Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lacking Open Space: Greenpoint Williamsburg, Guerilla Gardening, and the Case for Nothing Yet Community Garden

Guerilla gardeners and squatters Michael S. and Brad W. - neither of whom asked for permission.
Photos by Fly.

There’s an expression: “if you want to achieve for greatness, stop asking for permission.” In other words, sometimes it’s better to garden first and explain yourself later. This has been the approach of some of the most vibrant new community gardens in town: Siempre Verde on 181 Stanton Street, Nothing Yet Garden in Williamsburg, and others. In these spoces, gardeners are doing what they’ve always done:  found unused spaces, cleaned them out, and started planting flowers, conversations, and community.

Gardens are spaces where democracy thrives, communities grow, and peace-of-mind comes about without money changing hands. These are threats to the real estate developers and corporations that run the city. Yet people love them. So start to grow one in your neighborhood.

Liberate Spae - Fly
Bill XUP at Nothing Yet Gommunity Garden

Starting a garden is not that complicated. Some excellent guides exist online. Essentially: find a plot of land, see who owns it and what plans might exist for it on 596Acres.org. Become an organizer on that website and start to garden: gather friends and community partners, plan some initial steps, start to beautify the space, test the soil, plant some seeds and water them, and keep working as things start to grow. From the beginning, bring as many people into the process as possible.  For community gardens to thrive, they need to be open spaces where everyone feels like they can take part. Invite people in. Collect their signatures and you can get support from the community board.  Write to the local community board and get on the agenda for their next meeting so your space has a permanent home.   Approaches to creating a new community garden are many.  

Photo by 596 Acres

Over the last few weeks, Times Up! has joined neighbors in Williamsburg to create a new community garden.   Some suggested the group wait to find out what the city plans to do with the lot and that we should not be surprised if the lot ends bulldozed.  In other words, follow the rules.  But when we play by their rules, we tend to lose.

For years, open space advocates played by the rules of the city in Williamsburg Greenpoint.  We created a 197 a Community Plan calling for open space, got it approved by the Community Board and it was promptly  ignored by the city which went ahead with its own rezoning in 2005.  Yet there was a condition on support for rezoning - that the city create affordable housing and badly needed open green space.  In subsequent years the city failed to follow its end of the bargain.

A plan to remake Williamsburg and Greenpoint with gleaming luxury apartment towers was sold to a skeptical community seven years ago with the promise of new waterfront parks and 3,500 "affordable housing" units.
But with about 18 months left in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's last term, few of those plans have materialized, and community leaders in north Brooklyn are concerned they are running out of time.

"They made these commitments, and as a result we rezoned the last large swath of industrial waterfront," said City Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents the area. "The community wants to know and I want to know, 'What's the plan?'"

It has become a familiar scenario across the city, as large developments such as Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Willets Point in Queens move forward: The promises made by the city and developers to overcome opposition change over time or are delayed long into the future.

In northern Brooklyn, community leaders said they were particularly concerned about the status of Bushwick Inlet Park, a proposed 28-acre space that would connect Williamsburg and Greenpoint and feature a running path, playgrounds and waterfront views. The Bloomberg administration has acquired about half of the 28 acres, but City Hall officials wouldn't say when the rest would be purchased. So far, only a soccer field has been built on the southern tip of the proposed park area.

"...the city remains committed to expanding open space in the neighborhood," noted a statement from the city.

Yet, the city has failed to follow up on their plans to create the desperately needed green spaces.  In its statement of community needs, Community Board One in Greenpoint Williamburg notes that expanding parkland is a priority community need. The Williamsburg/Greenpoint Open Space Plan specifically notes:

Brooklyn Community District One's population is 160,000, equivalent to a small American city, with 38,000 in Greenpoint and 44,000
in Williamsburg living proximate to the waterfront (west of the
Brooklyn Queens Expressway). With city-proposed rezoning, massive development will bring the district's total population to as
much as 200,000 within the lifetime of today's youth.
Community District One currently ranks near the bottom of the list
in open space per capita, with .06 acres per 1,000 residents...
[A]fter a population increase of 25 percent and a waterfront
newly occupied by 22 high-rise towers the community will be back
where it started; seriously underserved for park space.

