Monday, April 15, 2013

Nothing Yet Garden: A New Garden in Williamsburg and the Fight for Green Open Space

View of Nothing Yet Garden from the Williamsburg Bridge.
Photo by Brennan Cavanaugh

For years now, we've been enjoying community gardens as well as fighting for these pieces of free space in a neoliberal city of social controls, condos, and developer driven politics which see urban space as something from which to extract profits.  While the Bloombergs of the world hope to privatize our commons, our neighborhoods are more than this.  They are spaces for democratic living, conversations, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, green space, fun and exchange of ideas. 

My life as a gardener and public space advocate in New York come in several phases, the first being the period when I first recognized gardens as pieces of public space in the late 1990's in New York when the Mayor was planning to auction off the gardens and bulldozing gardens, such as Esperanza on East 7th Street. 

The Spitzer agreement was born of that era.  Over the years to come, we enjoyed watching the gardens become a part and parcel of life in New York, celebrating garden parades, cleanup days,  and hopes to preserve the Spitzer era garden agreement throughout the late 2000's.   We fought for better garden rules in 2010

This writer below Sunflower Jess fighting to preserve the gardens at City Hall.
photo by Ariane Burgess

And although, we did not get the protections we wanted with the second draft was far improved, from the first of the agreement by the city.  While gardeners had asked for these spaces to become linked into the parks department., not HPD, we got few guarantees with the updated garden agreement.  Instead gardens could be moved to HPD at any moment.  As for now, few in the council will sponsor a bill moving gardens to the Parks Department. Few will put their commitments to the gardens down on paper.  A draft of the proposed law states:

Section 1. Legislative findings and declaration. The legislature hereby finds and declares that preservation of community gardens in the City of New York is a matter of City concern. Community gardens are valuable to the preservation of the quality of life in New York City. Hundreds of vacant lots have been transformed from places of blight and criminal activity into productive spaces offering beautiful flower and vegetable gardens and recreational areas for use by community residents of all ages. Such transformations have been at the initiative and responsibility of community volunteers. Such volunteers have been able to transform abandoned lots into plots offering park and recreational benefits at a cost far below what it would have cost the City to do. Such community gardens were developed by volunteers in response to urban blight in their areas. Small parcels of open space in the City of New York are easily accessible to large numbers of people and have a great value to urban dwellers. Lands, which in an urban area can be used for community gardens or neighborhood parks and open spaces are as significant to the environmental health of municipal residents as areas in pristine environmental condition are to people in rural areas. Community gardens are environmental educational and cultural resources.  In recognition of the importance of such places to the City and its quality of life, the legislature hereby finds and declares community gardens as parkland of the City of New York and further finds that such community gardens cannot be sold or developed.
S 2. Notwithstanding any inconsistent provision of law, lots commonly referred to as community gardens, which have been leased by the City of New York to community residents for use as a community garden or for recreation purposes for at least six months prior to the effective date of this act shall be dedicated as parkland in the City of New York wherein such community garden exists. Such parkland shall not be developed or sold.
S 3. This act shall take effect immediately.

Opposition to this bill stems from a concern that this would require the city to change its charter.  Crazier things have been done in New York.  Until 2008, many New Yorkers assumed term limits would remain for politicians in New York that is until the City Council turned over term limits. Today, we hope Melissa Viverito will sponsor the Garden Law to make the gardens permanent.  Please contact her and ask her to introduce this legislation making all gardens permanent. 

Throughout the last decade, neighborhood after neighborhood in New York have been rezoned, with developer interests trumping neighborhood needs.  Gardens have been bulldozed and displaced, replaced by concrete.  When the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg was rezoned in 2005, the city ignored the Community 197A Plan to increase open space, instead favoring twenty-two forty foot condos along the waterfront, with little to no increased public space, green, space, schools, or transportation.  Gentrification on steroids, this is how neighborhood members described the plan which:

-Mandated no minimum of affordable housing units. 
-Privatized access to the waterfront.
-Did not expand the amount of open space or park space. 
-Increased the population of W'Burg/Greenpoint by 40,000 without addressing the resultant infrastructural needs. 

  "We don't want your stinkin'towers, we want space to plant our flowers," activists declared. 

Fred Askew

Faced with developer driven planning models transforming the city's distinct neighborhoods  into retail outlets of  NYC Inc, neighborhood members fought back, with regular people cobbling together plans to build new gardens from Bushwick to the Lower East Side.  596 Acres has unleashed a powerful weapon city wide as activists throughout the city took to logging onto the site to scour the vacant lots in their neighborhoods in sear

ch of open spaces.   This summer activists from the Lower East Side opened up a vacant lot on 181 Stanton Street naming it Siempre Verde.  Members of Times up were there from the first day.

Scenes from the first days of Siempre Verde. 

Public space advocate and 596 Acres founder Paula Z Segal wrote about the approach in the anthology Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space.  Other public space advocates including this author, members of Times Up! and Green Map System also contributed to the project. 

The work chronicles the contextualizes nature of public space in this neoliberal city, where we've been kicked out of Zuccotti Park, the Williamsburg Waterfront, and countless other public spaces.  Yet, instead of waiting for permission or for the city to pass a zoning law which supports public space, on Sunday in Williamsburg, garden activists took actions into their own hands, turning to direct action.  Times Up! posted a call to support the guerrilla gardening action.

Groundbreaking Day Is Tomorrow, Come One Come All!!!

2PM, 99 S 5TH ST, Williamsburg Brooklyn, between Bedford and Berry!

Bring shovels, rakes, hammers, nails, screws, scrap wood, wheelbarrows, plants, paints, brushes, and whatever else you have to beautify a vacant lot!

We will be cleaning up trash, clearing the soil, making paths with rocks, setting up composting, painting walls and wood, barbequing, organizing, and so much more. Please join us for this historic day of fun!!!

