HOMES AND GARDENS IN THE SOUTH BRONX
By Meera Subramanian
On a chilly Saturday afternoon in October, Aresh Javadi, trailed by neighborhood kids Jeremy and his little brother Angel, walked through the Melrose neighborhood in the South Bronx on their way to the Courtlandt Community Garden. They passed abandoned lots and buildings, older apartment buildings alive with activity and a brand new housing complex on the former site of the Cabo Rosa community garden decorated for Halloween. "What are we gonna do in the garden?" asked Angel. Javadi, of the More Gardens! Coalition, with closely shorn hair and a neatly trimmed salt and pepper goatee responded, "Play! We're gonna play dirt!" At 159th Street they turned and entered a labyrinth of mulberry trees that marked the arrival at the garden. Angel spontaneously and emphatically declared: "I like this garden."
It doesn't look like a conflict zone, the small sea of green filled with gingko and mulberry trees too big to wrap your arms around and garden beds overflowing with squash and broccoli plants where volunteers and children work together "playing dirt." But the city of New York along with developers see the dozens of gardens located within the 35 blocks that comprise the Melrose Commons as land needed for housing. Pitting two of the city's most crucial needs against each other, green community spaces and affordable housing, citizen groups and the city struggle to find a solution to the dilemma.
The history of the Bronx has been a story of struggle and displacement. Some say it started in the 1950s when urban planner Robert Moses parted the sea of established Bronx neighborhoods with the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The construction forced 60,000 people, most of whom didn't even own cars, to move in order to make room for the new highway. After that, the '60s and '70s brought economic depression to the city and a wave of arson fires. By 1990, New York City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) owned over 300 buildings in the South Bronx that had been forsaken.
In the late seventies, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and the South Bronx was a mixture of low-income housing, the burnt out remains of the torched buildings and vacant city lots strewn with garbage and inviting crime. The demographics of the area were changing from working and middle-class Jews, Italians, Irish and Blacks to a predominantly low-income Black and Latino population. Citizens tired of the crime and ugliness that had infected their neighborhoods took action and with the city's encouragement, reclaimed abandoned lots. Irma Badillo, founder of the A. Badillo Rose Garden, is quoted as saying in response to the destruction of their neighborhood, "We did not move, we improved."
Locals cleaned up the garbage and planted trees, vegetables and flower gardens, incorporating aspects from Puerto Rico's indigenous Taino cultural such as the casita, a small structure for gathering and rest, and the batey, an open space where people can gather and children can play. But the green spaces where citizens could break a sweat planting trees for the future and then sit with friends under their shade afterwards, although incorporated into the city's Green Thumb program, were never granted any permanent protection under the city. Legally, they were nothing more than beautiful green squatters' oases.
Twenty years later, New York finds itself with a housing shortage and those casitas and bateys start shining with the allure of prime real estate. The move to develop vacant lots and abandoned buildings stretches back to Mayor Ed Koch's time in office. In 1986, he initiated the Ten Year Housing Plan that was billed as the nation's largest locally funded housing initiative. Its goal was to unite governmental, community and developmental interests and create over a quarter of a million new units of affordable housing for low, moderate- and middle-income and homeless families. In Community District 3, part of which lies in the Melrose neighborhood, 3,600 vacant city-owned apartments were renovated and reoccupied since 1985, many under the New York Housing Partnership's homeownership programs that assist homeless and low-income families in purchasing their own homes.
It was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who turned his eye for development to the community gardens of the city. He saw the potential of the valuable city lots and began the process of calling in the bulldozers to convert these community green spaces into bare lots prepped for construction. There was such a furor over the destruction of the gardens into which citizens had invested time and energy and had come to cherish as integral parts of their urban homes that Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed suit against the city halting all development until the issue of what to do with the city's gardens was decided.
