by Barnet Schecter
On May 20, 1994, New York City Housing Authority employees arrived at the DOME Garden on West 84th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues in Manhattan and set up corrugated metal panels so that residents could neither see nor enter their community garden through the wrought iron gate, which was now padlocked. Blocked from view were the results of a 17-year community effort. Raised planting beds, built up with salvaged railroad ties, were bursting with string beans, squash, lettuce and basil. Marigolds, irises and peonies flourished in colorful profusion next to the vegetables.
Shaded by willow, sweetgum and birch trees, curving brick pathways led to a circle of benches under a leafy arbor. Senior citizens found company on these benches, and in the shade of towering maples and poplars—one of them 80 feet tall—children found not only a place for cookouts, but a safe haven for doing their homework. At the center of this urban garden was the symbol of the place: a geodesic dome covered with grape vines and climbing roses, a geometric construction of slender metal pipes melded seamlessly with its verdant surroundings. When asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks steamed in the summer, neighbors could sit in the cool dugout under the dome and pluck green grapes from the roof and walls.
With the metal panels, the city was enforcing its ultimatum to the gardeners: give up your legal appeal to block the proposed public housing on the garden site or lose the plants and tools that might have been rescued. It was a maneuver reminiscent of Robert Moses, The Great Intimidator, the autocratic Parks Commissioner and power broker who shaped New York City and decided the fate of its neighborhoods for over forty years. In an effort to sidestep local resistance, and in apparent violation of Buildings Department permits, the NYCHA employees arrived after hours to seal the garden. However, a restraining order which residents had obtained through their lawyer kept the Housing Authority at bay.
When the restraining order was overturned in court several days later, NYCHA returned early in the morning to finish the job. While its police force patrolled the streets and roof tops—against people who had fostered law and order by nurturing an abandoned lot—NYCHA's employees used a bulldozer and chainsaws to decimate the garden. Threatened with the loss of the garden since 1990, residents had pursued every legal avenue to block the public housing which would replace it. Because they refused to be bullied out of exercising their rights, the gardeners lost everything.
The DOME Garden began with a lease from the city's Operation GreenThumb program. However, its founders used private money and technical support from the non-profit Council on the Environment to put in topsoil, sod, shrubs, and trees, landscape the lot, and install a fence. The Council estimates that it contributed $25,000 in materials and staff time to the garden in the first four years alone. And this does not include the plants and equipment purchased by the gardeners themselves over the years. Clearly, the equity of these horticultural homesteaders was based not only on their sweat, which was considerable, but on the financial resources they brought to this lot.
For decades, residents of West 84th Street watched the area fester with rats, broken plumbing, drug addiction, alcoholism and overcrowding. In 1961, when a brawl involving 400 blacks and Puerto Ricans brought media attention to its slum conditions, the neighborhood seemed poised for improvement. But in an attempt to clean up "the worst block"1 in the city, the mayor applied policies known as slum clearance and urban renewal, which have since become associated, internationally, with segregation and failure.
Five thousand people were reshuffled to other slums and fourteen condemned buildings were demolished, but these drastic measures didn't create the promised revitalization.
Sixteen years later, the garden site was still an abandoned lot filling up with garbage and a meeting place for drugs addicts. In a nearby church basement, a young teacher named John Simon was running the DOME Project, an acronym for Development of Opportunities through Meaningful Education. He marshaled the five high school drop-outs in his program to clean up the lot and turn it, after a year of hard work, into a thriving garden. In his book To Become Somebody, Simon recounts how the garden project drew the DOME members out of their basement and into the community, where in the summer of 1979 they ran sports leagues, classes, and other activities for neighborhood children in the school yards adjacent to the garden. Simon writes: "All these activities created a very festive atmosphere on West 84th Street, a block many people were previously afraid to walk on. We quietly, but firmly, moved the drug dealers..."2
In the The New York Times, Anne Raver wrote that "John Simon's work with teenagers and families soon grew into an alternative school, a juvenile justice program, a summer day camp, and many other community services."3 Classes from P.S. 9 made regular trips to the garden. Project Reach-Out, a program of the Goddard-Riverside Community Center, also used the garden to teach horticulture to homeless adults who had been living on the streets. To combat feelings of anonymity caused by overcrowding, students at Brandeis High School, across the street, participate in smaller units oriented around career themes. Evergreen House is acknowledged as one of the most effective, and its horticulture curriculum was supported by hands-on experience in the DOME Garden.
