It would have been foolish to be in New York for a conference session about community gardens without visiting some of the city’s very own. They are surely the most written about and perhaps the archetypal form of these spaces. Vacant lot gardens which proliferated during New York’s economic down turn in the 1970s may have been sites of radical politics, public claims over parts of the city. Or just neighbours getting together to make something nice, perhaps springing from the wish to create a place like a distant, Latino home.
The sign showing membership of Green Thumb is often on display, linking gardens to the authorities through the logo of the city’s parks department.
In the 90s Mayor Giuliani tried to claim more than 100 gardens for development, calling those who fervently resisted him communists . Some were lost, many were saved and New York has almost 800 community gardens today. At least 500 of these are part of a government sponsored scheme which offers secure land tenure as long as the space is maintained and regularly open to the public.
The city hasn’t called a complete truce with gardeners as I saw in Greenwich Village. A campaign is under way to oppose the university’s expansion plans which would abut La Guardia Corner garden.
With traffic whizzing by on one side and tower blocks looming over head the constant squeeze on these tiny patches of greenery was palpable.
I wasn’t expecting much garden action in deepest February, and assumed I’d spend a couple hours peering through locked gates. But several forces seemed to be on my side.
First there was the unseasonably warm weather which brought a few keen gardeners out from hibernation, blinking into the sun. Then browsing the guidebook I’d got from the library I noticed its maps show the sites of community gardens.
So I set off around the Lower East Side, looking for some of the Loisaida gardens I’d read so much about.  Even having read about them, I was surprised how many there were – at least two or three on each block. And although each is quite unique, they were unlike any community garden I’ve seen in the UK. Most were tiny- the size of a long-gone building, just a few meters wide – like the gap in a smile where a tooth is missing. The chain link fencing meant that even when closed my camera and I got a good look in.
I’m afraid to say my first thought was that they’re not pretty. Being in the inner city they are quite shady, and even though you wouldn’t expect verdant growth in the winter there didn’t seem room for many plants. Much space is taken up by small casitas –wooden huts typical of Puerto Rican culture- and seating areas. Then there are trinkets, toys, sculptures, endless variations on the garden ornament; one man’s art, another man’s junk. These and the popularity of flags at least made them colourful.
Timing was on my side at a couple of the gardens. I happened to arrive at De Colores the same times as Occupy’s Seed Ball Bike Ride. Some of the gardeners welcomed us, telling us about the set up accompanied by reggae from the pedal powered sound system. Then I strolled past the Secret Garden as two of the regulars were sitting for a smoke and a chat. They nodded slowly as I babbled about my interest and asked to take photos. Didn’t say much – I forgot to ask their names- but that they are Mexican.
The few gardens I sought out in Brooklyn had a very different feel, for a start they were larger and less hemmed in thanks to the way buildings drop in height as you cross the water. Several displayed environmentalist credentials as solar panels or signs informing of the careful composting system. Even though the Red Shed was organised for some serious food cultivation, it too had a space for gathering, for the all important garden activity of sitting, chatting, supping. Like its East Side brethren, the chain link fence allowed all passers by to take a look, see what’s going on. Whatever the opening hours or land ownership, I was left with the sense that New York’s community gardens are very public because they are so numerous and so visible.
 See Schmelzopf, K. 2002 ‘Incommensurability, Land Use, and the Right to Space:
Community Gardens in New York City’ Urban Geography Volume 23, Issue 4, 323-343 for a discussion of the struggle.
 See for example Schmelzkopf, K. 1995 ‘Urban Community Gardens as Contested Space Geographical Review Vol. 85 No 3 pp 364-381 and Saldivar-Tanaka, L., & Krasny, M. 2004 ‘Culturing community development, neighborhood open space, and civic agriculture: The case of Latino community gardens in New York City’ Agriculture and Human Values, 21, 399–412
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