Saturday, August 16, 2014

Public/Private Gardens

 A few weeks ago I visited a community garden on 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.  It had been lovingly tended for a number of years by two women, Margaret Doyle and Julia Gabriel, who would garden two or three times a week.  In 2011 Julia died of a stroke and Margaret has since spent a good part of each summer away.   The garden was renamed the Julia Gabriel Community Garden in her memory, but is now largely neglected and ignored.  On the day of my visit, the garden was unlocked and empty, while across the street at St. John the Divine visitors were enjoying a bit of sun.  There is nothing to encourage the visitor to cross the street and sit in Julia’s shade.  No color catches the eye.  The garden is dry and dusty.  Its two devoted gardeners have moved on and there are no heirs.

Julia Gabriel Community Garden

This is not a singular problem.  A 2012 article in the New York Times by Michael Tortorello called attention to the dwindling supply of volunteer gardeners, despite an increase of interest in food gardens.  Neighborhood demographics are changing, gentrification may produce more or less interest, and the first generation of community gardeners is dying out.  This varies across the city, for reasons not well understood.

In some cities, and in all European countries, allotments are more prevalent than community gardens. In contrast to a community garden, an allotment is a small plot of land made available to an individual or a family.  Large plots of land owned by a municipality or another entity are divided up into smaller parcels that are then assigned. There is usually an association overseeing the operation to which gardeners apply for a plot, pay a small fee, and adhere to the rules of the association.  How the plot is used is in the hands of the gardener, but must be reserved for only personal use. 

A community garden, on the other hand, is a single plot of varying size gardened collectively by a group people.  Although the gardens are seen as engines of community engagement, they are owned by a municipality and governed by the municipality’s terms of access and management.
Southwest Corridor Park

Boston is the rare city combining community gardens, parks and allotments in a single stretch -- the Southwest Corridor Park, a narrow, 90 acre ribbon of public open space.  A proposed highway project was successfully blocked by community resistance, rail lines buried underground, and in its place a five-mile stretch of tot lots, playgrounds, flower beds, open green spaces, athletic courts and 150 community gardens and allotments was established.

Many South Enders came from gardening and farming cultures in other countries.  Moving along the corridor you will find Italian plots with fig trees, French potagers alongside Asian gardeners growing vegetables vertically on posts climbing to spread horizontally along overhead lattice.

Boston also has allotments carried over from World War II, the Richard Parker Memorial Victory Gardens.  The once-abandoned gardens are now divided into 450 individual plots, used as the gardener chooses. Individual allotments are fenced and gated, but the larger area is open and anyone can stroll down the pathways at any time of day and peer over the fences.  The Parker Gardens are on publicly owned land and the city supplies only water; everything else is provided by the gardeners and their association.
A Parker Garden's Plot

In New York City, Roosevelt Island works on an allotment system, managed by the Garden Club.  The design gives each gardener 210 square feet, laid out in trapezoidal patterns so that no two gardens are alike.  You sign up, get on a waiting list, and hope for the best.  No one seems to give them up, and you usually have to wait until someone moves or dies. 
A Roosevelt Island Pathway

One gardener is a dedicated pond-builder.  One of the earliest gardeners, he has made extensive use of the debris from the various excavations and construction sites on the Island.  Large slabs of stone from the wreckage of the insane asylum and concrete sections of old foundations –- all carried by hand-drawn cart -- have been transformed into garden sculptures and stockpiled for bleacher-like seats at his ponds. 

The Roosevelt Island gardens are as distinctive as the gardeners who inhabit the space.  Some are meticulous, some are untidy, others are wild.  Some are devoted to vegetable crops, while some are just places to sit and enjoy other people’s gardens.

A Roosevelt Island Plot

The Garden Club provides a clubhouse of sorts in a storage shed.  Community rakes, shovels and hoes are stored in bins available to all.  A limited number of lockers allow gardeners to keep tools close by.  Twice a year the Club brings in soil and provides wheelbarrows for transporting.

In both the Boston and Roosevelt Island examples, city engagement is minimal. Could a version of these large-scale community garden projects, individually rather than bureaucratically driven, engage the general public in maintaining neighborhood parks?  Does the accessibility of the larger area, and the knowledge that these plots are available to all, perhaps encourage individuals more than the collective approach of the community gardens with their own built-in local politics?

What is it that gives these gardens so much more vitality than the average neighborhood park?  Are they affected by the demographics of the neighborhood?  By the cultural values of the times?  Should there be a Jeffersonian principal of home ownership applied to apartment dwellers and renters?  Here is your plot, use it as you wish?  If volunteers in public parks only get to do what is assigned to them, what would happen if that paradigm changed?  Anarchy or a robust landscape?

All the above is only the barest outline of what is actually happening on the ground.  In the coming weeks Emily Walker, Outreach Coordinator for New Yorkers for Parks, will be a guest contributor writing about what it takes to make a successful community garden, and the subtle shift towards allotments in schoolyards and individual plots in public housing.

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