New Yorkers For Parks New Director Angers Some Green Advocates
November 20o2 - Hostos-Crimmins Garden - 141st Street and Crimmins Avenue, Bronx, NY.
By Jennifer Riveraton
April 19, 2010
New Yorkers for Parks (NY4'P's) announced the hiring of a new executive director last month, but the appointment of Lee Stuart has disturbed some in the community garden movement. Ms. Stuart played a central role in a major open-space dispute in the South Bronx, that on November 21, 2002, led to the arrest of three residents – at gunpoint – advocating for community gardens.
"To reward Ms. Stuart with this position of power seems to me a grave error on the part of this advocacy group, whose mission should be to protect our city's precious open green spaces, rather than to select as their chief executive someone so willing to destroy it," said J.K. Canepa, a member of More Gardens!, a coalition of community and environmental groups.
Not surprisingly, New Yorkers for Parks' official announcement makes no mention of the controversy. Instead, it concentrates on Stuart's C.V., which notably lacks any experience in parks:
"Lee comes to New Yorkers for Parks from The Hunger Project, where she served as head of International and Institutional Fundraising for the organization. Prior to her work at The Hunger Project, Lee launched the SHARE project, a community based food assistance and community development program in San Diego. SHARE grew to have over 30 domestic affiliates, including the one that Lee launched in the South Bronx. Following the success of SHARE in the South Bronx, Ms. Stuart became the lead organizer of the Nehemiah Project, uniting the South Bronx Churches to carry out their re-development agenda. Lee Stuart holds an M.S. in Biology from San Diego State University and a Ph.D. in Ecology from San Diego State University and University of California at Davis.“
While Ms. Stuart (left) won accolades for her role in developing housing through the Nehemiah program, others criticized her role in the destruction of vibrant community green-spaces for apartments that are out of the reach of local residents. Critics charged that at the time the median income in the districts with threatened gardens ranged from $14,000 -$19,000/year while the so-called “affordable housing” had minimum income requirements of $32,000/year. At the same time numerous gardens were targeted for housing, including Cabo Rojo, Hostos-Crimmins, Eagle, Shakespeare, and Salinas Community Gardens. The Hostos-Crimmins Garden at 141st Street in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx was the site of one intense battle.
"Almost every block has a vacant lot or a pile of rubble where a building burnt down," Leroy Walker wrote in a article titled A LITTLE PIECE OF PUERTO RICO WITH A VIEW OF THE SOUTH BRONX. "Buildings go up in one lifetime, burn down in the next, and others are built in their place. The Bronx is a giant toxic machine, constantly rebuilding itself with no consideration for the comfort or health of the people who live there.
"Look a little closer though, and you will little bits of green in the sea of concrete and brick, little bits of healthy community rising from the ashes of a broke-down ghetto. These are the community gardens, and this is the story of one in particular called the Hostos-Crimmins garden.
"In 1988, a group of friends from Puerto Rico cleared out the rubble of a vacant lot on Beekman Avenue near 143rd Street and built a garden. In 1995, a developer built on the site and the garden relocated several blocks away to the corner of 141st Street and Crimmins Avenue. In the 80’s and 90’s, 141st Street was one of the most dangerous places in the entire city. The Black Spades and the Savage Skulls were among the four and sometimes five rival gangs prowled the streets. One man who lived on 141st recalled that you couldn’t cross the street without getting into a fight.
"Step through the gates into the garden, and suddenly you enter a different world. A row of Atlantis (sic - likely Ailanthus) trees and very large sunflowers grow along the fence that surrounds the garden and help to insulate it from the surrounding noise and ugliness.
"As soon as you get inside, your mind and body relax, and you catch a deep breath of tranquility. Rows of healthy peppers, carrots, zucchini, and a dozen other vegetables prove that the Bronx soil is not so toxic as to prevent life. (sorry I can’t be grammatically proper and write about this in the past tense, but it is just too sad.) (Ed. Note: parenthesis from original)
November 21, 2002 - Destruction of the garden begins. In pre-dawn hours three people were arrested at gunpoint while defending the Hostos-Crimmins Community Garden in the South Bronx. Police raided the months long encampment of local gardeners and community activists before sunrise to avoid the light of the sun and the media.
