Garden-Variety Politics

Neighbors have turned New York City’s vacant lots into thriving community gardens. Now it’s the developers who are seeing green.


At the Green Oasis Community Garden on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an earthworm slips under the marigolds just as a robin, looking for lunch, drops down from a nearby tenement. Tenements, not gardens, are what one expects to see here, and does — they’re prolific, like weeds. The buildings are mostly old, cramped walk-ups, with bars across the windows and graffiti limning their sides. This is where poor people live in the rich city.

A girl in church clothes pauses in front of Green Oasis — which is sandwiched between two apartment buildings on East Eighth Street and bordered in the back by a third — waiting for her father and young sister to catch up. “You were baptized here,” the father tells the baby, peering past the iron fence. “This is where I had my third birthday party,” the older one reminds her dad, staking her own claim of ownership.

The family steps through the gate, past the “Open To The Public” sign, to look at a painted lady butterfly nectaring in a patch of cosmos. Nearby, a chipping sparrow alights on a white birch while warblers stitch the air, corkscrew willow to Japanese maple to gazebo to peach tree. The garden is about 70 paces from front to back, and 115 paces from one side to the other — the equivalent of a yard in the suburbs. But this is not the suburbs, and as if to prove it, a cab driver leans on his horn while a backhoe paws noisily at a slab of concrete and an ambulance screams southward on Avenue C. Yet once the family crosses the threshold they are in a different realm: City noises recede; birds are audible. The temperature drops. Leaves rustle. And wild beauty flourishes like an overfertilized crop.

When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park, it wasn’t for birds or butterflies or trees. It was for people, especially working people who, they reasoned, would need a respite from the city. The park was to be everyone’s backyard. But Central Park is roughly three miles from here, and doesn’t really figure in the lives of people who live on Eighth Street and Avenue C.

I don’t know if Normand Vallee and Reinaldo Arana, a couple of guys from the neighborhood who started Green Oasis 18 years ago, had ever heard of Olmsted and Vaux, and now it’s too late to ask: They died of AIDS some years back. But clearly they were moved by the same impulse. Vallee and Arana took five lots that had been vacant (except for rats, addicts, and tons of urban spew) and cleared them with their own hands. No one asked them to do this; no one paid them; and it’s safe to say that when they started, no one — that is, no one in power — cared.

But times have changed. Now, when the people in power look through the gates here and at other community gardens in New York, the only green they see is that of the larger denominations. This land is valuable, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has begun to cash it in, auctioning off garden after garden to private developers. This year 113 gardens were put up for sale, with revenues expected to total $7-$10 million. What couldn’t be estimated, because it is incalculable, is the social cost of such a transaction.

“We get a lot of kids in here who would otherwise be on the street,” says Lin Wefel, who has been a member of Green Oasis for 15 years. “We try to keep them busy. We have rules like ‘We don’t call each other names’ [and] ‘We don’t throw rocks.’ If you break the rules, you have to leave and can’t come back that day. It’s not much, but a lot of these kids don’t have any discipline or guidance at home, and we want them to be able to come here.” There’s a vast unofficial network of impromptu social workers in this garden.

In the back pocket of her jeans Wefel carries a pair of pruning shears, and as she walks through the garden she gives a purposeful nip here, a quick snip there. From the sweet, unbidden compost of young and old, Puerto Rican and African American, Dominican and Trinidadian, Cambodian and Russian, artist and teacher and mother, bricks have turned to arugula, shooting galleries to afterschool programs, rusting cars to woodpeckers and once, apparently, to a saw-whet owl. Wefel points out tomato plants, peach trees, a bee box, and a row of beans planted by students from a neighborhood elementary school.

“You should have been here yesterday for the dance performance,” she says, pointing to a sizable wooden platform in the far corner of the garden. “The stage,” she explains, “is open to anyone as long as they don’t charge money for the program and it’s PG. We’ve had puppet shows and poetry readings. We’re having a wedding in a few weeks.”

So here is how we might begin to understand the meaning of grassroots activism: an outdoor wedding in lower Manhattan underneath a grape arbor; fresh peaches; local honey; a koi club for kids; the scent of roses. All of it unlikely and remarkable, but not as unlikely and remarkable as this: Two buildings past the Green Oasis there is another community garden, and behind that one, another. Then beyond that another, and three more down the street. De Colores Community Yard and Garden, Miracle Garden, La Familia Garden, Serenity Garden, Los Amigos Garden — in every case, the name is literal.

