New York’s community gardens were galvanized, as so much was, by the dire seventies, when community leaders moved to save empty lots from neglect or reckless development. Since then, several organizations have come into being around green spaces, including GreenThumb, a federally funded program that’s part of the Parks Department; the Green Guerrillas, started by Liz Christy in 1973 (Christy now has a park named for her on the northeast corner of Houston and Bowery); and Bette Midler’s privately funded New York Restoration Project (NYRP).
Each of the hundreds of gardens is inspiring, since they all speak to our collective need to be near green, to put our hands in earth, to touch a plant or a flower that’s still in the soil. In my tour of several of the more interesting projects across the city, I met many avid (and unpaid!) gardeners including Jon Crow, ward of Pacific Street Brooklyn Bear’s Garden since 1985, and my tour organizer in Bed-Stuy. It was there that I heard several local activists talk about their struggle to maintain the neighborhood against developers. But sometimes I’d arrive at a garden only to find the gates locked; these can’t be opened unless someone is there to mind the garden.
In economic terms, drawing a parallel from the seventies to today isn’t very thrilling. On the other hand, that’s when communities drew together for projects like these. If there’s a silver (or green) lining to the current gloom and doom, this is it.