community gardens pt. 3: political empowerment


NYCCGC press conference, 2010

NYCCGC press conference, 2010

In terms of empowerment, gardens gave a voice to people that otherwise felt left out of the political process and gave residents the power to improve their neighborhoods.  In the 1970s, a number of vacant lots appeared in New York City as the city went bankrupt and investors (and white people) left for greener pastures.  The streets of many neighborhoods became seedy and unsafe, and the residents felt that they couldn’t depend upon the corrupt police force.  The establishment of gardens—again at first by counterculture groups like the Green Gorillas, but gradually percolating into the rest of the population—provided a rally point for many communities to improve their areas.  Spaces that would otherwise fall prey to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ became spaces for community engagement, discourse, and productivity.

The gardens replaced needle-strewn empty lots with productive spaces where people, especially women, felt safe spending time (Schmelzkopf, 273).  Residents of Losaida, an area now more commonly called Alphabet City, speak of replacing desolate parking lots with “places full of color, camaraderie, and safety” (ibid., 273).  The streets became safer and the neighborhoods more attractive to investors as gardens popped up on every corner.  Perversely, this became a problem in the 1990s as the land in the very neighborhoods that the gardens had helped to revitalize became too attractive to investors to stay as gardens.  However, this introduced many previously apolitical gardeners to grassroots activism.

Gardeners in New York found their political voice, participating collectively in the political process when Mayor Giuliani tried to auction off garden plots in the 1990s.  The nonprofits and gardeners that had lobbied for and worked the lands brilliantly managed their campaign in a fight with City Hall that saw a number (although not all) of the gardens preserved (Smith and Kurtz, 208).  A number of the gardeners were people of color who otherwise tended to feel marginalized by the state and local government, but through their work in the gardens were able to make a difference in the politics of the city while preserving the mainstays of their communities.


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