These are just a few examples. The list goes on and on. The point is that while the garden was considered one of the most beautiful in the city, it was also one of the most useful. Like gardens on the Lower East Side, in the other boroughs, in Boston, Los Angeles, and in cities around the globe, the DOME Garden had extensive links to the surrounding community. The gardens tuck themselves into the dense built environment of neighborhoods and create, organically, so to speak, through their activities, a host of social services. A closer look at their inner workings reveals that community gardens are not separate islands of nature in the bustling metropolis, but rather urban microcosms that engage all of the problems and opportunities that constitute the culture of cities.
The history of the block on West 84th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues exemplifies the failed planning policies of the 1960s, the success of community gardens in the 70s and 80s, and finally the punishment of these citizen initiatives that have stabilized and improved troubled neighborhoods in the 90s. In the DOME Garden case, city officials argued that they were simply making the tough choices, facing up to harsh realities.
Doesn't the basic need to shelter the poor and the homeless take precedence? Officials argue that the irate residents defending their flower beds against new, enlightened small-scale public housing that captures federal dollars for a fiscally strapped city are narrow-minded and parochial. Locals are crying NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard!). They can't see the good of the city as a whole.
In a larger sense, the gardeners might be pegged as naive sentimentalists, unable to cope with the complexity of urban life. After all, many are from the Caribbean islands or the American South. Aren't they traumatized rural transplants, resisting the historical tide of urbanization which brought them here, stubbornly trying to graft the ancient rhythms of farm life onto a city where the scarcity of land and a shrinking tax base yoke real estate interests and government together in a relentless search for each parcel's "highest" use?
Ironically, the opposite is true. It is the planners and policy makers who are the sentimentalists. While rising real estate values induce the city to auction garden sites to developers, in many cases it is the gardens that have improved neighborhoods and raised property values. The community gardens, which cope admirably with the most intractable of urban problems—crime, education, alienation—are a progressive force rising from rubble-strewn lots abandoned to drug dealers for decades by the unfulfilled promises of slum clearance and urban renewal. It is these very policies—of demolishing entire neighborhoods to make way for new projects—that were driven by nostalgia for a pre-industrial, even feudal order.
In her attack on slum clearance and urban renewal policies, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs shows that twentieth-century American urbanism has been influenced by reactionary theories of town planning dating from the late 19th century in England. Ebenezer Howard reacted against the overcrowded industrial slums of London and proposed self-sustaining small towns with agricultural green belts—Garden Cities—instead. The towns were to have clearly separated zones for work, leisure and other functions, and their size was to be strictly limited. In this sense they had to be static, both physically and socially. In its almost feudal conception, the Garden City suggested an escape from the momentum of history. Jacobs points out that Howard was attached to the energy of "immemorial peasant life," which is so different from that of cities. "It was the very fluidity of the new 19th century industrial and metropolitan society, and its profound shiftings of power, people, and money that agitated Howard so deeply..."4 Jacobs shows that Howard's refusal to look at the inner workings of real cities—his escapism—became planning orthodoxy.
In the early twentieth century, Jacobs argues, the influence of Howard's Garden Cities movement combined with that of other utopian visions such as the Radiant City of Le Corbusier and the City Beautiful of the Beaux Arts to create an enduring anti-urban bias in the American planning profession. Driven by fears incubated in nineteenth century English slums, planners in the 1960s were still attacking all of those qualities which are unique to urban settlements and account for their vibrant energy and democratic possibilities: density, complexity, diversity, and the ability of the city to accommodate the plans of the many, not only the few. Beginning with the assumption that cities are chaotic and irrational places, the planners' solution has been to impose a simplistic order from above, instead of trying to discover an inherent and more complex order in the habits and preferences of real people. This attitude produced the kind of results associated with Robert Moses: the destruction of stable working class neighborhoods with expressway overpasses, the isolation of minorities in superblocks of public housing which enclose windswept plazas and wastelands of green lawn in a vain attempt to create safety with barriers instead of community. In short, planners imposed suburban solutions on urban problems.
