The Stolen Gardens

So. I hear that the forces of gentrification, with Mayor Guliani's blessing, have finally taken control of the Lower East Side's community gardens. My outrage at this is not diminished by my lack of surprise. No, it was bound to happen, barring widespread urban conscientization, and that just makes it all the more disgusting.

I'm not really qualified to write this, but somebody has to. When I first moved to New York, I was rather scared of the Lower East Side -- more than other neighborhoods that ought to have been more terrifying to a countryfied white boy. I think that was because it was such a flat-out, vibrant, unashamed mix of a place. (It had pretty much bottomed-out as a slum by then; Tompkins Square Park would soon be plasticized; bulldozers -- and tanks -- were already looming.) It was the place where the mega- hit Rent was inspired, of course -- and Rent, in another sense, is certainly the key to the neighborhood's fate.

But the gardens were wonderful. New York City has lots of vacant lots -- every city does. Being what it is, though, NYC does its version of urban stagnancy in a grosser, grander way. Headed by Donald Trump's infamous Penn Railyards (57 acres of midtown land along the Hudson River, vacant for over twenty years), dozens of prime, obscenely valuable big apple sites have been vacant for decades. While Loisaida (it took me a while to get the pronunciation of that; it's how a resident, probably Latino, of that neighborhood would quickly describe his regional identity) was low-income, its vacant lots were relatively low-rent. Their ownership was well-covered by corporate layers and none of the "owners" were inclined to pay any attention to them.

And the gardens were wonderful. Months and years of careful work, to reclaim the blasted soil to grow flowers and vegetables, landscaped, nurtured and sculpted -- in the purest spirit of communal worth. The gardens were created without pay or subsidy -- and without the insurance of legal title. I think there were no places in New York -- certainly not Central Park, for example -- that succeeded more beautifully in allowing one to forget, for a blessed while, what was Outside.

They weren't all "beautiful" in a traditional sense. I went one night to hear a band on a lot that was strewn with debris more variegated and bizarre than could ever have been caused by a scheduled demolition. Poe could have partied there, a thought that somehow reassured me: we hung out by a campfire (a rather toxic campfire -- folks weren't too particular about the paint that was on the wood they were burning). The music jangled and careened, and the whole thing seemed to belong. A great deal of work had gone into creating that setting, a place where "Out There" was way, way far away, but: the city owned the lot.

Gentrification doesn't happen all at once. Beyond all doubt, the first to be lured to pricey new Loisaida condos were yuppies, perhaps like me, who were attracted to the spicy urban gumbo of the "East Village" but wanted a kinder, gentler version. Do we see, people, do we understand how the sweat and love of the creators of the Lower East Side Community Gardens was turned (inevitably, because that's how the system works) to their undoing? What made the neighborhood into that funky place that the gentrifiers wanted to gentrify? The people who lived there, and cared about their neighborhood enough to work to reclaim it from drugs, crime and hopelessness.

But they didn't have "title", you see, to the "land". These terms are bandied in the press with such arrogant assurance that we must put them in quotes. Who had "title" to the "land"? The city did. And why was that?

Why, because the "land" had no "value". Its previous "owners" had walked away. In the current tax system, which penalizes people for building things, it was simply unprofitable to do anything with those sites. The "owners" walked away from them, seeing no reason to keep paying even the pittance of property taxes they were being charged, and left them in the city's hands.

Now before we go any further, let us cast aside the notion that the New York City government has any concern for affordable housing, or even has any of its vaunted "quality of life" concern, for the working poor among its citizens. Mayor Guliani has come out and said that people who can't afford to live in New York should leave (perhaps they should head for Dallas, or Palm Beach). If it had a shred of such concern, the City Government would have facilitated and legalized the community gardens. It would have sent in plumbers and electricians to bring sweat- equity squatted buildings up to code (rather than evicting the squatters and sending them to expensive, dangerous city homeless shelters)! The City's evident concern is for the equity of its real estate investors. By their calculations, it's time for a change in the Lower East Side. So the gardens have to go.

Seldom has the stinking immorality of our conception of land "ownership" been displayed in sharper relief -- to those who know where to look, anyway. I don't wonder who owns those Lower East Side gardens, I know -- and it's not the city, or the gentrifiers who purchased them at auction, for a song. When you have someone doing the work to make a place a place worth living in, and another person collecting that value, in return for allowing people to live there, you have a recipe for social disaster. And isn't that how our land tenure system works?

