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More Than 1,500 People Sign Petitions to Save Harlem's Community Gardens

By Gustavo Solis | January 28, 2015 11:02am
 Harlem Grown plants microgreen in its greenhouse, hiring unemployed mothers from P.S. 170 to harvest the greens and selling the produce to local restaurants.
Harlem Grown
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HARLEM — More than 1,500 people have signed a petitions asking Mayor Bill de Blasio to save several community gardens and a greenhouse, which provide fresh produce for the neighborhood, from being turned into affordable housing developments.

The petitions to save the gardens comes a few weeks after the Department of Housing Preservation and Development published a list of city-owned sites that developers can apply to build on, including 15 community gardens.

HPD let groups use the vacant lots as community gardens on a temporary basis and can kick out the gardens when the sites are ready for development, an HPD spokesman said. 

Tony Hillery, founder of the Harlem Grown greenhouse on West 134th Street, started one of the petitions last week with the help of Marie Winfield, from Friends of Thomas Jefferson Park.

As of Wednesday morning, the petition had more than 1,090 signatures

“I’m very thrilled that people are really that passionate about it and I’m overwhelmed by the support,” Hillery said. “We’ve gotten hundreds of emails from people asking what they can do to help.”

The emails poured into Hillery’s inbox after DNAinfo wrote about his attempts to ask state Assemblyman Keith Wright and Councilwoman Inez Dickens for help.

The officials have not replied to his request, he said.

Hillery said that while he knew the arrangement with HPD was temporary, he did not expect to be forced out.

Harlem Grown produced 2,000 pounds of fresh, healthy food last year. Most of that was given to the community for free. There are about 50 children in the program, which teaches about healthy eating and how to care for the environment, he said.

“Harlem shouldn’t be forced to choose between its home-grown community gardens and affordable housing,” the petition reads. “Please sign this petition to ask New York City Housing Preservation and Development and Mayor Bill de Blasio to select alternative sites for affordable housing and save our community gardens and Harlem Grown’s greenhouse.” 

De Blasio, Wright and Dickens did not respond to a request for comment.

Other Harlem gardens on the HPD list include Jackie Robinson Community Garden on 1761 Park Ave., Electric Ladybug Garden at 237 W. 111th St. and Harlem Valley at 197 W. 134th St.

John McBride, of Electric Ladybug Garden, started an online petition to save the garden on 111th Street last week. It has received more than more than 130 signatures

The garden has also collected almost 400 hand-written signatures from petitions circulating the neighborhood, McBride added.

None of the gardens has been asked to move yet, and they will be able to remain open until development gets underway in about a year and a half, an HPD spokesman said. 

The gardens will be offered an alternative site if there is one available in the area, the spokesman added.

Even if the gardens end up being relocated by a few blocks, the move would be devastating, McBride said. 

"It’s like a corner store," said McBride, who worked for two years to help clear the space for the Ladybug Garden. "Your corner store is your corner store but if your corner store moves five blocks away it wont be your corner store anymore."

Apart from providing fresh produce, Harlem's gardens help bring people together. If the gardens are gone Harlem will loose more than green space, said Winfield, from Friends of Thomas Jefferson Park.

"They would lose a sense of community and that's so important to Harlem," she said. "There are spaces that are multi-generational, where you have older people and younger children. In some of the newer gardens you have newcomers to the neighborhood and people who have lived here longer. These are places that bring the diversity of Harlem together.”

It is especially important to protect green spaces both in Harlem and East Harlem because the neighborhoods have historically been neglected when it comes to funding for parks, she added.

In October, both neighborhoods became Community Parks Initiative zones, which were established as a way of investing in parks that traditionally don't receive a lot of funds, according to the Parks Department.

CPI zones are for neighborhoods that have received less than $250,000 in capital investments for parks in the last 20 years and have an above-average percentage of the residents living below the poverty level, according to the Parks Department.

"That's why these community gardens exist," Winfield said. "Because there was a need for green space in the neighborhood."