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The De-Greening of Brownsville

This may have been the harshest winter in years, but that hasn’t stopped Helen Mason from braving the cold and snow every day to feed the ducks. Somebody has to make sure Minnie Pearl, who Mason calls “the hostess with the most-est,” Ralph, Chiquita, Sophia, and Cramda get plenty of food, water, and attention through these cold months, so they’re healthy and eager to greet visitors when Fantasy Garden opens this spring—though at this point, no one’s sure that will happen.

Fantasy Garden, which occupies a few lots at the corner of Legion Street and Blake Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn, is a haven for all kinds of wildlife, even in the dead of winter. While they may be sleeping right now, come summer the garden’s small orchard of fruit trees, large expanses of vegetables, and beds of ornamental perennials will be wide awake, as will the graceful weeping willow whose branches sway above the duck’s pond. Then the garden will hop with a different kind of animal energy. “Fantasy Garden is all about bringing unity to the community,” Mason says. “Once you unify the community it can grow. People will try to help one another rather than wait for the system to give them a handout.”

But if the city has its way, this garden will soon be replaced by a housing project.

Things could be worse. Back in 1999 Giuliani made plans to auction off over a hundred of the city’s community gardens for development. The method by which he chose which green spaces would be sold paid no regard to their level of activity, community involvement, or beauty. “There was no process in place by the city to take a look at the gardens and review them piece by piece,” says Brad Maione, spokesman for the Attorney General’s office. “It was arbitrary.”

The Trust for Public Land put up $3 million to buy 63 of the auctioned lots, and the New York Restoration Project bought the remaining 51—all of those were saved, their community status maintained. Gardens that once held temporary, year-to-year leases suddenly had the security to thrive to maturity. Sidewalks were replaced, irrigation systems installed, and gazebos built. They were finally worth the investment. And the gardens that green space supporters couldn’t afford to buy back were lost.

After the auction, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, along with non-profits including the Green Guerrillas, the organization that helps New Yorkers convert public land into gardens, filed suit against the city over the way the land had been handled. A temporary injunction stopped any further sales. The case was settled in September 2002, in an agreement that puts a new garden assessment process in place. One hundred and ninety-three gardens are now protected under the Parks Department or other city agencies; 198 will be offered to the Parks Department or other preservation organizations; 114 will go under garden review; and 38 are marked for immediate development. Out of those 38, 15 are in Brooklyn. Of those 15, 10 are in Brownsville, and half of those are in walking distance from each other.

“We grew collards, mustards, squash, eggplant, watermelons, peas, string beans, tomatoes. It was killing me there were so many tomatoes!” Earl Harris, former member of the Bristol St. Gardeners community garden recalls. A retired city employee, Harris was one of the few remaining active gardeners when the Bristol St. garden received notice that their swatch of green would soon be a high-rise housing complex, like the one that went up just behind their home. “It used to be the whole block was involved with the garden,” Harris says, “Now, most of the people have moved out of the neighborhood. There were just four of us left.”

Involvement at the Fantasy Garden has hardly dropped off, however. The garden hosts an annual back-to-school cook out, where children from the elementary school across the street can win school supplies. As part of their “Reach Out and Touch Someone” campaign, members help beautify the homes of senior citizens in the area by planting easy care perennials in their front yards and window boxes. Fantasy Garden works in conjunction with the probation department to teach basic gardening skills to those needing to fulfill community service. And the fruits of everyone’s labor—chemical-free apples, nectarines, cherries, figs, plums, grapes, blueberries, and huckleberries, plus vegetables and herbs—are available to residents in a neighborhood where fresh produce is a rarity.

“The mission of the garden is to teach kids to have self-esteem and to work with one another,” Mason explains. But Fantasy Garden welcomes residents of all ages to sit in the shade of its gazebo or stroll beneath arbors of wisteria. Birds nestle into the unusual birdhouse, supported by a tall tree stump, and the kids can’t get enough of the ducks. One 83-year-old neighbor makes a point of stopping by to dispense gardening advice. “She gives me tidbits, and tells me, ‘Plant this this way.’” Mason says. “She just loves the garden to death.”

Even though gardeners like Harris and Mason will soon be left green-less, Susan Clark, the director of public affairs for the Trust for Public Land says, "We don’t feel that anyone could have worked out a better compromise. I encourage those gardeners who are losing their gardens to take their enthusiasm and transfer it to something that would be good for their communities. Not to sound Pollyanna— I just hope it doesn’t kill their spirits.

How exactly did Spitzer’s settlement determine which gardens were worthy of protecting, and which had fallen into disrepair? We’d like to think a committee of gardeners got together and carefully assessed each green space; talked to neighbors; and weeded, and harvested, and mulched alongside its members. But “throughout the entire settlement, nobody except the attorneys from the Attorney general’s office and the City made those decisions,” says Rebecca Ferguson, associate director of Green Guerrillas. “I’m not saying they weren’t sensitive. But there wasn’t anyone from a private greening group [involved].”

Helen Mason is well aware of that. As the primary caretaker of the Fantasy Garden, Mason has been tirelessly reaching out to Tracy Boyland, Brownsville’s council member, for help. Brownsville is home to over 83,000 people, many of which reside in the area’s 18 public housing projects. “That’s a lot of concentrated people,” Mason points out, “So they need the green space.” The neighborhood has the third highest asthma rate in New York City, and the highest incidence of residents with HIV. And with 1,244 vacant lots in the area, there is no dearth of land available for development.

Mason’s only recourse is to continue calling and writing local politicians, speaking at public hearings, and doing whatever it takes to let people know “that we’re a valuable asset to the community,” she says. Meanwhile, Minnie Pearl will keep squawking for her food.


Stephanie Saulmon


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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