Neighborhood Strikes Back Against Plot to Hand Community Gardens Over to Developers

Harlem residents want affordable housing, but they aren’t down with replacing the green spaces they’ve nurtured with high-rises.

(Photo: Tracy Packer/Getty Images)

Jan 30, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When there’s nowhere in America that someone earning minimum wage can afford the rent on a market-rate one-bedroom apartment, it’s obvious that, yes, the rent really is too damn high. Developers might not always be inclined to build more affordable housing, but in the meantime, you can help plant your local community garden. That is, until the city decides that the only way to meet housing demand is to construct new buildings on the land you’ve been tending.

That’s the situation some residents of Gotham are finding themselves in, thanks to a recent decision by New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The department recently made 180 new sites available to developers for construction bids, and three of the 15 sites in Harlem are locations where community gardens have sprung up.

Gentrification alert: Developers will be allowed to submit proposals for apartments that would require a family to earn almost $140,000. Sure, that’s cheaper than some of the million-dollar apartments being sold elsewhere in Manhattan, but it’s still out of the range of minimum-wage workers. As a result, activists in the neighborhood are taking the lead in advocating for their right to green space and a reasonably priced place to live.

“Harlem shouldn’t be forced to choose between its home-grown community gardens and affordable housing,” reads a petition started last week by green space advocate Marie Winfield and Tony Hillery, the founder of the Harlem Grown greenhouse.

Harlem Grown has seen significant success in the community. Last year the garden supplied more than 2,000 pounds of food to local residents and got students involved in planting, weeding, and harvesting crops. The petition is asking the housing department and Mayor Bill de Blasio to find other parcels of land to offer up to developers.

Residents have been allowed to grow fresh vegetables in the spaces, but they don’t own the land—the city does—which means that earlier this week one of the gardeners showed up to a space and found it locked.

“We were just getting ready to start planting for the spring, and now it’s padlocked,” 46-year-old John McBride, a resident of Harlem’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, told DNAInfo about Electric Ladybug Garden on West 111th Street. McBride has spent the past two years helping to get that particular garden to flourish, and he’s seen the positive effect it has had on the community.

“This garden has allowed people to create a sense of community where it didn’t exist before between the old-timers and the newcomers. I think people are surprised at how quickly the garden has flourished. It’s really given the block a positive tone,” he said.

As of this writing, more than 1,200 supporters have signed the petition, but neither the housing department nor de Blasio has replied.