"Centered on the north edge of the garden is a fairly large shack called a casita, and another smaller casita appears somewhat hidden in the clutter of the garden’s eastern reaches. The casitas, as well as everything in the garden have a very makeshift appearance. Their construction reflects the fact that they were made out of whatever materials the gardeners could get a hold of, and built on a bit-by-bit time schedule whenever the gardeners found the time to work on them. They decorated the garden using the same method of spare time, spare materials, and random whimsy to create a beautiful and intricate work of art. A peach tree provides shade for a cement pool of water surrounded by half a dozen statues of the Virgin Mary and several statues of Jesus. The gardeners were very proud of the fact that ducks often visited their pond. A couple of chickens ran loose, never tempted to leave their green oasis. A picket fence was painted in bright red, blue and yellow, the three colors alternating between each board. Stuffed animals and figurines were attached everywhere, and just when I thought I had noticed them all, another one would appear hanging from the ceiling by a string or hiding in the onion bed. I came to realize that I would never get to know all the details of the garden because it was constantly changing. Against the orderly backdrop of rigid lines and dull gray precision, the green chaos of the garden appeared more beautiful than I can ever express in words. It was like a picture of Earth set against the dead backdrop of outer space, with some junky old stereo playing tapes of beautiful Puerto Rican folk music.” Leroy Walker was one of the advocates arrested at the time.
The city's open space guidelines recommend 2.5 acres per thousand residents, yet the South Bronx has less than half an acre per thousand people and a great proportion of that is asphalt or concrete or increasingly artificial turf. The South Bronx has the highest rates of asthma in the USA, 14 times the National Average. Trees filter asthma particles while layers of leaves act as a particulate matter filter. Many schools utilized the garden as an outdoor classrooms, learning lab, and as the only outside play area. South Bronx is one of the poorest districts in the country and the garden provided a space to grow nutritious fruits and vegetables improving health and saving the City's poorest residents thousands of dollars over the period of one year in food bills.
From an email action alert at the time announced on American Community Gardening Association listserves:
“Why has the non-profit organization South Bronx Churches destroyed Hostos-Crimmins Community Garden? Why now, when there are negotiations and other sites to build houses on? Why are the police helping greedy developers dispossess long-time residents from their healing green space and senior center? Why destroy a garden that cleans the air from all the diesel trucks, power plants, and garbage in our area when so many of us suffer from asthma? ... This is one of the few safe places around here!!!
Many gardens have been destroyed and our friends and relatives have been so sad they moved away. Now South Bronx Churches (with headquarters in WESTCHESTER) is destroying yet another garden to build what's called "Nehemiah Houses" just like on 139th Street. They get our tax money to build houses on land they buy from the City (that's us!) for a dollar, and then turn around and sell the houses for over $200,000. More houses means crowded schools, jammed hospitals and higher rents. Greedy developers are also trying to swindle our community out of the Diego Beekman houses, too. This is called gentrification, and we have to work together to create real solutions with all of us at the table.”
Congregants of the Immaculate Conception Church, a member of the South Bronx Churches coalition, were so incensed with their actions that they issued this alert:
The Church of the Immaculate Conception is a member church of South Bronx Churches (SBC), a housing development corporation based in Westchester. The local office of SBC is housed by the church. On November 21, SBC, using their in-house contractor Foresite Construction, bulldozed the Hostos-Crimmins Community Garden. Three gardeners were arrested earlier that morning and charged with criminal trespass. This was a stealth move by SBC: The gardeners were engaged in good-faith negotiations with SBC to find another site.”
“Hostos-Crimmins Garden will grow again!, a flier they handed out to church members in the Bronx stated.
South Bronx Churches (SBC) destroyed our garden to build $200,000 townhouses. Churches like yours pay up to $4000 for membership in SBC. We agree that Mott Haven needs new affordable housing. However, there are hundreds of ugly abandoned lots around here. Why destroy our garden? We already had to move the garden once before: We are tired of rebuilding. We built the garden in our spare time, with our own money and our own labor. The garden was a sacred and beautiful place providing many benefits to the community.
* It was a safe, drug-free community gathering space * It was a source of food and medicine * It was an outdoor classroom and research center used by Hostos Community College.