J.K. Canapa, Board member of the More Gardens! Coalition looks much younger than her 61 years, but the stories she tells indicate she's been fighting for green spaces for a long time. Perched in what looks like a tree house but is referred to as an "interactive tree sculpture" twenty feet off the ground amidst the canopy of two large trees at the Courtlandt Community Garden, she smiled recalling the fight to save the Esperanza Garden on the Lower East Side that galvanized the community. With Spitzer's lawsuit pending, she described how citizens turned to direct action and vigilant garden occupation from November 1999 until February 2000 in order to prevent its destruction. Her smile faded as she told of how bulldozers came in and razed the lot just twenty minutes before a scheduled court hearing in which the judge granted an injunction preventing any more gardens' destruction until the issue had been resolved.
Attorney General Spitzer's lawsuit reached settlement two years later in September 2002. The agreement between Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Attorney General granted nearly 200 of the existing community gardens permanent protection, another 197 additional protection beyond what they already had and returned 153 Green Thumb sites to residential use. Mayor Bloomberg stated, "I think this agreement strikes the right balance between building for the future and preserving precious open space." It was a compromise agreement hailed by both sides, but for the people of the Melrose Commons in the South Bronx, it was all give and no take. Of the 22 gardens that had been created there over the last twenty years, not one was granted protection.
One of the gardens slated for development is the Courtlandt Community Garden. Zack Schulman, 23, comes in from his home in Westchester to volunteer in the garden in exchange for "rice and beans and whatever food is around." When Janelle, 5, another neighborhood local, stepped into a garden bed where small plants were just taking root, Schulman diverted her and her two friends out of the bed of baby greens to another bed where mizuna mustard plants were full size, and he plucked off the green serrated leaves for the three girls to try. As they munched down on the fresh greens, Schulman described how this small garden is the hub to more than 25 active core volunteers who keep it maintained. Even on that September afternoon, as a chill overtook the air and clouds gathered overhead, the garden was filled with people.
Mike Duncan, 35, is another volunteer involved with the garden. A physician's assistant at Lincoln Hospital and Citywide Harm Reduction, Duncan connected with More Gardens! Coalition through its work in the Lower East Side, and wanted to give back to the community in which he worked. "Some people come to the garden specifically asking for money, and we'll give them whatever food we can. We encourage kids to eat vegetables and taste new things. These kids eat a lot of French fries. We show them how potatoes grow."
Community gardens serve a variety of roles in blighted urban environments such as Melrose. In addition to providing a space to grow food they also offer active and passive recreation and a place for information exchange, after-school programs, school science programs, block parties, and artistic and cultural events.
The current Melrose Commons Plan calls for the elimination of the gardens that have occupied the neighborhood for a generation. The plan was formed with input provided by local non-profit development groups such as Nos Quedamos (We Stay), with an emphasis on incorporating housing for low-income and homeless housing and creating public parks and medical facilities. The Commons Plan was a vast improvement over the city's initial Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan that created middle- and upper-income housing, including a gated community, and would have initiated a gentrification of the area, forcing existing residents out of their homes due to the rent increases that invariably follow such development.
As with the Attorney General's settlement, though, the gardens were left out of the debate and a plan otherwise embraced by the community that helped develop it was seen to have a fatal flaw in the gardens' destruction. Over the next two years, Nos Quedamos worked with South Bronx Urban Gardeners (SBUG), gathering input from the Trust for Public Land (TPL), Green Guerillas, More Gardens! Coalition, and the city-based Green Thumb and the Parks Department, in order to find a way to save the gardens. Their work resulted in an alternate plan, the Melrose Community Open Space Homes and Gardens Plan. Supported by local residents, churches, community centers, schools and environmental/social justice groups, the Plan calls for 11 of the 22 threatened gardens to be saved, either in their existing location or by relocating. Yet the plan lacks the support of the city's Department of Housing and Preservation and Development (HPD) as well as Congressman Jose Serrano, who has not responded to the group's appeal for support.
