Anyone walking along 25th Street in Chelsea on Tuesday morning may have wondered about the queue of people outside the recreation center building – some of them in costume – who were blowing bubbles, chanting and playing drums. The colorful and energetic crowd of several hundred had in fact turned out to testify in support of protections for New York City’s community gardens, and they made their presence known in any way they could.
The controversy surrounding the gardens was sparked by the City Parks and Recreation Department’s recent proposed rule change regarding community gardens. On September 17, 2010, the 2002 agreement between Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Mayor Bloomberg that has protected the City's community gardens from commercial development for eight years protection will expire. But the City’s proposed new rules would not specifically protect community gardens in the same way that city parks are protected, and would leave the gardens vulnerable to future development.
Although the City has announced that it has no plans to develop the land, New York’s neighborhood gardeners say that the proposed rules offer insufficient protection for the city’s community-managed open spaces. They fear a return to the days when gardens were suddenly seized and auctioned by the City and then bulldozed for development.
Emotions at the hearing ran high, as speakers told stories of immense benefits derived from local gardens – stories of community revitalization, personal redemption and improved access to quality food, some samples of which were waved for emphasis during speeches. Several young gardeners from East New York Farms spoke about the valuable environmental education and peaceful green space the garden contributes to their community. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn also gave lengthy and well-received testimony about the need for a real commitment to keep community gardens as “a permanent part of the fabric of the City.”
The hearing itself was fraught with tension at times, particularly because the hearing room was filled to capacity and hundreds of participants, including registered speakers, were forced to remain outside and permitted to enter the facility only as other participants would leave. Around half of the 100 registered speakers were not present and therefore did not testify (although City officials did periodically call their names again to provide other opportunities to speak).
A handful of costumed and sign-waving activists interrupted the parade of speakers, shouting that the meeting was not a truly public hearing because many members of the public couldn’t enter the hearing room and contribute to the discourse. “This is not democracy!” one member of the audience shouted. A chant of “More gardens now! More gardens now!” went up, and the room’s energy level rose noticeably. Eventually the crowd quieted, however, and testimony resumed.
NRDC’s own senior attorney Eric Goldstein testified, asking the Department of Parks and Recreation to delay adoption of the proposed rules until a mechanism, preferably a legislative one, could be found to ensure the gardens’ permanent protection. Goldstein further explained that, with nearly 11,000 acres of New York City land currently vacant, it is not necessary to sacrifice successful gardens to meet future development needs.
The hearing and its impassioned testimony served as a powerful reminder of New Yorkers’ personal, nutritional and environmental stake in our community-managed green spaces. Let’s hope that Parks and Recreation officials got the message and City gardeners will soon see the enactment of permanent regulations protecting their cherished gardens.