Growing a Community: Part 3 of 5

This next part of the series covers the birth of community gardening in NYC, starting in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Remember, leave a comment on this post to be entered in a drawing to win seeds from Hometown Seeds!

New York’s community gardens: from Green Guerrillas to Giuliani

Here in New York City, community gardens rose out of not just one major economic crisis, like the Panic of 1893, but through a systematic decline of the entire city. After World War II, as the suburbs outside the city grew, those with the money to leave the city did, hollowing out the inner city. By 1970, neighborhoods throughout New York City were in ruins; burnt-out buildings collapsed or became safe havens for criminals while empty, rubble-filled lots, now worth little to nothing, became commonplace.

In 1973, Liz Christy lived on Mott Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Christy, along with and a group of gardening activists known as the Green Guerrillas, were planting window boxes and seeding vacant lots with seed bombs: mixtures of clay soil, compost and seeds, pressed into a ball and designed to be thrown into fenced-off or otherwise inaccessible areas. After finding an abandoned lot on the northeast corner of Bowery and Houston streets, Christy and her Green Guerrillas began repairing fences, clearing away trash, replenishing the topsoil, and otherwise beautifying what was once an eyesore.

The Bowery-Houston Community Farm and Garden as it looked in 1973.

On April 23, 1974, the City’s office of Housing Preservation and Development, agreed to rent the vacant lot for $1 and the Bowery-Houston Community Farm and Garden became New York City’s first community garden.

At the same time rural America found itself with a counter-cultural influx of people looking to get “back to the land,” many New Yorkers were also looking to grow their own food as well—and with the help of Liz Christy and the Green Guerrillas, community gardens began springing up across New York City’s blighted neighborhoods.

By 1978, New York finally woke up to the realization that dedicated community groups were willing to pour their own time and money into cleaning and beautifying vacant city–owned lots. In an effort to encourage this grassroots neighborhood revitalization efforts, the City Department of General Services (and funded by federal Housing and Urban Development grants) initiated the GreenThumb program as a way to offer assistance and coordination to these community groups.

Initially, neighborhood groups were allowed to rent lots from the city for a token lease (like the Bowery-Houston Community Farm and Garden’s rent of one dollar), while the GreenTumb program made it clear to community groups that the city viewed these gardens as strictly temporary —their status could revoked and the piece of land could be sold when and if the city deemed it necessary.

By 1984, seeing the improvements the gardens brought to communities, GreenThumb introduced ten–year leases as a part of a new Garden Preservation Program. A few years later, some community gardens would be given a special permanent status, so long as they were actively maintained. That designation soon became unnecessary when in 1995, GreenThumb became part of the  NYC Parks Department, which seemed to solidify the permanent status of community gardens.

However, after the election of Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1994, the permanence of community gardens never seemed more tenuous. The Giuliani administration declared New York to be in the midst of a housing crisis. His solution: build housing on any of New York City’s “vacant” lots, even those with long-term community gardens, arguing that the gardens were always meant to be temporary uses of the land. Giuliani told critics of this new drastic policy that “the era of communism is over.” Sixty-seven gardens were terminated during the Giuliani administration, and in early January 1999, an astonishing 114 garden sites were slated to be put up for public auction in on May 12, 1999.

Community gardeners citywide formed a coalition to fight back, holding demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience in key public spaces to draw media attention, as well as organizing through the relatively new medium of the internet. As the auction of the gardens approached, last-minute deals were made between the mayor’s office and on May 11th, a day before the auction was set to take place, two land-trust organizations, the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project made a deal with the Giuliani administration to buy the gardens for $4.2 million.

The following month, New York’s Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued New York City to prevent any more auctions. The suit ended in September 2002, when the city agreed to preserve some community gardens but would use others to build more apartments. Under the new agreement, about 200 gardens already owned by city or nonprofit agencies would remain gardens, while another 200 gardens were to be offered to the Parks Department without charge, or to nonprofit groups for a small fee—but 150 garden sites would be used by private developers to build low-income housing.

Today, GreenThumb—the community garden division of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation—has over 600 member gardens serving 20,000 city residents, making it the largest community gardening program in the country.

Photo by annitajairam, on Flick

The two archival photos in this post come via

Next up: Why not Washington Heights?

It just chaps my ass anew every time I read Giuliani’s “the era of communism is over” remark. What a dickbag that guy was/is. Anyway. More than halfway through the series already! Anyone still reading or have I lulled you all into some kind of internet coma?

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5 thoughts on “Growing a Community: Part 3 of 5

  1. I really love the idea of the Green Guerrillas…positive action rather than just cursing the problem.

    I’ve always wondered how people keep other PEOPLE from stealing stuff out of their community garden in urban settings. I mean, I have enough trouble from squirrels, skunks, deer, porcupines, etc, etc, etc…I can only imagine that a human might be a little more resourceful if they were hungry.
    Are there laws that specifically cover theft from gardens in the city?

    1. I don’t actually know if there are any specific laws governing theft from gardens, but theft and vandalism both seem to be pretty universal problems for all community gardens, not just those in NYC.

  2. I am always impressed with the way New Yorkers make use of every square inch of outdoor space, Kristen. I wrote a piece last summer about someone in Manhattan who “farms” a four-foot by four-foot plot in a community garden in Manhattan. He solves the tiny footprint problem the same way Manhattan did—he goes vertical, training his tomatoes to grow nine or ten feet tall.

  3. Amazing that it took until 1974 for a community garden to come about in NYC. The Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston have been there since WWII. I’m surprised none of the victory gardens in New York survived.

    1. Until very recently, other uses of the land — particularly housing — have always been put ahead of urban agriculture. Manhattan’s a pretty small island, so there’s not a lot of room to spare. So, I can see the flip side to this argument of gardens vs apartments — that using an empty lot for growing food in a neighborhood where people are homeless or living in unsafe, decrepit housing can seem a bit frivolous.

      That being said, the 150 gardens that were demolished didn’t exactly pave the way for a new era in affordable housing, so I tend to think that idea doesn’t hold much weight any more.

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