Saving Pleasant Village Community Garden, Inc.

Saving Pleasant Village Community Garden, Inc.

 Christine Johnson, photo by:  Kira Bucca Photography

Christine Johnson, photo by: Kira Bucca Photography

By the end of next year, 2018, the Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) public land on Block 1815 Lots 5 and 6 that Pleasant Village Community Garden, Inc. (PVCG) licenses from HPD will be sold for development. This will take away our community compost bin, our chicken coop, our growing plot for food donation, our native pollinator plant field and our grape arbor. After 1 year and 9 months, we are no closer to saving this land than when our fate was announced on December 28, 2015 by Vicki Been, then HPD Commissioner, at Mayor De Blasio’s office. This story is a history behind the use of this land and of the incorporated sections of the garden. Please help us save this land by sending an email to our key officials here https://pvcghpdland.wixsite.com/savetheland/letter-campaign


How PVCG’s fight for our public HPD land started before we knew it started

In August 2010, Pleasant Village Community Garden, Inc. (PVCG) had a NYC Service day with then Mayor of NYC, Michael Bloomberg and several players from the N.Y. Mets, including Angel Pagan, owner Jeff Wilpon and knuckleballer R. A. Dickey. This was a big event: NYC had gifted the garden with fiberglass picnic tables, built in grills, and a new fence on the 119th Street side of the garden to replace the dangerous, dilapidated one. President and founding member of PVCG, Margaret McQuillar, at the time 91 years old, was presented with a Mets game jersey. Our 35-year old, ailing apple trees were replaced with new ones, and we received lilac and butterfly bushes and other supplies to help run the garden in a reduced waste, environmentally sound manner.

 Photo from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden.

Photo from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden.

A brief history of PVCG

Like so many other community gardens, PVCG emerged from the remains of buildings generally in depressed areas destroyed often by fire deliberately set by landlords hoping to escape a hopeless situation.  Even with the many yards of soil used to bury the past, bricks, building materials and other personal belongings resurface continually in community gardens as the rubble and dirt settle into long gone lives. The garden members along with many, many volunteers carried out two full-sized dumpster of bricks and debris that had accumulated over the last 35 years.

Rose Gardella founded PVCG around 1974, when she started the Green Guerilla tactic of flower bombing the vacant lots, in what is known as ‘Pleasant Village’ of East Harlem. Raised beds were built so that members, primarily African Americans, originally from the south and Puerto Ricans, could grow food in a food-desert neighborhood that was somewhat isolated from the rest of Manhattan. Trees and flowers were planted and the wreckage turned into an oasis, where anyone could come in and rest under the soothing, cool shade of two cherry blossom trees to escape the hard pavement and chaos of the City.

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 Photos from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden, before the renovations.

Photos from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden, before the renovations.

When I joined the community garden in 2006, PVCG was thriving with plots teeming with okra, cabbage, tomatoes, green and hot peppers, beans and cucumbers. After many years working as a post-doc, like for so many others, the garden became my salvation, my respite from a chaotic, fast, competitive world. Everything was low key, where members paid $5 for a plot and membership; an additional dollar went towards the purchase of a key to the gate. Members all joined on Saturdays and Wednesdays for garden open hours (sit hours, they called them).  People tended their plots and grumbled about the squirrels stealing the tomatoes. Any correspondence was sent by snail mail and the three yearly meetings during open season from April to October were mandatory. Gentrification was barely a thought.

During our August 2010 NYC Service Day, Edie Stone, who was the Director of Green Thumb at the time, asked the then garden secretary, Nancy Lee and me (I was the Events Coordinator) whether we wanted her to see if she could secure a license for us to tend the two vacant lots that bordered a small stretch along the south-east part of the garden from Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Of course we would and no, we wouldn’t get attached – the lots needed a lot of work from years of neglect. Bennie Lee, a garden member who had passed away a couple of years earlier, had had a fertile vegetable garden on the southwest corner of the lot. He had also planted a green and a purple variety of the most delicious Concord grapes that were growing high up into the lone peach tree and a recruit white mulberry tree. The lots were in sad shape. The land had been lost in 1979 due to unpaid taxes and was under HPD purview. 

