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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Community Gardening - My Early Years- Part 2

The next part of the story begins the physical changes to the garden. The 6BC group was not well organized, meetings did not happen and no one bothered to renew the lease with Operation GreenThumb. I was determined to do something. I had recently started working at council on the Environment and I was learning about the world of community gardening in New York City. t that time there was no long term protection for community gardens. Some discussions were taking place and there some gardens were being offered long term - 5 year - leases.  The housing market was opening up and the Lower East Side was prime territory for development. The local community board was working on a cross subsidy plan as a way of insuring that there would be some low income development alongside the market rate housing. The plan was that for every market rate apartment built, developers were to subsidize a low income apartment. The plan saw few if any low income apartments built as result of the cross subsidies. The 6BC lot together with the lot on 5th Street made it a large assemblage and attractive for developers.

Something had to be done to preserve this garden space so I took it upon myself to sign the lease for the garden. The added benefit was that the garden would be eligible for materials like lumber, concrete and tools that could be used to rebuild the raised beds. I drew up plans for an arbor in 1989 and began showing them around to the gardeners. I got positive feedback to the plans and a few folks expressed an interest in helping to build the structure and rebuild the raised beds. At the time, I was driving the Grow Truck for Council on the Environment and I was able to arrange to pick up and deliver the materials for the structure.

A small group worked with me over the course of several weekends to dig holes, pour concrete, set the posts and build the structure with a built in bench.With all of the building going on the garden looked more like a a construction zone. The structure looked great when it was completed, it looked like the first house to be built in a new development before all of the other houses were built, the trees planted and the families moved in. The structure was installed at approximately a 45 degree angle to the street.

After the success of the arbor project, I worked on an overall plan for the garden that I completed in 1990. The plans called for placement of raised beds in the garden following the same diagonal as the arbor. This shift in the layout served several purposes. It provided visual interest - something different from the rectangular monotony of the streetscape. Manhattan's street grid was laid out following the general shape of the island which sits on a Southwest / Northeast plane. The diagonals in the garden were closer to a true North - South line.  The placement of the structure at this diagonal near the front created a passage into the rest of the garden and gave the visitor or gardener a heightened sense that they had left the street and the rest of the city behind. The diagonal layout left triangular areas in the 4 corners that could and would be used as  seating areas and a large entry area. Part of my thinking at the time was that when different groups of gardeners or visitors were in the garden at the same time, if one area was being used, a second group could use an area in the opposite corner.

There were a few trees and shrubs in the garden that remained and we built around them. There was still the problem of the extra fences dividing the garden and creating the drug alleyway. There was a small, not very well built shed that needed work. All of these existing elements of the garden needed to be addressed and a new group that would spend a good deal of time in the garden over the next few years helped with that process..... that story in the next post.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Community Gardening - My Early Years

                                               The 6BC Community Garden mid 1980's

This inspiration for this post came to me the other day when a writer doing research for a book she is writing asked me about urban agriculture in the 1970's and 80's. Well, we didn't call what we were doing at the time urban agriculture. It was community gardening.  I can't say much from personal experience about community gardening in the 1970's. It was happening at the time and the seeds of the modern community gardening/ urban agriculture movement were planted at that time.

I can talk from experience about community gardening in the 1980's. I started community gardening at the 6BC community garden in the early 1980's. At the time the garden was a dysfunctional mix of neighbors on the block including Puerto Rican and African American families, twenty something whites who recently moved into the neighborhood and a teacher and her elementary school students from the public school on the block. The garden was divided by chain link fences. One older man gardened by himself in a fenced off section where he grew a lot of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. A Puerto Rican extended family gardened in several raised beds, including one that was mostly taken up with a large rose bush. Someone tended a pot of annuals in from of a shrine to the Virgin Mary where often a votive candle was kept burning. I started gardening on half of a raised bed by growing a couple of tomato plants and a few herbs.

A handicap accessible raised bed was little used; there were no disabled gardeners. Most of the raised beds were made of rotting or patched together lumber. Some of the pathways were lined with brick others were just hardpan. The compost area was an unkempt pile of weeds, twigs and branches. The garden had a few trees and shrubs that were haphazardly planted. The group was not well organized and the gardeners were distrustful and antagonistic toward each other. Vandalism and theft were rampant. Just as a tomato ripened it disappeared.

The neighborhood was in the midst of a heroin epidemic. The way that the garden was fenced, a narrow alleyway ran the length of the building adjacent to the south side of the garden that continued through to the adjacent street. This alleyway was a convenient drug distribution point as the dealers could escape in either direction if the police arrived. If you were in the garden at the right times, usually late morning and at dinner time, you would notice a number of disheveled looking men and women nervously pacing near the garden looking suspiciously up and down the block. All of a sudden the dealer would arrive, everyone would form a neat line and in no more than 5 minutes the drug exchange would be finished. During off hours for the drug trade the alleyway was used for urinating and prostitution.

This lawlessness found it's was into community gardens throughout the city. Theft and vandalism were major problems for many gardens. Sheds could not be made vandal proof, so tools could not be safely stored. Annuals, perennials and shrubs with showy flowers could not be planted. Mother's Day was dreaded; it was the day of the year with the highest incidence of robbery. More than a few moms received presents of flowers or plants that were nurtured in a community garden. In fact the Green Guerillas distributed a fact sheet on how to prevent vandalism that showed gardeners a method for chaining and locking shrubs to deter theft!

Not a very auspicious beginning for a movement or a career but small or humble or difficult beginnings very often yield amazing results with perseverance and luck. More chapters to come.

                                                    6BC Community Garden circa 2002