Book Review - Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle In the City And the World

 AVANT GARDENING:  Ecological Struggle in the City and the World

Edited by Peter L. Wilson and Bill Weinberg
1999 PO Box 568
Brooklyn, NY 11211-0568
169 pages; $8 paperback

Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle in the City and the World, edited by Peter L. Wilson and Bill Weinberg, contains essays that look at the cultural, social, and political aspects of ecology, with particular emphasis on the ecological struggles currently taking place in New York City. In this megalopolis, which for many ecologists represents everything planet Earth shouldn't be, thousands of citizens have taken the initiative to rescue empty lots and turn them into community gardens.

In New York City, there are some 11,000 vacant lots in the city's possession. In Harlem alone, the city owns 1,500 such lots and 1,800 abandoned buildings. These spaces are a danger to nearby residents, particularly children, since they're used for illegal trash dumping and as hideouts for roaming drug addicts and rats the size of cats.

Faced with this situation, groups of citizens undertook the task of rescuing some of this land, transforming it into guerilla gardens. Today, 20 years later, New York City has about 700 community gardens comprising 200 acres. It sounds like a lot, but it's not even a tenth of the area occupied by the vacant lots of the city.

The creation and maintenance of these gardens has unleashed an extremely positive social dynamic. Neighbors get to know each other; Puerto Ricans, Anglo-Saxons, Dominicans, Colombians, Poles, and immigrants of other nationalities work together planting trees and vegetables, painting impressive murals, investing millions of dollars in materials and labor, soliciting grants from foundations, lobbying politicians to obtain their support, and organizing poetry recitals and jazz concerts. In short, as communities maintain and care for the gardens, these green zones have become vehicles for social organizing, cultural renaissance, ecological recovery, and spiritual regeneration.

One of the better known gardens was the Chico Mendes Garden on the corner of 10th St. and Avenue B in Manhattan, in an area known as Little Puerto Rico. In the '80s, it was nothing but a horrible wasteland. The community cleaned out the garbage and the junkies and planted tomatoes, cauliflower, beans, garlic, and cilantro. They built a wooden shed and a chapel to Santa Clara, surrounded by bushes of mint and roses. They also created a pond, filled it with fish, and surrounded it with religious icons, including Buddha, the Virgin Mary, a statue of a Native American, and an African idol carved in wood.

Why do I speak of the Chico Mendes Garden in the past tense? Because in 1997, the city bulldozed it. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had set out to put an end to all community gardens as if it were a campaign promise. Giuliani and his political allies - who are largely the developers, the landlords, and the speculators - seem to have a vision of New York's future in which there is no room for the poor (who are predominantly African American and Puerto Ricans) and even less for their little gardens that interfere with "progress."

However, in May of this year, New York's citizens saved 112 of their urban gardens. Sixty-three were sold to the Trust for Public Lands, and the New York Restoration Project bought the remainder. And Giuliani and the developers have found it difficult to raze the rest in the face of the numerous demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, lawsuits, and other protests citizens have coordinated.

Sarah Ferguson writes the following in her essay "The Death of Little Puerto Rico":

"At the very least (the movement to preserve the community gardens) should open people's eyes to the quiet, yet fundamental role that gardens play in humanizing an otherwise overcrowded city of strangers. More than green spaces, New York's gardens are microcosms of democracy, where people establish a sense of community and belonging to the land. Like the shrines and altars constructed in the flower beds, these eclectic havens are in a very real sense churches, where people find faith - both in themselves and in their neighbors.

"When I first moved into my building in 1994, I resented the all-night salsa and merengue that the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans on my block blasted from boomboxes on my front stoop. By the end of one summer gardening with them, I'd come to love them as an extended family."

Avant Gardening provides not only an account of these social and environmental struggles, but also examines cultural, economic, political, and ecological aspects of gardening and the production of food stuffs.

Avant Gardening aptly illustrates the connections of urban gardens in New York to the global struggle for ecological and cultural integrity.

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