Howard's antipathy for real cities and his ultimately misguided desire to plan every aspect of their growth and function through absolute restrictions was a nostalgic reaction to the rapid urbanization of the turn of the century and the migration of laborers away from the countryside. In his efforts to get back to nature, Howard jettisons the complex cultural life which is the great achievement of cities. Implicit in his attempt to create a pastoral city, a rural-urban synthesis,5 is the dubious assumption that human culture split off from nature at some point, and that the two can only be re-integrated through a utopian vision, in a time and place outside of the historical continuum. This assumption—the impulse to restore human beings to a balanced relationship with nature in an idealized, hybrid setting—is an ancient one, which is reflected in the language of the Bible and runs like a thread through Western thought. The Old Testament establishes the original rupture between humans and nature, and prophecies a New Jerusalem. The New Testament absorbs this vision of a heavenly city that will restore paradise on Earth.6
In Genesis, Western civilization's archetypal narrative is set in motion by a disruption of Adam's relationship to the land. He is expelled from the ideal pastoral landscape of the garden of Eden where God put him "to till it and take care of it," (Genesis 2: 15-16). Now he will have to "till the ground from which he had been taken," (3: 23-24) and his efforts at cultivation will be arduous, since God has cursed the ground and it will grow only wild plants—thorns and thistles. This image of adversity, of Adam obsessively plowing into his own substance, the dusty earth from which he was made, resonates not only with the traumatic severing of the farmer from the natural cycles of the land, but with a psychological dimension. Adam, with his newly acquired self-consciousness is condemned to turn inward; the sterile gesture of plowing becomes a neurotic tic, a grasping for his formerly instinctual existence of harmony with his own nature.
It is at this juncture, Freud might point out, that civilization (and its discontents) really begins. Human beings, cut off from the natural environment—and in the landscape of the psyche, from themselves—now sublimate their instinctual energies into cultural achievement. The repression of instinct makes the social and institutional order possible.
Putting aside the neurotic consequences, Renaissance humanism celebrates this segregation of instrumentality and instinct. The faculty of reason gives humans a central place in the cosmic order, above the beasts and below the angels. Nature is defined by ascribing to it patterns and purposes that are in fact a projection of human reason. In the seventeenth century, Cartesian dualism makes the separation of mind and matter clear (and distinct), and helps pave the way, with its mechanistic explanation of all natural phenomena, for modern science, technology and medicine. This dichotomy becomes a relentless motif in Western thought: the very definition of culture is contingent upon its separation from nature.
It is after Adam and Eve's expulsion and the break with nature that the dark and troubled history of urban settlements begins. "Cain was then building a city, which he named Enoch after his son," (Genesis 4: 17-18). From Cain the murderer, we proceed to the hubris of Babel. God destroys Babel for the same reason he expelled Adam before he could eat from the tree of life: both acts threaten his control over creation. Babel represents the unchecked development of human language and intellectual potential, a cultural phenomenon in opposition to the natural order. God turns his wrath next on the wicked cities of the Plain—Sodom and Gomorrah. These sinful, chaotic prototypes of the modern metropolis are also an aberration, an affront to nature.
The restitution for the Fall, the redemption promised by Isaiah is finally carried out in the Revelation of John. The ideal city, the New Jerusalem, with its perfect balance of urban and rural elements, descends from heaven. It is a walled city made of jewels and gold, but it also has a river through the center:
The New Jerusalem contains all the bounty of Eden; it replaces the Earth's corrupt cities and rejoins humans with nature.
The Greco-Roman tradition, like the Judeo-Christian one, also seeks a resolution of the divide between nature and culture. Instead of a fusion, however, in Virgil's Eclogues it is achieved, at least provisionally, by escaping to an idealized pastoral realm, a middle landscape, not in the city or in the untamed wilderness, but in between, in a symbolic place, where instinct and intellect are both gratified. As Leo Marx writes in The Machine in the Garden, "The ruling motive of the good shepherd, leading figure of the classic, Virgilian mode, was to withdraw from the great world and begin a new life in a fresh, green landscape."7
But the resolution is never complete. In Virgil's poetry the Roman government evicts the shepherds and awards their land to military veterans. Marx writes:
The classical tradition echoes in American literature, Marx explains, where this "pressure of change," this "encroaching world of power and complexity," takes the form of a locomotive, its whistle piercing the quiet of the woods. Industrialization threatens Arcadia.