This is part of why the city should support the Nothing Yet garden with a permanent lease.  We are helping the city and the community address an unmet community need in a cost effective way.  Yet, over and over community gardeners are told that the need for affordable housing trumps the need for gardens, as if this is a zero sum game, either or.  When it bulldozed  the Morning Glory Community Garden in 2011 this was part of its argument. Yet, as my friend Emily points out, those gardeners were not just trying to beautify the neighborhood, but were growing good food in an area that doesn't have a lot of healthy food options.  When she started looking into what kind of affordable housing was being provided, she found that it is housing for MEDIAN INCOME people. Median income in Manhattan is listed as about $75k and Brooklyn as about $50k. NYC as a whole has a median income of about $61k.  That is the type of income one needs to qualify for "affordable housing", and frankly, you can actually find market rate housing that's affordable on that type of income SOMEWHERE in NYC, though maybe not in SOHO or the LES. It's seriously not housing for lower income people.

Certainly, most gardeners know housing is a human right.  And gardens support healthy communities, which need a balance of open space, parks, effective transportation, schools, green space, legal services, and housing.  Sadly, as the Wall Street Journal reports, this balance is lacking in the ongoing redevelopment of Williamsburg Greenpoint.  Nothing Yet Community Garden addresses these needs.  In a neighborhood which needs public green space, the gardeners have tried to open the lot for something more than just condos, creating a space for people to share space, BBQ, plant, learn about the urban environment, and build community.

The City's own RFP for the development project says, "Block 2443, Lot 41 must be improved as open space for the residents of the Project." i.e., the people involved in improving the lot right now are laying the groundwork for the City's own proposed use for the land: "open space".

Gardens around the city have supported the efforts of those gardening at Nothing Yet Garden.  Last week, we brought plants from Friends of Brook Park in the Bronx.  We are agents of change, Harry, who gave the plants reminded me. Direct action gets the goods. So go create a garden, he preached, offering us trees and bulbs.

 This Sunday, Siempre Verde Community Garden in the Lower East Side offered similar support.

I joined the garden clean up day  at the garden on 181 Stanton, just down the street from my old home.  

There, the gardeners shared advise about strategy, experience,  as well as wheel borough. They are the model for a successful community garden.  Open to all... and operating with support of their neighbors.  The gardeners suggested that we reach out the community board and get in their agenda, which we plan to do.

After some gardening there, I rode over to Williamsburg to join the garden cleanup which was already going on.

Bulldozers and other signs of the times on the way over to Williamsburg.
We hope our garden does not end up like this.

Some of the bulbs and bushes from Friends of Brook Park were growing. 


And gardeners from all over the neighborhood joined us.  Friends from Occupy stopped by, as we planned and planted, sharing sweat equity to support something better for Willamsburg.

I talkedwith a hundreds of people on the street about the project.  They all said the same thing: Williamsburg needs green space and not more towers, echoing the call for the battle against the neighborhood rezoning from 2005:  "We don't need no stinkin' towers.  We need a place to plant out flowers."

Photo by Barbara Ross

Bill Times Up! helped light up a BBQ, inviting people in off the street to join us as we planted the seeds of a new community.

"Today was next to perfect," Keegan posted later that day. "After a scare this morning, our garden clean-up was fantastic, planting a pumpkin patch, painting a new sign, cleaning more dirt, creating a sitting area, and holding a productive meeting.

"... Planted a pumpin patch, started a compost pile, received a wheel barrow donation, cleaned more dirt, painted a new sign, created a seating area, and had a productive meeting. More neighbors are getting involved every day. We have collected more than 200 signatures. We are looking for donations of a long hose, more shovels and rakes, materials/knowledge for building benches, tables, a tool shed, and more. We really need someone to research our community board meetings so we can start going. We have created a break-out group to meet with our Permiculture consultants and start planning our layout THIS WEEK. We will have many more tasks planned for next Sunday, and we will meet every Sunday from here on out at 2pm! To get involved with any of this or anything more, please e-mail us at NothingYetCommunityGarden@gmail.com"

Photo by Barbara Ross

By the next day, a worker from the city had taken down our new sign for the garden.  Quite a job for Earth Day. 


The theme of guerilla gardening continued on Monday night, with an Earth Day Ride ride through the East Village.  We met at the Gaia Tree in Tompkins Square Park.  Sarah from the Occupy Sustainability Working Group had given Monica some seed bombs we could throw at other vacant lots and gardens and spaces in between, anywhere there is fertile soil.

Leaving the park, we rode through the village streets, throwing seeds through fences into gardens and lots throughout the neighborhood.  "One, Two, Three, More Gardens!" we screamed throwing the seeds.

Seed bombs in a blur of space.

