2000-02-16 City Razes a Garden – NY Times

After Uprooting Gardeners, City Razes a Garden
The New York Times


Published: February 16, 2000

The narrow lot on East Seventh Street, wedged between two apartment buildings and showing the remains of last fall’s crop of vegetables and herbs, would hardly seem capable of attracting attention in the bustle of New York.

But yesterday morning it captured, for a moment, center stage in the city, encapsulating the fight that has been going on for years over the hundreds of community gardens that have sprung up on city-owned lots, many with official encouragement.

Yesterday, as the city was sending bulldozers and the police to clear out the tiny community garden known as Esperanza Garden, the state attorney general was sending lawyers to court to try to stop them, and dozens of protesters were chaining themselves to cement blocks that they had buried in the garden months ago to prepare for just this moment.

It was the latest pitched battle between the Giuliani administration, which wants to reclaim the properties to make way for low- and middle-income housing, and community advocates who see the gardens as invaluable solace and scenery in a city dominated by asphalt and concrete. The fight has been waged in the courts, the news media and the neighborhoods, and has at times even attracted celebrities like Bette Midler, who helped rescue 112 other lots last year.

Esperanza Garden has managed to draw intense devotion on the Lower East Side. Just hours before the court hearing was to begin, demonstrators who had spent the night guarding the garden were in a tense standoff with the police.

They had chained themselves to concrete blocks and fences in hopes of preventing the garden from being razed. They were chanting songs.

And as often seems to be the case when the community gardens are at stake, confusion reigned.

Before a judge could weigh in on the merits of the state’s case, the city acted. The police waded into the demonstration, arresting 31 people and scattering dozens of others. A work crew with a bulldozer, backhoe and chain saws then set to destroying all traces of the garden, which had been in existence since 1977.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who hopes to sell the lot to BFC Properties, a developer, says this lot and hundreds of others like it can be used to ease a housing shortage. The lots will create housing for people who can least afford it, he said, and the city’s plans are legal and sound.

”If you live in an unrealistic world then you can say everything should be a community garden,” Mr. Giuliani said. ”Then where would people live where they are able to get affordable housing?”

The resistance to the city’s plans includes the challenge from Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, who says that the lots, which had fallen under the city’s program to encourage community gardens, should be considered parks, which could be sold only after state environmental review or by an act of the Legislature.

”The fact of the matter is that this is a determination the courts should make,” Mr. Spitzer said. ”This is an unfortunate display of the mayor preventing the judicial process from operating.”

The timing of yesterday’s actions left some gardeners bewildered.

”It wreaks havoc on the conscience,” said Joel Kupferman, a staff lawyer for the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project. ”I am crestfallen.”

The police action also created a scene. In recent months, as it seemed sure that the city would evict the gardeners, they fortified land they had come to see as their own.

In addition to the concrete blocks they chained themselves to, the gardeners erected a tripod to stand watch, and built a sculpture of a large tree frog, or coqui, which in Puerto Rican legend is said to repel attackers. The frog had room inside for at least two people.

Yesterday, the fortifications failed.

By 3:15 a.m., the police began towing away cars on the street, while the protesters gathered around a fire. By 7 a.m., the crowd of protesters had grown to 150. They chanted: ”New York City has got to breathe. More gardens, more peace.”

”Even if they raze this garden, we’ll take it back,” said Michael Shenker, a resister. ”We’ll take two for every one they destroy. Giuliani, Fooliani! We’re going to haunt Giuliani like the Furies from Greek mythology.”

Shortly after 10 a.m. the officers converged, cutting Mr. Shenker and other protesters free and carting them off to local precincts. Although the protesters had hoped to delay the city until Mr. Spitzer’s lawyers could argue their case in court, they failed.

The last of the protesters was removed by 11:30. The court did not finish hearing the state’s motion until early afternoon, at which time Justice Richard D. Huttner of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn blocked the city from moving against 174 other lots until the court meets again next month.

Lawyers in the case said the judge separated Esperanza Garden from his ruling because it is the subject of a separate proceeding, filed by the neighborhood, that has been rejected by the courts and is under appeal.

The legal distinction mattered little. By the time the order was issued, Esperanza Garden was no more.

”It’s incredible to me,” said Ariane Burgess. ”It took 22 years to create this beautiful space, and they completely destroyed it in a couple of hours.”

As Ms. Burgess spoke, the creak and rumble of the bulldozer could be heard from the lot, where all of the garden’s structures and plantings were being crushed.

The police said the 31 protesters were charged with trespassing and would be held overnight for morning court appearances. Some were also charged with obstructing justice and resisting arrest, the police said.

Mr. Giuliani said he was unmoved by the timing of the arrests, and by Judge Huttner’s temporary restraining order.

”We are considering appealing that,” he said. ”I would ask people to consider how hard it is to get an apartment in New York, how the vacancy rate is nonexistent. I mean, something has to give.”

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