Wefel hands me a map that shows 50 gardens planted within a 12-block radius. Twenty years ago the map would have showed 50 abandoned — that is to say dangerous, ugly, and unnavigable — lots, and I would have thought twice before walking through them.

IF POSSESSION REALLY WERE NINE-TENTHS OF THE LAW, then the owners of the Green Oasis and the other 795 community gardens scattered throughout the five boroughs of New York would be the people who created them, tend them, and rest in their shade on hot summer days. But real estate doesn’t work that way, and neither does politics. Because the gardens were built on land that was nominally owned by the city (not that officialdom wanted anything to do with it when it was the province of crackheads and their dealers), the city is able to reclaim it on 30 days’ notice. What were once marginal neighborhoods have become more stable and valuable, in part because of their green spaces and the sweaty, collective, imaginative effort that that greening took.

Over on East Fourth Street, Silvia Ravelo sits on a bench in Parque de Tranquilidad, a lush sliver of land that abuts her apartment building, where she has spent the afternoon studying for a sociology class she’s been taking at Brooklyn College. The subject is “deviance.” Ravelo, one of the founders of Parque de Tranquilidad, remembers 20 years back when it was a shooting gallery filled with rotting garbage that nobody wanted to go near. And she remembers hauling out the trash and working with her neighbors to make something beautiful from something repellent, as if the Bible had it wrong and Eden was a decidedly human creation that came after the wasteland into which they had been born.

“So I’m supposed to be studying, but I’m in here thinking, ‘What’s wrong with these people?'” Ravelo says. “I feel like dragging Mayor Giuliani over here and saying, ‘Look what you’re doing. Talk about deviant. What you’re doing is deviant.'”

What the mayor is doing is selling Ravelo’s beloved garden. Four days from now it will be one of 113 community gardens on the mayor’s auction block. There have been demonstrations, civil disobedience, newspaper editorials, and lawsuits. There has been an offer by the Trust for Public Land to buy 75 of the 113 gardens from the city for $2 million. None of it has swayed Giuliani. “All I can think,” says Ravelo, fanning the pages of her textbook, “is that he must be crazy.”

TWO DAYS LATER I’M BACK at Parque de Tranquilidad. It is a glorious, sunny morning and the lilacs are especially fragrant. White cabbage butterflies drift through the air like apple blossoms. The garden, though, is anything but tranquil. It is abuzz with reporters and sound crews and camerapeople and political operatives. There’s a news conference going on, and in a last-ditch effort to save the gardens, a trio of Californians has been flown in by an activist group called The Green Guerillas to rally for the cause: David Brower, the éminence grise of the environmental movement; Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, a tireless advocate of sustainable local agriculture; and Michael Abelman, an organic farmer and writer. They speak briefly of the value of community gardens, staring into the cameras with an “Is anyone out there?” expression on their faces.

Apparently, somebody is. Late that night, Bette Midler, who has had an ongoing interest in the gardens, offers to buy 50 of them with a pledge to add more than a million dollars to the sizable sum already offered by the land trust. The mayor, like a blooming flytrap, greedily snaps up the combined offer. (The remaining gardens are still vulnerable, however.)

But this is getting ahead of the story. In the garden that morning, as the Californians step aside, the press conference continues. Elsewhere in the city, four lawsuits are pending, and community activists are working around the clock to stop the auction, some of them dressing as flowers and protesting inside City Hall. Meanwhile, Bill Kavanagh, a member of Parque de Tranquilidad, is sitting outside its gates because his wheelchair can’t negotiate the lengths of cable laid by the sound crews and the camerapeople. This is unfortunate, because Kavanagh has something to say about the park.

“The garden has given me life,” he tells anyone who stops and bends over to listen to his soft, insistent, watery voice. Kavanagh has Parkinson’s disease. He worked for years at the Plaza Hotel, but had to leave his job once he became ill. Without resources, he became homeless. Two years ago he found a room in a tenement adjacent to Parque de Tranquilidad, and now he spends a great deal of time in the garden, doing what chores he can there and writing poems.

I REMEMBER LEARNING IN SCHOOL that it is specious to argue from the specific to the general, to take the case of Bill Kava-nagh, for example, and apply it to everyone else. Maybe Rudolph Giuliani learned that, too, which is why he is able to disregard Kavanagh and Silvia Ravelo, and the girls in their church clothes, and the flowers protesting inside City Hall. But sometimes the general and the specific are the very same thing, and then it’s not about logic, it’s about what is real and undeniable. The garden gives life. Over at the Green Oasis, Pam Pier, a member of the board, puts it this way: “I’ve been in New York City for 36 years, but until I started working in the garden, I can’t say I really lived here.”