The action itself was long coming.  For months, members of Times UP! had been digging through the vacant lots of 596 Acres. signing up to watch lots, follow through with leads, etc. All through January I looked into this small lot on S. 5th Street, corresponding with staff members from HPD who said that the lot is part of the LPC warehouse request for proposals and that there are plans for it.   Is it time to look elsewhere? I posted on the 596 Acres list.

On January 29, 2013, at 10:41a.m., Paula at 596 Acres said:
It's a big housing development project. The Proposal Submission Deadline was August 31, 2012. I wonder if there were proposals that were submitted. And I wonder if the folks who submitted were able to get financing.... You might call HPD back and ask about the proposals that were submitted.
It sounds like, at least for now, this lot is part of a future plan that might or might not come about. Let's keep our eyes on it!

By April, we had exhausted out options, looking at countless other  lots on the 596 acres list in 
WBurg and Greenpoint. Most every lot seemed to be spoken for. There is a call for proposals for most every lot. The rezoning of 2005 called for more towers and less flowers. We're trying to bring more desperately needed green space into an over developed neighborhood I noted on 596 Acres, noting signs and interest in this lot are popping up all over the neighborhood.

On April 13, 2013, at 2:45p.m., Paula at 596 Acres said:
I love that you are taking a stand for green space here. Keep in mind that this is space that is unlikely to be permitted by the city agency, at least this year, in the face of the massive housing development planned here.
Of course, if a permit or license isn't your priority (and we're not suggesting it should be) then of course go for it!
On April 13, 2013, at 4:07p.m., Benjamin Shepard said:
Of course we would like a permit at some point. But I've literally spent months looking for lots on 596 and in the neighborhood. Nothing seems open.
If you know of anything, we would love to hear. So far everything we've explored has plans.
On April 13, 2013, at 5:33p.m., Benjamin Shepard said:
PS When is the development scheduled to happen? All I heard was there was an RFP out. Is something actually scheduled to be built there any time soon?
On April 13, 2013, at 8:40p.m., ilyse said:
according to the RFP, "Block 2443, Lot 41 must be improved as open space for the residents of the Project." So there is a built in restriction against building on this lot. I can't imagine the City could object to citizens undertaking to improve a lot that the city itself has said is to be improved?
In the days after these conversations, organizers posted flyers for the gardening day, did outreach, and made plans.

The day of the guerrilla gardening, I drove up to Friends of Brook Park Sunday to pick up supplies.  Legendary gardener Harry Bubbins, one of the founders of the More Gardens! coalition was there to greet me.  A supporter of direct action, he told me I could use whatever I needed from the Bronx garden to start one in Brooklyn. You are the city, he reminded me, suggesting regular people do have a right to impact their own spaces, such as they are doing in the Bronx.

He showed me brook under Brook park, which the gardeners hoped to open up.

And I drove back to the city where members of the congregation at Judson supported my efforts. These are the people who fought off Jane Jacobs and housed Occupy. 

A lovely day in the Village, the city was blooming with flowers.

Leaving Manhattan, I drove to Williamsburg to bring our new supplies. 

Bill, Barbara, and Keegan were there to meet me.  We dropped off supplies in the garden, joyously starting our gardening. 

In need of shovels and a wheel barrow, we drove to  Bushwick City Garden where an old friend from Critical Mass days was there to offer us supplies. 

At the space and its farm down the street, gardeners give away food and clothing, while feeding chickens and even a duck, offering a little mutual aid.  Its hard not to be excited about New York in such moments. 

Arriving back at S 5th Street, volunteers were already filling the garden with energy, cleaning out trash, planting flowers, and organizing.

The morning email announced:  After years of supporting and defending other community gardens, Time's Up is finally starting its own. We are breaking ground in a lot just around the corner from our Brooklyn Time's Up Space! Bring shovels, rakes, hammers, nails, screws, scrap wood, wheelbarrows, plants, paints, brushes, and whatever else you have to beautify a vacant lot!

We talked, cleaned, smiled, listened to music and made a day of guerrilla gardening, and did some dancing as we ran wheel boroughs around the space, enjoying the something distinct and unique about a New York afternoon of taking our lives and city into our own hands instead of waiting for permission.
A joyous garden day and a time to dream. 
BS facilitating.  Photo by Brennan Cavanaugh

A sun drenched day in the garden.  Photos by John Speck

Late in the afternoon, we held a small meeting, talking about what we wanted to see happen in the space.  Some talked about using the space for a sculpture garden.  Others talked about creating a performance space.  We agreed we would rather have an open garden than individual plots.  And finally we agreed we would meet the following Sunday for another work day and BBQ, inviting everyone in the neighborhood for a BBQ. 

Throughout the afternoon, I collected signatures from people walking by.  Most everyone was excited about the space and our plans to open the space for everyone.   Others were concerned that Los Sures had one a bid to build low income housing there.  Housing is a human right, we all know it and agree with this.  Yet, surely there is room for gardens and housing?  This is what healthy communites are all about... places for people to hang out, where flowers can grown and we can nourish ourselves and our neighbors, one garden at a time. 

Finishing the day of gardening, others chimed in on 596 Acres. Claire added:

"Thank you Ilyse this is great news!RFP states " improved as open space for the residents of the Project." So there is a built in restriction against building on this lot.  We should watch the monthly meeting agendas of CB1, and see if and when this RFP will be up for discussion."

On April 15, 2013, at 1:03p.m., Keegan said:
Or at least for building on ALL of this lot, but the "open space" could be a concrete playground. We need to make sure it's a garden at the least, and keep the entire thing a garden at best...

After all,  the neighborhood needs more open spaces, not less, more flowers and less towers. 

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