The ride ended at the mayoral forum on environmental issues, where members of Occupy the Pipeline pushed candidates to make clear statements of opposition to the Spectra Pipeline.  Hopefully a few of the other mayoral candidates will make clear statements in support of making the community gardens permanent and extending the network of bikelanes throughout the five boroughs of the city, from Brooklyn over the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge to Statan Island.

Cyclists should have a safe route over this bridge, connecting the boroughs by bike.

Holding "Clean Green Energy Now" we chanted "I Bike and I Vote" as politicians and supporters poured out of the Cooper Union.  Well, some of us vote, we joked, as we started a dance party for renewable energy outside the mayoral forum last night at Cooper Union!

Photo and Caption by Monica Hunken.
Occupy the Pipeline rose up from their seats with a call to action at the mayoral forum on sustainability at Cooper Union last night. Although all candidates spoke against Spectra pipeline, their previous silence and lack of support in the fight speaks louder. We demand if they talk the talk, they walk the walk and join us in protecting NY from any fossil fuel or shale gas infastructure. After the last speech, we walked to the front of the stage with banners calling for renewable energy chanting, "Stop Spectra pipeline! Stop Rockaway Pipeline! Renewable energy now!" And then marched out to join our friends, Timesup, who had just finished a ride seed-bombing empty lots. They held up signs and were yelling "I bike and I vote" while dancing to soul and funk! We danced and passed out literature until every one of the thousand New Yorkers walked out. We will not be silent or passive when it comes to our health, land, air and water.
Photo by Eric Mc Gregor
As the event ended, we danced and meandered over to the Scratcher on E5th for a disucssion of our Hoola Hoop the POPS event planned for May 4th. 
POPS planning meeting with BS and Kim and Dee Dee's hat.
Photo by by DD Maucher
Nadette shared a smile.

 Over the weekend, some are going to the NYCCG Community Garden forum.  Others are joining the Poetry Ride on Sunday Sunday. Hopefully, we can stop at a Nothing Yet garden to share a few more stories and poems.  This poetry is what community gardens are all about anyways.  Hopefully Nothing Yet, will be much more. 

Poetry teems through the streets of the East Village.

Here's a loose itinerary for Time's Up Poetry Ride where we read poems with associated themes. Special guests are being recruited. If you have an idea for a different stop please post it here.

Starting at 3 pm Washington Square Arch: We sound our barbaric yawp and burst forth in kinetic inspiration.

Weather Underground House: Verse subverse. Rage. Fire. 

Edna St. Vincent Millay's House: Wild love. Uninhibited lust. Kinky passion. Strange fruits.

Rawhide (RIP) Chelsea: Vaseline and Jockstraps

Allen Ginsberg Apartment: Sunflower Sutras - Perpetual Spring Frolic, Grass and Gardens 

Williamsburg Bridge: Sonic tone poems - sounds and movement, East River Ritual.

East River Bar (or other watering hole) Drunk poets society - more dancing and mayhem.

On the way we hope to drop by teh Dias y Flores community garden poetry session that afternoon.

Dias y Flores Community Garden’s schmoard of shmirectors, has told Jeff Wright to take plants out of his plot and surrender his key. Jeff has not broken any of the by-laws or rules. Please come to the First Annual Key Ceremony “Eventwork” (as described in March’s Artforum) and bring Jeff a key in solidarity. Make your key big or small, shiny or dull. The keys will be included in a mobile to be shown next month at Theater for the New City.
Poets, bring a poem for the choral reading. Be a participant in the struggle to Save the Gardens and keep them free. Lend your voice to history! There’s a plan in place to film the day’s events and edit them into a movie. Bring whistles, bells, drums, flags — and plants, plants to put in the plot as Wright re-dedicates it to the community. Bring a smile on your face and in your heart bring a song.

“Official” Schmoard Warning
Mumbo jumbo. No gobbledy-gook. No malarkey whatsoever. And especially – No “subversive” making funny faces or conspiratorial winking at the plants.!!!!
WHEN: 12 - 6      
               Sunday, April 28th. Important meeting at High Noon.

Key Ceremony and Celebration of our rights to speak freely and to assemble peaceably: begins at 1:00pm and lasts til 6:00.  
               Dias y Flores Community Garden
520 East 13th Street between Avenues A & B

Rain or shine as always!      

We'll finish the poetry ride with a trip to the Nothing Yet Garden cleanup day Sunday 2 PM.  See you there. Mayday is around the corner.


  1. Awesome, Ben! Really interesting to understand and document the history. The action-based directive is a nice change of pace.

    Hope to check out the garden soon.


  2. Fabulous -- the visual, textual interaction with the actual, spatial interaction of people claiming new states (of being)!