 Photo from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden, the HPD land of PVCG as an empty lot.

Photo from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden, the HPD land of PVCG as an empty lot.

Like so many other lots and buildings in East Harlem and other areas of New York City pre-1995, HPD couldn’t handle them and issued 30-year licenses for people to use these lands as community gardens or sold city-owned buildings to tenants at a low cost to be run as low-income coops and entered them into long-term agreements to ‘pay back’ the low cost sale through a "fee" on the gross income from apartment sales. Some of the gardens in East Harlem, such as Pleasant Village Community Garden, became incorporated into NYC Parks and Recreation. Others were not and almost all of these in East Harlem are gone (sold and developed) or were absorbed into the New York Restoration Project.

Nothing had been done on PVCG’s newly licensed HPD land since Bennie Lee had passed. The weeds were as high as an elephant’s eye; the ground was ripe with bricks and garbage; razor and barbed wire kept all but the rodents and feral cats out. We tore down the ‘fence’ between the incorporated garden and the vacant lots that day (Figure 2). It took five of us prying and prodding for about 3 hours to get about 20 ft of this fence down, and it still wasn’t gone completely by the end of the day.  A bed-frame and metal car part, as part of the ‘fence’ had been engulfed in a tree, which was dying. That downed tree is now part of the landscape as a small reminder of what once was along the ‘Camino de Pollo,’ coined by garden member John Long, a small path that leads from the Incorporated land to our public HPD land.

Edie got us a license. And the garden members were attached to the land. Standing with Nancy and garden member Lisa Faibish on that land and looking out over it brought tears to our eyes. And not just because we had to clean up all the bricks and garbage.

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 Photos from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden and the work that has been done to it. 

Photos from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden and the work that has been done to it. 

HDP Land Transformation

In the year that followed, 2011, this land transformed from dearth and sadness to life and beauty. For several years, kids from the Harlem Justice Center Youth Justice program helped to clean the land as part of their community service. PVCG submitted an application and became the first funded Just Food’s CityChicken Project chicken coop build in Manhattan.

PVCG now has its a second set of hens, who have graciously given us over 7,000 eggs over the last six years. These eggs are sold to garden members and visitors and the funds go back to purchasing food and supplies for the feathered ladies. The eggs are spectacular in flavor and kids (and adults) learn where their food comes from, learn that without a rooster, hens still lay unfertilized eggs. 

 Photo from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden's first chicken coop.

Photo from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden's first chicken coop.

PVCG applied for a grant from the Solid Waste Advisory Board in partnership with Citizens Committee to build a large 3-bin community compost system out of recycled pallets. Again, on our second rebuild of the 3-bin system, this endeavor was far more successful than anyone imagined it would be. We partnered with several local businesses to pick up their food scraps. Now, people all over the neighborhood drop off their food scraps and we divert about 4,000 lbs a year or more of organic waste from the landfill. The added benefit is for a brief moment when folks drop off their compostables, they hear peace and quiet. They walk on earth; they hear the birds; they watch the hens. They marvel at the native pollinator plant field in its wild spectacular colors of yellows, purples and greens. The native pollinator plant field was a labor of love that took several years to achieve. At first, we remediated the existing soil by planting crimson clover, hairy vetch and winter rye. After the growing season ended, the ‘spent’ plants were tilled into the soil to provide nitrogen and other nutrients. Through annual fall and spring workshops by the Butterfly Project NYCgarden member Lisa Faibish and I received and seeded the ground with native pollinator plant ‘plugs’ – goldenrod, Echinacea, mountain mint, a variety of asters, false sunflowers, false indigo, sedges and more.