Lindy Davies, August 8, 1998

What Folks Have Been Saying

Indeed, a community garden is a better land use than a vacant lot, and one can hardly object to people cleaning up unsightly, dangerous lots and turning them into gardens. However, their promotershave always talked about the need to protect these gardens from development, which is saying, in effect, that a community garden in New York City is a better land use than a new building. This is what Lindy seems to be saying.

One promoter I heard calculated the rental value of the land taken up by some of these gardens, and made joking reference to $20 cucumbers and $8 tomatoes. That's just what the community garden concept is -- a subsidy to the tune of $8 per tomato and $20 per cucumber, because land that had very valuable uses is being held back from "gentrification" in order to grow tomatoes and cucumbers. There is only one sensible place for a private garden in Manhattan, and that is on the rooftops.

The rustic, nostalgic notions behind protection of community gardens from development are no different, in effect, from the notions behind farmland assessments and clean-and-green exemptions. They are a denial of access to land for people who would fully use that land in order to favor someone who would use that land in a lesser way. They end up creating a concentrated benefit one can point to, but a general malaise everywhere else.

Perhaps the little gardeners are poor and the big nasty developer is rich, but the thing that keeps people poor is lack of job opportunities and overpriced housing. And the root cause of shortages in both jobs and housing is the holding of land out of higher uses. While a community garden might provide a sense of respite for a small number of poor people, protecting land from development causes their impoverishment.
Dan Sullivan <
[email protected]>
Pittsburgh, PA - Tuesday, August 11, 1998 at 15:05:51 (EDT)

Of course I agree that land should not be held out of use against the forces of the market just for "touchy-feely" reasons IF -- and this is the crux of my point in the article -- the market has not already been manipulated to benefit well-connected landowners. The real estate market in which these community gardens operated was not clean and monopoly-free! It was grossly distorted.

And, there were thousands of vacant lots that developers could have developed. It was never necessary (in terms of public interest, or the housing market) to take those that had already been improved by squatters or gardeners. The market had already abjectly failed to provide that housing or those parks, so people did it for themselves. In doing so, they created a more desirable place for development -- and their work was appropriated by the city-supported developers! Does that sound to you like the free market at work?
Lindy Davies <[email protected]>
Formerly of NYC - Tuesday, August 11, 1998 at 15:05:51 (EDT)

I'm with Mr. Sullivan. I don't need those grubby little "avant gardens" and I don't want them. Prospect Park is a fine place, supported by my tax dollars.
Max Schmoo <[email protected]>
Brooklyn, - Tuesday, August 18, 1998 at 12:48:43 (EDT)
*fully use* may be a concept with many negative complications without lvt
- Wednesday, August 19, 1998 at 15:40:55 (EDT)
What bugs me about this kind of gentrification is that those who do the work are punished and those who prevent it are rewarded. Those who brave fringe communities, do business and live there and otherwise work to make that neighborhood better (including the beautification of empty lots) end up getting driven from their homes and businesses by rising rents and property taxes which are a result of THEIR hard work, but the profits of which fall into the hands of speculators, bankers and property owners who, in most cases, have done nothing to assist that neighborhood's improvement and who have, in fact, in most cases, held back on improving the lots or buildings, since it would have raised their property tax if they had. Artists and poets move into a 'scary' neighborhood, make it a hep place to live and visit and the next thing they know, they're getting kicked out so the GAP and Starbucks can move in. What we need is a property tax system that doesn't make owners pay a higher tax for improving their property and which taxes land at a high enough rate to end the real estate speculation industry. Land speculation produces no goods or services, artificially inflates the cost of living for the benefit of non-producers and punishes producers via unfair and unnecessary levels of taxation and unreasonably high rents and prices for homes. What good does it do to work and produce when the landlord is just going to raise your rent that amount? This is why the relative benefits all of the technology created over the past century has not and will not filter down to the public at large. We should tax for the use of resource, not for how much people produce. This is the essence of political economy, the essence of fairness and efficiency. The real science of economics is about the relationship between nature and society and answering the question, "What should we own collectively and what should we own privately," and the answer is the resource and the product, respectively. This would be economic equality, economic freedom, REAL equality and freedom, not vague words on dusty paper in the basement of some government building but actual, real life, justice in our everyday lives. There's only one solution, economic revolution. Tax land, not man!
Adam Monroe, Jr. <[email protected]>
- Friday, August 28, 1998 at 21:10:06 (EDT)
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