“This was an active garden, we had visiting schools and day care centers bringing their children by to share the garden. There was a brick walkway there, a huge fishing pond there, five vegetable boxes, chairs and tables for children and adults. Plenty of flowers were there. There was a site dedicated to the victims of 9/11. There was a large grape arbor in the back, and a peach tree. Everybody around here had peach cobbler made from that tree. Besides the material things, there was years of labor there also. You can never pay dollarwise for what happened that day.”
Community leader Anne Thompson was leafing through an album of pictures of happier times at the Leaders of the Future Community Garden on Herzl Street in Brownsville, Brooklyn before the bulldozer came and reduced it all to topsoil and rubble.
Housing vs Gardens?
The purpose is housing, everybody’s for it, particularly those living doubled up or paying rent that leaves them with nothing at the end of the month. In this overcrowded city it is reasonable to say “let there be housing.” But most people want to live in homes and homes include neighborhoods and neighborhoods should include gardens where children can learn and play. And if ever an area needed some good news, it is Zip Code 11212.
Zip Code 11212
According to researchers at the Community Resources Center, it has more People With AIDS (PWAs) than 12 states including West Virginia and Nebraska. The CRC says that eighty-one percent of the residents are black and 17.2% are of Hispanic origin, and the median household income is $15,042.
Not Housing vs Gardens
Councilman Charles Barron, objects to the way some of characterized the issue. “This is not a housing versus gardens situation. This is about community development,” said the councilman. “No one is opposed to developing some gardens for housing. We are just tired of developers looking at our community and seeing dollar signs. And go about developing housing that is not even affordable for our people.”
The council noted that much of the new housing goes for $300-$400,000 and that many times the household incomes have to be $40-$50,000 before anybody can even think about purchasing them.
“Another point is that our children need a community with parks, gardens and housing, the councilman continues. “When you go into some of those gardens, it’s like stepping into another world. Even some gardeners said, ‘Take ours, but not these two.’ For seniors and for children in particular, these two gardens provided a whole new world for them. We live in a concrete asphalt jungle. When you have gardens and greenery you can have your children able to visit greener pastures right here in Brownsville or East New York.
We Want Our Fair Share
The Fantasy Community Garden on the corner of Legion Street and Blake Avenue looks like a minipark with grass, a duck pond fruit orchard and vegetable planting boxes. Community leader Helen Mason is the head of the garden and spoke about the deal with the Bloomberg administration which saved 500 gardens last year. “We did not get an equitable share of the gardens by any means. There are over 82,000 people in Community Board (CB) 16. We have 41 housing projects. They’re going to put up houses priced at $300,000, and the median income here is $18,792. When they’re finished, we’ll have one garden at a homeless shelter and one other garden, but over 26 gardens were saved in Ocean Hill.
Councilmember Tracy Boyland
Not Doing All She Could
“We met with Councilwoman Tracy Boyland and her father in November. She promised the garden would not be touched and he said it would not be touched. Ms. Boyland said they would ‘Flip-Flop’ the developer to another site.” Ms. Mason said that since then, no help has been forthcoming from Councilwoman Boyland. She promised to do something but she (Ms. Boyland) has made no effort to preserve the gardens.
On Wednesday, April 23, Ms. Mason spoke with Tom Congdon from the attorney general’s office. Mr. Congdon was one of the parties involved in the litigation to save the gardens. He informed Ms. Mason “that each council member had input into the settlement. He said the council member herself chose the gardens to be destroyed. She made the call. Not HPD. Not the attorney general’s office.”
Letter Needed From Boyland
According to Ms. Mason, Mr. Congdon said they were willing to preserve the gardens but “they want a statement from Ms. Boyland that they should take every means to save this garden. Once they get that statement, then they can do that, but no one wants to step on the toes of the local elected official. The only person who did it is Charles Barron, ’cause he’s that maverick type and he doesn’t care if it’s about justice for our people. As a matter of fact, she said something to him to the effect ‘you’re stepping into my space.’ He told her point-blank ‘I don’t care. If it’s for our people, it doesn’t matter to me what space it is.’
“What is so disheartening is that through this whole process she (Boyland) continued to insist that she was doing everything to preserve the garden. It’s very deceitful. We elected her, not because she was a Boyland, but because we were excited to have a young African-American female work for the community. Someone who would be for everyone. Instead, she chose to safeguard the gardens in Ocean Hill, but shows prejudice towards people in Brownsville.”
“Fantasy Garden is still here at 181 Legion Street and we intend to keep it. Just look around this community, every statistic is negative. You don’t see anything positive. And these politicians stand aside while gardens are bulldozed. It’s insulting. Some of these politicians are insulting. We voted for them and they’re in office and they don’t care.”
Ms. Mason obviously does care. It was nine-thirty on one of those cold April nights, and she was on a cell phone spending the night in the garden with a group of others staying warm by propane. “Our lips are chapped and our eyes are blood shot, but we feel that at any moment the bulldozers could come.
I Will Be Unrelenting
“DeCosta Headly purchased the garden for $1 and wants to build five houses at over $300,000 each. That’s all they care about. The money. They don’t care about the children in this community. Well I care and I intend to keep going. I’ve been writing since 1999. I’ve been faxing, E-mailing & calling. I will be unrelenting and I have no intention of letting up. They already bulldozed Anne Thompson’s garden. It was like shock and awe, immediate destruction. They can leave this garden alone.”
Good Times Gone
At the now-demolished site of the Future Leader’s Garden, Ms. Thompson showed me the album with pictures of the long brick walk into the garden with fruit trees left and right. And children laughing, posing and having a good time in lush green surroundings.
“We understood that the garden was in negotiations only to have the bulldozer come in with no notification, and that’s why Charles Barron was so livid. They not only disrespected me and the community, they disrespected him and his office. They did not think enough to call him and say, “Listen Charles, I know we were in negotiations, but it fell through.” But they didn’t do that and it makes Charles look bad in front of his constituents because he promised us that this was in negotiations and the next thing he knows there’s a telephone call with me screaming about they’re demolishing the garden.”
Lesson For Children?
Ms. Thompson said she could accept that they took the garden “because the property was theirs and there’s only so much fighting you can do over something that belongs to someone else no matter how long you’ve kept it. My beef is the way it was taken. I feel it was an act of terrorism and that bulldozer was a weapon of destruction. If they had just told me, I could have saved some things. The children in the neighborhood painted that mural just last September. They’d come and play in the garden. Now, after all the time and sweat, something decent and beautiful is gone. What kind of lesson is that to teach children?”