At first, the DOME gardeners standing outside the gate, expelled from their garden, sent to wander through the labyrinth of the city bureaucracy in search of restitution, resemble Adam and Eve, or even more pointedly, the dispossessed in Virgil's poem. A bulldozer—the locomotive of history—has obliterated their tranquil garden. But there is a crucial distinction. They are not escapists trying to stand outside the course of history in an idealized landscape. Their energy and sweat are part of history's engine; their garden functioned simultaneously, integrally, with the great city.
But cultural mythology, springing from Biblical language and sustained by the popular press, contributes to the persistent image of gardens as separate oases in the city. Magazine articles consistently characterize community gardens as Edenic retreats from urban chaos, as idylls of prelapsarian grace. Or else they associate growing one's own food with a Thoreau-going, anti-urban self-sufficiency. We view the relationship of country and city, of nature and culture, through a veil of myth and literature born of ancient tradition. Gardens trigger in our minds those archetypal oppositions, the paradigms of the separation of nature and culture that are deeply embedded in Western civilization.
Yet community gardens defy Western literary conventions and cultural myths about the opposition of the country and the city. They are part of an emerging paradigm that challenges us to rethink traditional distinctions between nature and culture. The gardeners are not seeking a static, utopian synthesis of rural and urban elements. Rather, they believe that if they can make their neighborhoods livable, and keep their children in school, the "fluidity of metropolitan society"—the possibility of social and economic mobility—holds out the promise of a better life for themselves and their families. The "highest use" of an empty lot can be measured not only in rentable floor space and tax revenue, but by the rich network of affiliations it creates, by the degree to which it opens up the opportunities of a city to its inhabitants.
Community gardens are inherently urban, because they reflect the plans of the many. With so many people involved—from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and with strong ideas about how the garden should look—the most active gardens become microcosms of urban life, complete with petty conflicts, feuds and intrigues. But in the course of functioning as community centers for cultural events, offering educational programs for neighborhood youth and families, raising extra food for the poor, and providing safety on the street, the gardeners ultimately resolve these tensions through democratic means.
The price tag to the city for all of these accomplishments is the opportunity cost of a neglected lot. And yet an ungrateful and short-sighted government bureaucracy fails to see the gardens as an adjunct to development and public housing, not an obstacle. It ignores the complex pattern of human connections that extends beyond the lot to the block, the street, the neighborhood and the city. It continues to treat community gardens as a dispensable amenity, as something added on, but not integral to the physical, social and cultural fabric of our cities.
Behind this failure of vision, at one level, is the pressure of political and bureaucratic imperatives. The destruction of the DOME Garden secured a $4 million HUD grant for the city and made way for thirty-five units of housing. It saved face for a few panicked bureaucrats at a troubled housing agency which had recently seen the forced resignation of its chairwoman, and under her successor was blasted by the press for its failure—in the midst of a housing crisis—to spend its HUD grants over the previous decade. The embarrassed officials preferred not to ask HUD for yet another extension and risk the loss of a grant. So the city lost a priceless asset, one which took nearly twenty years to create, because it reflected the plans of many people; the full range of its activities could neither have been planned by a few bureaucrats nor purchased overnight with any amount of federal or local funds. It was a place, built by the residents themselves, where the impulse to deface and destroy property—which is so prevalent in public housing projects—was transformed into civic pride.