Garden members John Long, PatrickMartinez, and Laurent Vacher built a special enclosed plot so kids from classes at local schools could plant vegetables and flowers. Today, the plot is tended by garden members (Geoff Hollinder and Steph Santiago) for donation to the Edible Schoolyard Project.

PVCG holds annual events on this land – a pumpkin patch for Halloween, a hunt for candy-filled Easter Eggs for Easter, and a music fest featuring garden members. We also hold compost workshops, a free Sunday Strala yoga class, and a moth night for National Moth Week, where we see what moths are in our garden.

 Photo from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden hosting it's annual Halloween pumpkin patch event.

Photo from Christine Johnson, of Pleasant Village Community Garden hosting it's annual Halloween pumpkin patch event.

The impending loss of our public HPD land

On December 28, 2015, presidents of gardens growing on HPD lots received a phone call telling them their land is slated to be developed and to attend a meeting on December 30, 2015 at 11 a.m.at Mayor de Blasio’s office. An obvious inopportune time as this was a day before New Year’s Eve and some, including Katie Benn who was PVCG president at the time, were away visiting family.

I had to work that day and was scheduled to give a tour of the collections where I work to a trustee at 10 a.m. But, I finished the tour at 10:50, grabbed my coat that I had hidden near the elevator and sped downtown to see 596 Acres founder and activist Paula Segal, NYCCGC Director & President Aziz Dekhan & Ray Figueroa, Community Board 11 Chair of Parks and Recreation Francis Mastroda, Mandela Garden President Rene Calvo, and countless others pleading from the bottom of their souls with HPD Commissioner Vicki Been to let us keep our respective public lands as community gardens. None of us have really won this battle.

 Photo from Christine Johnson

Photo from Christine Johnson

I am a decent presenter; I’ve taught many college courses and present at scientific conferences regularly. I have yet to get past the emotional uprise that takes over me when I speak publicly about something for which I care so deeply. My voice quivers, the pitch is raised, my body trembles, I sweat, and I see and hear nothing other than the sound of my voice. Speaking about this garden did then and does now just that. This land is for the people. Environmental justice and social justice is EQUALLY as important as development. The pitting of our healthy open, utilized space against ‘affordable housing’ is an unjust one, especially given the recent City Council to approve the massive 96 block rezoning of East Harlem, and the fact that the the new buildings would allow people to have incomes up to $150K. Many of the people of East Harlem do not make this kind of money, and what they need and want is their green sanctuary. These new condos will only continue the neighborhood gentrification; it will push out people from their homes and the gardens they tend. The community’s beautiful space on Block 1815 Lots 5 and 6 is set to be developed by the end of next year under the NIHOP program.

It has now been one year at 9 months since that meeting. A developer for the PVCG lots has not yet been selected, but we’ve been told that in round three, a developer will be chosen for these lots. PVCG has a HPD working group dedicated to saving the land. To date, we have about 1000 signatures and letters from concerned citizens and 25 local businesses within a 3-block radius that do not want this land to be developed. 

 Photo from Christine Johnson

Photo from Christine Johnson

East Harlem is diverse. It is unique. It is poor. It is changing. Accepting diversity means accepting life as people live it, not forcing others to conform to one group’s ideal. I have not yet met anyone that thinks this land should be developed. Not one. Our officials, including those who are from East Harlem and who state they are fighting for this area, are not listening. There are other alternatives to building on these lands and the officials who chose to serve the people need to find other alternatives. Many of us will help them, but they have to listen.

We are in an environmental crisis. Our Earth is telling us it is dying. Even small green spaces like this have a huge positive impact on mediating anthropogenic effects on our environment. This land should be saved and the value understood.

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Article written by Christine Johnson,
Pleasant Village CommunityGarden member
Instagram, with frequent posts of the garden:  @chickenants

For more information or to sign the letter campaign against the development of the land, please go here.
Facebook: @pleasantvillagecommunitygarden
Instagram: @pleasantvillagegarden
Twitter: @PVCGarden_NYC

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