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.
1. Hattie Carthan Garden
Marcy Ave., bet. Lafayette Ave. and Clifton Pl.
One of Brooklyn’s largest community gardens (almost an acre) and always buzzing. Its 60 members tend individual plots but also oversee a multitude of activities—cooking classes, tastings, kids’ activities. I snapped a picture of Mrs. Olatunji the day I visited.
2. Cedar Tree Garden
Greene Ave. nr. Classon Ave.
Cecil Prince started clearing this lot 30 years ago with his father, not long after they arrived from Guyana, and he’s still hauling the rocks around. Today, twenty members garden there, producing vegetables, fruit, and flowers. He started planting peach trees twenty years ago; now there are four.
3. Target Community Garden
931-933 Bedford Ave., nr. Willoughby Ave.
One of two NYRP gardens sponsored by the retailer, this 4,000-square-foot garden is open to everyone during the day (unlike some community gardens which have much more limited hours). Local resident Judy Jones gave me a tour. “When you come through the gates, you just let go,” she says. The neighborhood uses it for cookouts, baby showers, dinners. There are 35 members; twelve have plots and raise vegetables.
4. Spencer Street Garden
Spencer St. nr. De Kalb Ave.
A sliver of a garden presided over by the redoubtable Lashon Allen, who, against all odds, staves off the circling developers and marshalls enthusiastic volunteers who lend their expertise in planting vegetable and flower beds.
The East Village
1. La Plaza Cultural
Ninth St. and Ave. C
Not all community gardens are kid-friendly, but the three I visited in the East Village are. This one, wild and inviting and surrounded by a fantastic, witty fence made of recycled objects, was closed when I stopped by, so I snapped this picture from the sidewalk.
2. El Sol Brillante
Twelfth St., bet. Aves. A and B
Lush and inviting; there’s a fire pit in El Sol that neighbors use as a gathering spot in the evenings. It has a fence covered with hand-cut metal animals.
3. El Jardin del Paraiso
Fifth St. nr. Ave. C
A multi-purpose, multi-sensation garden; I heard chickens clucking, saw ducks swimming in the pond, and got to climb up the tree house. Kids learn about nature from the pond, locals farm plots for vegetables. Roderick Romero, who built the tree house, gave me a tour. “This garden saved my life when I came to New York,” right before 9/11, he said.
West Side/Hell’s Kitchen
The Clinton Community Garden
48th St. nr. Tenth Ave.
A startling oasis, surrounded by an iron fence and filled with winding brick paths, tall trees, and a shady grape arbor. There’s a park in front and crop plots further back; it’s beautiful, restful, and immaculate.
Rodale Pleasant Park Community Garden
E. 114th St., nr. Pleasant Ave.
An urban farm where members grow food (and sometimes sell it; the restaurant Rao buys some of its produce here). The generous picnic area, pictured, is often filled with local families.The NYRP rescued this land from development in 1999.