothing to fear

Eight years ago, the city, the state and the creators of 500 community gardens on city-owned land reached an agreement that ended a long battle that began when the Giuliani administration sought to auction the garden lots to developers.

Now, that agreement is set to expire, alarming gardeners in Mott Haven and Melrose who fear that new rules drafted by the Parks Department threaten their green mini-utopias.

The community gardens they created by cleaning up vacant lots offer respite from wilting summer heat and a harvest that is tastier and more nutritious than the produce in local markets, they say, but they fear that real estate will trump their efforts to provide life’s basics for locals who live with less.

City officials contend residents have nothing to worry about. They say whatever new agreement gets hammered out to replace the pact that expires in September will be an improvement on the present arrangement, and that they have made every effort to take residents’ concerns into account.

Harry Bubbins, director of the area’s largest community garden, Brook Park, is among the skeptics. “They want to put up condominiums, big boxes, you know the deal,” Bubbins warned a crowd of about a hundred at a festival honoring immigrants at the park in July.

Bubbins, whose gruff demeanor more closely resembles that of an embattled rural homesteader than a crass New Yorker, recalled the state of the park, which occupies the better part of a square block on Brook Avenue between 140th and 141st streets. “We cut the locks to get in here. It was an abandoned lot.”

Community gardeners want the city to sign an agreement that would grant the gardens permanent status and protect them from future development, a demand the city says is impossible to meet, and unnecessary.

“There is no legal mechanism that guarantees permanency,” said Jack Linn, assistant commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Linn says his agency is sensitive to the nervousness garden users are feeling in the face of the expiring agreement, but that their fears are unfounded.

“I certainly understand their anxiety when there’s change, but their concern is not rooted in history,” he said.

Separately, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development is set to implement new rules for community gardens on its land that license existing gardens but also provide for the possibility that in the future they could be evicted. The new rules emphasize that the gardens are not parks, that the city retains title to the land and that the gardeners gain no right to it through their work.

Aresh Javadi, a former Melrose resident who counsels kids during the summer at the Padre Plaza Success Garden on St. Ann’s Avenue and runs the moregardens.org website thinks the city is being disingenuous by extolling the virtues of gardens on one hand, but refusing to make them untouchable to developers.

“We find it a little frustrating that they won’t write it down,” Javadi said of the city’s assurances.

“We ask that they state specifically that all gardens in good standing stay in parks,” he added.

City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito who represents a small section of Mott Haven and also chairs the Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee, says she agrees about the need to protect gardens, saying “I believe there has to be some measure of permanency written in.” But Mark-Viverito was less than hopeful about prospects for the gardeners getting what they’re asking for.

“We’ve taken it as far as we can because the Mayoral administration has said ‘this is as far as we’re going to go,’” she said, but added “we still have a ways to go,” in negotiations with the Mayor.

But Jack Linn of the Parks Dept insists the Bloomberg administration’s policies have been favorable to community gardens.

“No group of gardeners has been evicted” in the eight years in which the current agreement has been in place, Linn said, and added that “not one garden has been lost.”

Longtime Mott Haven resident and park user Flora Garcia Cruz, who moved to Mott Haven from Mexico decades ago, has been persuaded that the danger to Brook Park is worth worrying about.

“If they try to take it, I’ll chain myself to a tree,” she said in Spanish, in the company of several Mexican friends relaxing on benches under shady trees at the park. “We’ll all chain ourselves to trees to keep this garden for our children.”

Harry Bubbins thinks there is cause for alarm, and that gardeners have been “lulled into complacency” during the eight years of the existing agreement.

“Nothing is protected forever unless we make it so,” he said.

A version of this story appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.

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