Green Thumb, Concrete Jungle

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:05

Downtown community gardens spring to life while some fight for their lives

Lower East Side Tenants who built and maintained a community garden behind two East Village apartment buildings said that it will be needlessly destroyed by a management company that recently bought the buildings.

Around the corner, another community garden that's catered to children for the past three decades had its vegetable patch annexed ? illegally they say ? by the owner of the lot who abandoned it in the 1980s.

And yet a few blocks farther on is the Creative Little Garden, one of the most vibrant ? if diminutive - in the East Village.

All three cases illustrate the struggles and triumphs that come with operating a community garden in a city as dense as New York.

In the first case, the gardeners are fighting for a lot more than a patch of earth. Their two buildings, at 170 and 174 East 2nd Street, were recently acquired by Westminster Management, which is owned by Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who also publishes the New York Observer. Some tenants took buyouts while others decided to stay and fight.

One embattled tenant told the East Village blog EV Grieve that their garden could be destroyed any day now, which "would be of no benefit to Westminster, and to the tenants it would be a tragedy."

"Our garden is not just a decorative tableau, but a part of our daily lives: during the day, it is a place to do our professional work, and to make use of the carefully constructed space dedicated to meditation," said the tenant. "In the evenings, it has long been a place for neighbors to meet one another."

The tenants have taken legal action to stay in their apartments, but said the management company may be moving too fast for them to save the garden. "In fact, we believe that it is this use of our garden ? as a place to foster community ? which is the reason why it has been targeted."

At the Children's Magical Garden at Stanton and Norfolk Street, which has been used as a community classroom since the 1980s, residents were shocked last May when workers constructed a fence that cut off their sizable vegetable patch - about half the garden. Members said the lot's owner, Serge Hoyda, who sold it to the developer that put the fence up, had abandoned the lot some 30 years ago and it was since taken over by people who turned it into what is now a community hub of agriculture and education.

In court papers filed this past March, lawyers for the garden are citing the NYS "Law of Adverse Possession," which states that someone has a right of ownership to a property if they've occupied it for at least 10 years. The lawsuit names as defendants both Hoyda and the developer, 157 LLC, who bought the property in January for $3.35 million.

The garden's executive director, Kate Temple-West, told Our Town Downtown that she and other members are prepared to fight for what's theirs. "The land belongs in the hands of the community," said Temple-West. "We're happy to have legal representation to make sure everyone understands that."

The portion of the garden that wasn't annexed is still in operation, and members have since been able to bring it under the purview of the city Parks Department's Green Thumb program.

The Creative Little Garden, on East 6th Street between Avenue A and Avenue B, is also part of the Green Thumb program, along with over 500 other parks citywide.

However, according to former garden president Steve Rose, there are no real protections to community gardens who belong to the Green Thumb program, as "the city legally owns the property and can do with it what they please," said Rose. "Once a garden is established, Green Thumb and other organizations support its ongoing existence. I would also assume that there would be a large local resistance to the city closing a garden which is visited by so many people. The neighborhood simply would not stand for it."

Green Thumb NYC could not be reached for comment, but according to their website, community gardens under their jurisdiction are preserved as gardens as long as they are registered with the Parks Department and meet the community garden criteria.

Green Thumb is one of several local, state and national organizations that are involved in protecting community gardens in the city, many of which started on an ad hoc basis. Parks across the city are also protected and maintained by organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, the New York Restoration Project and the Manhattan Land Trust, among others.

According to Lenny Librizzi of Grow NYC, community gardens in New York are doing just fine. "The numbers have fluctuated over the years," said Librizzi. "There are between 500 and 600 community gardens in New York City. There recently been a slight increase in the number of community gardens with increased awareness of the environment and interest in healthy lifestyles."

For Sara Jones, chair of the LaGuardia Corners Gardens in Greenwich Village, community gardens are about turning bad neighborhoods around and fostering a safe environment for residents.

"We were created on an empty lot in Greenwich Village in 1979. The 1970s were an economically depressed time in the city," said Jones. "We created our own parks with plenty of hard labor and pride. We turned bad neighborhoods around."