Please help the community out and call South Bronx Churches honcho Lee Stuart: (914) 935-0110
Tell her the South Bronx Churches must:
1. Return the garden site to the community, or give us a bigger one nearby and make it PERMANENT! 2. Pay us back for what they destroyed or stole 3. Never again build on a community garden anywhere
November 21, 2002. Overhead view of the garden being destroyed. A bulldozer fills up a large container.
Before the garden was destroyed, the community engaged in many attempts at dialogue. In a letter to Lee Stuart at the time, Professor Amanda Bernal-Carlo of Hostos College wrote to Ms. Stuart. At Hostos, Dr. Bernal is the Chair of the Natural Sciences Department. She worked on the creation of several initiatives at the college including the Honors Program for Liberal Arts students, the Summer Honors Institute, and the Center for Teaching and Learning. She also Chairs the College Wide Curriculum Committee. Her letter was as follows:
We, the gardeners of the Hostos-Crimmins Garden, have been in this site since 1995 when the city administration gave us this lot after taking away a garden we had for more than seven years. Many of us (more than 20) are elders, sick and condemned to live in tiny apartments, in isolation, seeing life passing in front of the TV while depression, high blood pressure, diabetes and overweight kill us little by little. We have lived in the South Bronx for generations, and therefore, we are the first ones to understand that the South Bronx is in desperate need of housing, as it is also in desperate need of gardens like the Hostos-Crimmins Garden, our own garden.
People living in this part of the world need incentives to come and to stay. We need neighborhoods with places where people feel happy to be, feel useful to the society and have the opportunity to celebrate our accomplishments or look for solutions for our common problems.
In addition, the garden channels resources to our community. As a clear example we have the community leaders who are in our side, helping us to preserve the garden, or Hostos Community College an institution that brought us its students, faculty and staff to work for us, to give us workshops, to answer questions about our health, our nutrition and preventive problems.
At the same time we have been an excellent resource for the college when we offer it the opportunity to see in practice what is being taught in the classroom. In short, all of us, together, are an excellent team to teach future leaders and generations about life and society.
Hostos Crimmins Garden is not only for individuals but also for whole families with children. The garden located on the northeastern corner of East 141st Street and Crimmins Avenue, is an invaluable resource for all of us.
In October 10, 2002 we received an unsigned letter from the South Bronx Churches organization asking us to leave the garden because they need it for the development of Nehemiah two family houses.
1. We will resist any attempt of the South Bronx Churches to take over the garden without a proper documentation and a court order.
2. Under the terms of the Attorney General’s recent settlement on community gardens, we have the right to assist the developer (SBC) in finding alternative sites for their housing units.
3. We members of the Hostos-Crimmins Community Garden do not object to housing development, but we can demonstrate that there are many other sites that can accommodate this housing. The College and the community cannot afford to lose this unique facility.
4. We are open to negotiations to find a solution satisfactory to all involved. Because the Hostos Community Garden has created a bridge between us and the rest of the world, we are ready to do whatever its need it to keep it.
We strongly believe that an organization like the South Bronx Churches must be linked to the communities it serves not only to fulfill its mission, but also to learn about its needs. A viable healthy community requires public spaces where its residents, through interaction and cooperation can develop a sense of community. In fact, community is impossible without public spaces.
Members of the Hostos-Crimmins Garden won’t leave the garden we are committed to preventing yet another loss to the people.
As we mentioned at the meeting with you, we would appreciate an opportunity to dialogue and work with IAF-SBC South Bronx Churches to find a solution satisfactory to both parties.
Amanda Bernal-Carlo, on behalf of Members of the Hostos-Crimmins Community Garden Council”
As the effort to engage in dialogue with Lee Stuart and the South Bronx Churches bore no fruit, advocates began to research how these lots were transferred. People began to watch and stay in the park 24 hours a day, out of concern that bulldozers would come at any hour. This later proved to be prescient.
“Outside the garden, our friends were having no luck contacting the SBC leaders," wrote Leroy Walker. "While quite a few churches in the nearby area paid membership dues to the organization, none of them were the least bit involved in the decision-making process. Meanwhile, the head honcho, Lee Stewart (ed note, spelling from original article) was nowhere to be found. Also puzzling was the fact that the address on the SBC letterhead was not anywhere near the South Bronx, but in Port Chester way up in Westchester County on the Connecticut border. A friend and I decided to pay them a visit and that’s when the whole picture came together.
