Community gardeners are optimistic

Audience members had a chance to voice their opinions after the panel discussion

But new city rules still have gardeners on guard

South Bronx gardeners responded to New York City’s new guidelines for the protection of community gardens with cautious optimism at a town-hall-style meeting at the New School on Oct. 2 that included a panel of local leaders and gardeners.

A number of Bronx residents were there to represent their communities, and they shared their questions and concerns with the group of several hundred that spent a long Saturday afternoon strategizing for the future of the city’s gardens.

The new rules were revealed after the last set, drafted in 2002, expired in September. Officials from the Parks Department and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development say the rules, which establish a registration system to formalize the plots are designed to protect gardens built on city-owned property,

Among other safeguards, they also promise to offer alternative land to gardens that are being taken over to make way for new development projects.

But many gardeners are concerned that years of hard work could too easily be bulldozed by developers looking to profit in up-and-coming areas.

Hidden loopholes in the rules could provide opportunities for builders to take over healthy gardens down the road.

They “can be used by developers when there is property that they can take hold of,” said Vandra Thorburn, of the NYC Community Garden Coalition. “These gardens are vulnerable.”

In Mott Haven’s gardens, the new rules are being considered with caution. From Padre Plaza to La Finca, the concerns are consistent. For one, these rules will be subject to change when the next mayoral administration comes to power in New York City. In addition, there is language in the rules that refers to gardens “in good standing.”

In good standing “according to whom?” asks Mike Young, president of Padre Plaza, a vibrant corner garden that houses a farmers’ market on Wednesdays. “There are days when our garden is closed.” What if someone were to come by on one of those days and declare Padre Plaza “inactive,” he asks.

Despite these concerns, the new rules are being accepted by community gardeners and leaders as a step in the right direction. But there is still widespread sentiment that gardens need more permanent, clearly-worded legal protection that will be effective beyond the current administration. The Community Garden Coalition is thinking about next steps for conservancy, or land trust, “so we’re not always at the whim of the Mayor,” said Thorburn.

Looking over the bustling Padre Plaza, Young invoked the neighborhood garden’s tradition of fighting spirit. “If we ever hear a bulldozer, we’ll be standing in front of the gates anyway,” he said.

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

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