Residents, city clash over use of lot

Photo by Elizabeth Chen. Elliott Liu and Rafael Mutis removed plants from the lot the city plans to build on at Union Ave. and Southern Boulevard.

The grassy lot at the corner of Southern Blvd and Union Ave has been a green oasis for some local residents, but as they recently found out, the city has other plans.

For the past two years, residents have planted vegetables and held social gatherings in the lot, referring to  it as the Morning Glory Community Garden. They say the space was abandoned until people like Elliot Liu cleaned it and furnished it with tables and chairs. Teenagers have worked on the impromptu garden, mainly students from nearby Samuel J. Gompers High School.“This should be a public space,” said Aazam Otero, a Gompers graduate.

Earlier in the fall, they planned to expand the garden to provide fresh produce for the neighborhood. But city contractors turned their garden beds into piles of wood in early November.

In response, Liu, 29, and a handful of other gardeners blocked the gate to keep the city out, while holding protest signs.

“The first notice we got was when there was suddenly a gate with a lock on it and ‘no trespassing” signs up,” said Liu. “It wasn’t like we were hard to contact. We had a bulletin board with contact information. And we’re in there many days of the week working so we’re very approachable.”

Contractors arrived and tore down part of the fence to gain entrance and clear the lot, despite the presence of a few protesters. A representative for the city’s department of Housing Preservation  and Development told Liu that if he or the others trespassed they would be arrested.

HPD spokesman Eric Bederman said in an email that had the gardeners been registered with the city’s GreenThumb program, as community garden users are urged to do, they would have had access to information that the the city plans to build approximately 430 apartments for low- to- moderate- income tenants and a school for disabled children on the lot.

“The people who recently unlawfully entered this City-owned site did not seek permission to through the City’s GreenThumb Program,” Bederman wrote in his e-mail, “nor did they inquire whether it was slated for development.”

The gardeners are petitioning for support from Community Board 1, but district manager Cedric Loftin said the residents who have congregated and grown vegetables on it have done so improperly.

“It’s not a community garden because it’s not a GreenThumb garden,” said Loftin, adding that the residents “went somewhere where they have no right to be.”

Residents who have used the space say their battle with the city to create more green areas is not over.

“This neighborhood needs more community gardens,” said Isidro Campus, a superintendent from across the street. “We need to attack these developers.”