Elaine Iandoli, Assistant Director of Partnership for New York, a private non-profit that works with the city to develop buildings, stated that in the area they want to build two and three family homes for low to moderate income families with household incomes under $75,000. The New York Housing Partnership offers subsidized housing and financial assistance for families earning between $35,000 and $75,000 a year, but more than a quarter of the families currently living in the Bronx are living at or below poverty level of $18,000/year. In 1999, one out of five Bronx families were living on less than $10,000 annually. The 2000 United States Census cited the area as being the economically poorest congressional district in the nation.
The statistics point out that even housing built for low-income tenants is still going to be substantially more expensive than what poor people currently pay for their housing. Governmental assistance is finite. At the end of 1999, for example, there were over 17,000 families on the waiting list for Section 8 housing. While the new housing will be of a much higher standard, it comes down to economics and the poor simply can't afford to move in. They might even be forced to move out.
Air quality in an already polluted city is another issue. A chain link fence separates the back of the Courtlandt Community Garden from its neighbor, a new two-story multi-family housing complex, but the apartments only take up half of the adjoining lot. The other half is a parking lot, all asphalt and no greenery. Although 66% of current Bronx homes have no car, all new development is required to provide parking spaces for new units. While it could be argued that including space for cars is acknowledging the inevitable car-dependent city of the future, others claim that it is one more step away from a more sustainable development model based on public transportation that makes cars unnecessary.
In addition to pollution caused by more cars in the neighborhood, Bronx youth face the risk of life-threatening asthma at fourteen times the national average rate, according to the NYC Department of Health. The Center for Disease Control states that rates of severe asthma disproportionately affect poor, minority, inner-city populations, citing the fact that African Americans visit emergency departments, are hospitalized, and die due to asthma at rates three times higher than rates for white Americans. The value of green outdoor spaces and the fresh air they provide take on life or death implications.
Yolanda Garcia, Executive Director of Nos Quedamos, said at a recent organizing meeting, "There is no easy answer. We do have to build for people. There are children that are homeless. But we need open spaces too." Donald Loggins of Green Guerillas said at another garden event, "It's not a housing versus garden issue. There's so much vacant land that the city has that could be developed." An article in March 2003 in The Bronx Beat supports his statement. In a study of lots in Mott Haven, Morrisania, Hunts Point and Highbridge in the Bronx, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) found 1,697 vacant lots, over a quarter of them owned by the city. Three quarters of the lots were completely abandoned and empty except for overgrown weeds and trash. Heather Appel, Bronx Manhattan Head Organizer for ACORN, said recently on the phone, "We don't think gardens and affordable housing should have to compete. We need both."
The city on the other hand, is proud of its work to revitalize an area scarred by "devastation and abandonment." They even hired City photographer Larry Racioppo back in 1989 to produce "dramatic before and after pictures of the buildings that the city acquired." Those photos were displayed this summer at the Municipal Art Society. HPD's Ted Weinstein personally led walking tours of the South Bronx and Harlem to showcase the affordable homes and apartments that the city has helped develop.
"We're trying to be creative," says SBUG member Marty Rogers. He felt positive about a recent meeting organized by State Senator Olga Mendez between garden advocates and HPD. Rogers, along with gardener Deacon Murray of the Greater Eternal Baptist Church, sat down with HPD's Deputy Commissioner Rafael Cestero and Director of Property Planning Ted Weinstein. But five of the 22 gardens have already been destroyed, most razed during early-winter morning teardowns that locals compared to raids. Rogers told HPD, "In our neighborhood, when you say Michael Bloomberg, they think bulldozers." Cestero, newly appointed to his position in August, is hoping to infuse the issue with new blood and even began listing some of the gardens HPD was willing to save. Yet SBUG remains frustrated at the city's unwillingness to put anything in writing, leaving them to feel that any assurances granted are tentative at best.
As the debate about what is the best use for the lands owned by the city in the South Bronx continues, as the weather turns cold, and as the homeless seek shelter, citizens hope their dormant gardens make it to see another growing season. In the end, the city will have to decide how to recognize the value of gardens that give back to the community in a variety of ways, few financial. Kids like Angel and Jeremy need housing their families can afford, but they also need somewhere to "play dirt." Ask any kid.