In this way, community gardens foster a sense of interdependence; they confound the myths of nature as an escape. While Freud has suggested that the history of civilization is one of psychic repression, the gardens are perhaps closer to Jean Jacques Rousseau's model in The Social Contract, in which he attempts to reconcile nature and culture in political terms as a balance between individual liberty and the common good. The gardeners do not achieve the free and isolated state of the noble savage, but rather the complex interdependencies of civilization, the healthy externalization of the psyche in the self-imposed bonds of social relationship. "Working in the garden taught our youngsters some botany and soil chemistry," John Simon writes, "But, more important perhaps, it taught us all to take greater pride in our community."9 Here nature and culture are inextricably meshed. Cultivation of the natural environment reinforces individual commitment to the social order. Simon goes on to explain that because neighborhood residents volunteered to work in the garden, there was never a significant vandalism problem. The contrast with the graffiti, broken glass, and urine-soaked elevators in housing projects couldn't be greater. When people are making plans of their own, it seems, the urge to destroy their environment is lacking.
State Senator David Paterson made the same point, in more pragmatic terms, when he wrote to city officials and protested NYCHA's plans after they were first unveiled in September of 1990:
Noting that the area between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenue from 80th to 87th Street remained a mostly minority working class neighborhood, Paterson pointed out that their reluctance to give up the garden could hardly be called a NIMBY attitude since the community had its share of public housing projects.
The presence of other public housing in the neighborhood turned out, in the end, to be the DOME Garden's undoing. The Housing Authority turned down the list of alternative sites submitted by the Borough President's office, saying that none but the DOME would fit the federal government's restrictive guidelines for dispersing low-income housing—guidelines which have since been scrapped in New York City. NYCHA officials looked at the DOME site, which technically had no public housing right next to it, and saw four million dollars in HUD money. That is, if they looked at the site at all. In their correspondence with the Department of City Planning, they described the site as it stood in 1977, as a vacant lot.
Of course, the lot had not been truly vacant for 17 years. Nonetheless, officials argue that the garden was an interim use of the lot; ultimately this is public property and the title belongs to the city. Even Rousseau, whose First Discourse is a Romantic denunciation of the evils of civilization, and a paean to natural existence, reaffirms property rights in his later writing. If we want to speak of a social contract, how can we simply let people take over what doesn't belong to them? Doesn't that lead us back to a Hobbesian state of nature, without any protections of law?
In fact, the law does provide for the taking of property in special cases. The doctrine of "adverse possession" states that if one holds a property openly for ten years without protest from its owner, one gains the title. Unfortunately for the gardeners, this doctrine, as it stands, cannot be applied against the sovereign state—against public property. Again, the law leads us back, as it should, to the interests not of the local community, but the society or city as a whole. In the DOME garden case, however, the injunction to "consider the interests of the city as a whole," and make way for public housing, is little more than the politician's standard rebuke of communities and is more appropriate to situations where local residents are simply refusing to shoulder their fair share of social services. Here it becomes little more than an buzzword or abstraction, which obscures the organic relation of the city's parts and the ability of those parts to contribute to the good of the whole.
Those contributions become clear if we ask: What is the social and financial cost to the larger community of neglected public spaces that breed crime; of truancy and delinquency; of short-sighted programs and spending that focus on building prisons instead of keeping children in school? Certainly the cost is higher than the value of abandoned lots where gardens tackle these very problems.
The gardens, then, are not anarchic threats to the rights of property, but stand firmly within the American political tradition. Rousseau's formulation of the common good, which influenced Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence, says that the people delegate but never surrender their sovereignty to government. When government fails or becomes oppressive, they are justified in taking matters into their own hands. Sometimes the only cure for an alternately inert and then destructive bureaucracy is a bit of revolution.
In September of 1993, over the objections of the Community Board and the Borough President, the City Council and the City Planning Commission approved the housing with the stipulation, however, that NYCHA had to move the 9,000- square-foot-garden, to a 6,000-square-foot section of the Brandeis High School yard. This proposal by the agency to relocate the garden in the overcrowded school yard was made without any community input and approved over its objections. According to the City Council resolution, the replacement DOME Garden was to be designed before the new housing was developed.
Instead, the housing went up, and a year later, NYCHA still had not honored the agreement. Responding to continuous pressure from local residents and their elected officials, NYCHA finally dispatched a team of landscape architects to produce a design for the new garden in the school yard. They worked closely with the community and incorporated its suggestions. On April 15, 1996, almost two years after its destruction, a much smaller DOME Garden will reopen, with the city offering the gardeners a two-year lease. Still, the clearing, shifting, and resorting of individuals for the sake of bureaucratic imperatives is a repetition of past slum clearance mentality.