When we got to the address on the letterhead, we found ourselves standing at the office of the Foresite Construction Company, Ed’s company. Not wanting to believe our eyes, we went in and asked for Lee Stewart’s office. They told us that she was not around and quickly ushered us out to the sidewalk. Everyone in the office behaved as if they were hiding a great secret, but we already knew what was going on. The South Bronx Churches was not much more than a public relations front for the Foresite construction company. Using their public interest angle, the SBC could get the lots for a dollar a piece, saving the Foresite company millions. We later found out that they were turning around and selling their “affordable houses” in the range of $350,000 to $450,000! They were only “affordable because they offered a low down payment, and some people who lived in other newly built Foresite houses complained of cracking foundations and other flaws. On top of that, each of the member churches paid $5,000 every year just to get credit for the new houses. What a scam!"
November 21, 2002. A Police officer stands guard inside the former garden.
What was the result of these efforts at dialogue with Lee Stuart at the time? In the pre-dawn hours of, November 21, 2002 three people were arrested at gunpoint while defending the Hostos-Crimmins Community Garden in the South Bronx. Police raided a months long encampment of local gardeners and community activists before sunrise to avoid the light of the sun and the media. The garden was then bulldozed. The gardens had looked to support from then Council Member Jose Serrano and then Borough President Adolfo Carrion as well, to no avail.
"Early this morning, Thursday, November 21, 2002, three people were arrested defending Hostos-Crimmins Community Garden in the South Bronx," a press release stated. "The garden has now been bulldozed. Please call these numbers to protest the bulldozing. Tell them to work for harmony, more gardens, and less asthma. The city should cut the funding and tax breaks for all groups that destroy gardens."
The press release provided contact information and background:
South Bronx Churches 914/935-0110, Councilmember Jose M. Serrano 718/402-6130, Bronx Borough President 718/590-3577, Mayor Bloomberg 212/788-3000
Why has the non-profit organization South Bronx Churches destroyed Hostos-Crimmins Community Garden? Why now, when there are negotiations and other sites to build houses on? Why are the police helping greedy developers dispossess long-time residents from their healing green space and senior center? Why destroy a garden that cleans the air from all the diesel trucks, power plants, and garbage in our area when so many of us suffer from asthma? On the morning of November 21, 2002, three people were arrested without a warrant, court order, or any legal justification defending the garden with peaceful civil disobedience.
The garden has been here for many years as a healing place away from the crime and violence of the streets, where elders and children work and learn together. This is one of the few safe places around here!!!"
Leroy Walker recalled his disturbing experience the night the police came: “The cops kicked in the door of the casita at 2:00am to find three of us asleep on the floor in our sleeping bags. I will never forget the trauma of waking up to a half dozen flashlights pointing in my face and voice yelling “Don’t move!” We spent two days in three different precincts. The cops thought it was hilarious that they couldn’t remember the last time they had arrested a white person, and they called me “Slim Shady” way too many times. When I got out, I ran to the garden and rounded the corner to see a giant bulldozed mud-pit in its place. I started to cry, but then I saw Cruz, the can collector and I couldn’t cry in front of him. One of the chickens was walking around pecking the sidewalk in a daze. The other chicken was gone."
By Ms. Stuart ‘s account, "That particular site went through a long community review process and was ultimately designated for development by the Agreement between the City of New York and State of New York in 2002. Furthermore, that housing development was endorsed by Bronx Community Board 1."
The agreement in question refers to the hard fought effort to get then NY State Attorney General Spitzer to act to protect the community gardens, an agreement that many felt was too little too late. That agreement is now set to expire, with a city-wide movement to create permanent protections for all gardens now very pressing.
Ironically, it was actions like these, and the leveling of Cabo Rojo Garden, that led in 2003 to New Yorkers for Parks joining the dialogue of a number of groups, local and city-wide that were brought together in the Melrose area of the Bronx to address the crisis of rampant bulldozings.
”Many board members were opposed to the destruction of community gardens but the leadership did not welcome dissenting views and used the powers of office to steamroll any projects they supported," said a former Community Board 1 member who requested anonymity said.
The former garden lot as it looks today. Almost half of the lot is taken up by driveways for the five homes built.
At the time the issue was a contentious one with gardens under threat. A Garden Task Force was created to review the issue and gain further input from the community but the South Bronx Churches did not wait or engage in dialogue. Oftentimes, proposed developers and the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development would not indicate the existing land-use of the site, and so board members would not be aware that the site proposed was an active garden because HPD would list it as “vacant.”
In a letter to the Editor of the NY Times about South Bronx Churches, Cynthia Worley of Project Harmony Garden, itself the victim of the bulldozers, asserted:
"Lee Stuart of South Bronx Churches, which will build homes on the Crimmins Group Association Garden site, believes "there is literally no place where people can move; it's tight, tight, tight."
How can people not see what's there? There are thousands of vacant lots in the city ripe for building. I travel by public transportation to the Bronx each week. I see hundreds of vacant lots there and in Harlem – rubble-strewn and rat- and drug-infested. We could build whole towns on them!”
"I am dismayed that New Yorkers for Parks has chosen Lee Stuart to be their new Executive Director,"said Activist JK Canepa, who worked on the campaign to defend Hostos-Crimmins. "In her capacity at South Bronx Churches' Nehemiah Corporation, she showed great insensitivity to the beloved Hostos-Crimmins Garden in the South Bronx, choosing instead to refuse to work with the gentle, elderly people who created, tended, enjoyed and shared their garden… nor to the volunteers who tried to find common ground between SBC and the gardeners. Housing and gardens can successfully go together, but only if there is communication between the groups.
"The bulldozing was done without a court order in the middle of the night with 3 garden defenders being taken to jail," Aresh Javadi, co-founder of the advocacy group More Gardens!. wrote in an email. "Interestingly the community gardeners were not given replacement land by SBC or come to any agreement as they were repeatedly asked to do, by the community and Hostos community college professors deeply involved in horticultural project in the community garden. More Gardens! did help to relocate some of the community gardeners to a community garden operated by NYRP (New York Restoration Project) following to brutal destruction of Hostos Crimmins Garden."
Also in response to email inquiries, local resident Marty Rogers replied:
"Yea, there was a garden on Crimmins Ave in the South Bronx where some of the students and faculty at Hostos Community College were involved with local residents and South Bronx churches wanted the site to build homes. There was a community presence 24 hours a day at the garden and as was done in those days the police arrived at like 5am and bulldozers were ready to roll and local activists arrested on the site and the garden kicked out. My recollection is that South Bronx Churches (SBC) refused to comment on the garden and gave everyone the run around. There are houses on that site now, but there was not discussion about possibly relocating the garden or the houses."
Has Lee Stuart changed her views of green space since then and now sees the value of community gardens and public parks in New York City?
Some insights into her approach might be learned from a paper she presented at the Theology and Community Building Workshop Meeting on October 13, 2001. Her talking points about her work at her former employers include the following:
“South Bronx Churches organizes for power Not for some specific end – it is not a movement.”
“Empowerment is top down vs. power, which is from God.”
And in an interesting foreshadowing of the disappointment soon to be incurred by local residents losing their open space, her presentation went on to include this assertion:
"Greatest virtue is anger 1. You can’t teach this – something has been taken from you and as a result you have experienced grief and intense pain. 2. This can lead to violence, apathy or vision.”
Asked to comment on her more controversial past, and the Hostos-Crimmins Garden specifically, Ms Stuart issued this statement through a press spokesperson:
"I am excited to be the new Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks. For many years, I have supported community gardens both professionally and personally. Community gardens give people an opportunity to nurture themselves and the ground beneath in an otherwise concrete city. I look forward to working with the New York Community Garden Coalition, and other park advocates as they do tremendous work to improve their neighborhoods throughout New York City."
Ms. Stuart's credibility was called into question on March 24th during the City Council parks budget hearing at City Hall. She began her testimony saying that NY4P's was the city's only independent organization dedicated to parks. Similarly, on their website, in literature, reports, and in correspondences to funders, they contend that they are "the only independent watchdog for all the city’s parks, beaches and playgrounds. NY4P also represents their non-profit as "independent" while they are in fact a partner with the city according to the Parks Department. This relationship is clearly evidenced on the Parks Department's home page (bottom, right hand side).