It was this mentality that Jacobs attacked. Planning as a discipline, Jacobs asserts, failed to properly define "the kind of problem a city is." Taking their cues from physics rather than the life sciences, planners analyzed cities as "disorganized complexity, understandable purely by statistical analysis, predictable by the application of probability mathematics, manageable by conversion into groups of averages."11 Jacobs urges us to take a less mechanistic and more organic view of cities. They are not random and disordered, but rather "problems in organized complexity, organisms that are replete with unexamined, but obviously intricately interconnected, and surely understandable relationships."12 Jacobs could be describing community gardens. In their intricate relationships, which city officials leave "unexamined," we see the city writ small, an urban microcosm. The gardens bring home to us the recognition that humans beings, with all their abilities to engineer the evolutionary process, are still one form of nature, as are their greatest and most complex cultural achievements: cities.
This recognition informs an emerging mode of thought that redraws the traditional borders between nature and culture. The increasingly popular academic discipline of Environmental Studies now prepares students for careers in city planning as well as forestry, and includes the study of literature. In The New York Times Magazine Jay Parini quotes John Elder, professor of both English and environmental studies at Middlebury College, who argues that most great writers have an understanding of their own "particular landscape, the human communities that arose within it and their interrelations." He cites Robert Frost as a local example. Elder adds that the discipline is "trying to teach a form of attention to the landscape, to the whole environment, human and natural."13
Just as this new paradigm is taking shape, the theology of the Information Age promises to take us back to a future that looks more and more like traditional Western escapism. Cybernauts dream of freezing themselves for a couple of centuries until technology will allow them to shed their bodies and wake up as pure consciousness inside the ultimate mechanistic universe: the Cartesian coordinates of cyberspace. This vision has much in common with the New Jerusalem of Revelation, which is a "religious vision of cyberspace," according to Michael Benedikt. "The Heavenly City, though it may contain gardens, breathes the crystalline gleam of its own lights, sparkling, insubstantial, laid out like a beautiful equation." It stands for "our transcendence of both materiality and nature..." Disembodied social interaction in cyberspace holds out the promise of ultimate communion, a sort of frictionless intellectual exchange in an empyrean of pure culture, unburdened by the mortal grossness of nature. Cyberspace is a visionary architectural project, Benedikt suggests; like "gravity-defying cathedrals" it expresses "the resentment we feel for our own bodies' cloddishness, limitations, and final treachery: their mortality."14
This application of cryonics for leaping over the messy facts of the human condition resembles the city's approach to the area around West 84th Street in 1961. After the city demolished fourteen buildings and displaced five thousand residents, an official quoted in the Times, said the aim was to "maintain good building and social standards until the area is ready for additional development."15 This remark sums up the fallacy of slum clearance. Instead of fostering gradual change—studying what keeps people voluntarily rooted to a neighborhood and gives it stability and then providing appropriate incentives—it relies on cataclysmic disruptions followed by attempts at suspended animation. Some neighborhoods died in the deep-freeze as their empty lots turned into festering sores.
Others received their promised renewal projects that replaced the complex mixtures of older buildings, in neighborhoods that had accreted organically over time. But the new towers, instead of solving social problems often became "ghettoes in the sky." The elevators and hallways and the desolate walkways between the high-rises put residents at the mercy of criminals. Ultimately, the projects were still-born brain children of a few planners, the architectural equivalent of cyborgs, devoid of memory, or the capacity for humans to become attached to them.
As a solution for the plight of urban centers, telecommuting in cyberspace, much like slum clearance, represents the ultimate escapism; a suburbanization where the walled-off community has been atomized to the unit of the individual. At a time when millions of Americans are flocking to gated private communities, many named after the natural habitats they destroyed, community gardeners represent the ultimate commitment to an urban reality. They are making the most of finite physical resources and of the infinite human resources generated by social diversity. Tilling the fields of charred brick, and renewing themselves by working with nature, they are not the expelled Adam plowing vainly amidst thorns and thistles. They are the life-blood of a grand metropolis where the incubation of new ideas and the chance at an education offer the key to upward mobility in a democratic society.
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