During budget the hearing, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe twice thanked their "friends" NY4P's. In an awkward moment for the parks commissioner on Wednesday's Brain Lehrer Show, Mr. Benepe said NY4P's were the only "legitimate" park advocacy group. In Saturday's New York Times, Ms. Stuart said they supported the new park vending rules for artists being proposed by the administration. However the Times did not identify NY4P's various relationships and connections to the Parks Department, nor to the Co-Chair of the Union Square Partnership BID, nor to Danny Meyer who is on NY4P's board. The Union Square Partnership has been publicly critical of what they consider "congestion" being caused by venders in Union Square Park. The park is one of the four targeted for a dramatic reduction in vendors.
Ironically, Ms. Stuart made the March 24th statement sitting inches away from NYC Park Advocates president Geoffrey Croft who heads a non-profit organization that does advocate for and monitors all parkland within the City including State and Federal parks. Unlike NY4P's they do so from an independent and far more rigorous vantage than NY4P's. (New Yorkers for Parks also claims they were founded in 1908 even though they were created in 2002 after the “Parks Council” was disbanded.)
For more information on NY4P's relationship with the Bloomberg administration go to Crain's New York Businessand scroll to the Reader's Comments below.
"New Yorkers for Parks is a partner of the Parks Department and is not a truly independent group," one reader posted. "This relationship is clearly advertised on the Parks Department's own homepage. They are inextricably linked to the government and special-interests (e.g., Danny Meyer, shared Board members with Central Park Conservancy, etc.). "
Perhaps Lee Stuart will meet soon with garden advocates in the City to clarify her past track record and listen to ideas on moving forward. There is an urgent need to secure permanent protected status for all community gardens, not half measures of temporary protections or merely more bureaucratic hurdles to development.
"We at More Gardens! consistently hold space for collaboration and unity in creating an environmentally just New York City," More Gardens! co-founder Aresh Javadi added. "We see Lee Stewart's new role at NY4P as a new leaf to promote the creation of new community gardens and parks. We also see working together to create legislation to protect community gardens permanently. Finally we look forwards to increase our tax priority for the Parks budget and our well being on this earth, well over the 1.4% mark held in the earlier part of last century.”
The Future of Community Gardens
“I am encouraged by the commitment the Administration has expressed in working with us to protect the gardens and by their agreement to rule making," Council Speaker Christine Quinn has stated. "However, this solution is only a temporary one and we must find a permanent solution for protecting the gardens. One method the Council is examining is using the city’s ULURP/UDAP process as one means of preservation.”
Some garden advocates are troubled by the Speaker’s reference to the ULURP land-use process, a means by which development of housing and commercial real estate is facilitated, not land preserved. Rather, they suggest, legislation indicating all community gardens are parkland, in the NYC Parks Department portfolio, and not in the Department of Housing Preservation and Development domain, would be a simple solution. That would indicate a real commitment to permanent preservation, and achievable immediately by the City Council spearheaded by new Parks Committee Chair Melissa Mark Viverito.
Council Member Viverito, aware of the battles to protect open space in the Bronx and her Harlem District, and the fight against gentrification and luxury housing, has stated: “Local community members have struggled for years to support themselves, oftentimes against powerful forces, and in spite of a lack of support and resources. Today, they know they are no longer alone in this fight and we in the City Council will work until we achieve real permanent protections for our gardens.” Advocates are wondering when she will act on these strong words and introduce that legislation.
There are a variety of what seem to be solutions to this issue in the pipeline, many of them actually contrary to their apparent purpose. For example, on the state level A6800 introduced by Assembly Member Brennan is discussed in some circles in a manner as if it would offer preservation to community gardens. In fact, it merely reinforces the existing regulatory framework that leads to the development of gardens. Rather than unequivocally state that gardens are parkland and permanently protected, it obfuscates: “…the legislature hereby finds and declares community gardens as parkland of the state of New York and further finds that such community gardens cannot be sold or developed by any local municipality without the approval of the local zoning board…”
Such legislation tricks people into thinking the permanent status would be achieved, when in fact it reinforces the conditions for development and loss of parkland and deludes people into less action. Will Lee Stuart advance this issue in the Council and be a strong defender of public space, or a supporter of housing swaps and privatization deals by Mayor Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Benepe. Will she be a strong critic, or a congenial figurehead? Time will soon tell what direction New Yorkers for Parks will go. Community garden and parks advocates want to know.