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By Amy Neshama

Is the Green Thumb program changing

from garden friendly enablers to an

enforcement agency?”

This is the question being asked by

community gardeners across New York

City, who are questioning overwhelming

micro management being imposed

on them in a new Green Thumb license


The community garden movement

began on the Lower East Side in 1973 with

the Green Guerillas, a grassroots environmental

group that lobbed seed bombs

over fences surrounding vacant lots to

jumpstart plant growth. Established in

1978, the Green Thumb program focused

on providing resources and protection to

those who transformed rubble strewn city

owned lots into community gardens. Over

time, it has increasingly proven to be an

extension of city government.

At first, the city allowed neighborhood

groups to use the lots under a token lease

agreement. In time, as the Green Thumb

program became more established, the

city began issuing ten year leases, though

the city reserved the option to “develop”

the formerly vacant lots.

In the 1990s, the city began auctioning

city owned land to developers, including

community gardens. Activists disrupted

auctions, demonstrated throughout the

city and lobbied then NY State Attorney

General Eliot Spitzer to save the gardens.

With intervention by the New York Restoration

Project, founded by entertainer

Bette Midler, an agreement brokered by

Spitzer and the city saved hundreds of garden

sites. In 1995, Green Thumb fell under

the jurisdiction of the NYC Parks Department,

further solidifying the permanent

status of community gardens.

This year, gardeners are being pressured

by the Parks Department to sign a

new “license agreement” that is dramatically

different from the simple two page

lease that gardeners were offered and

signed in the 1990s. Not only is the new

license agreement longer, but the language

used in the 12 page license agreement

can be easily misunderstood by

those who are not proficient in legalese.

One example of the lack of clarity is

that throughout the license, the licensee

is deemed responsible for each condition,

yet the license agreement fails to define

whether a “licensee” is an individual, or

a representative, or all members of a

community garden, or the members of a

garden board. Many observe that stating

unclear rules is not accidental, but strategically

positions the licensor to have

power over the licensee. Wherever the

many rules in the new license agreement

need to be further clarified, gardeners

have been told to read the Green Thumb

Gardener’s Handbook, which is 79 pages


Community gardens across the city

are tenderly cared for by volunteers who

want to serve their communities, not oversee

their gardens for Green Thumb. Seeing

that so many new rules and regulations

are being enforced, it is as if garden volunteers

are being considered employees of

the Parks Department!

It was not until the major influx of real

estate development in the mid 1990s that

community gardeners were no longer

afforded leases and instead were forced

to sign license agreements. Long time

community activist Ray Figueroa has

emphasized, in a passionate speech, how

a license, as opposed to a lease, is a very

different relationship with gardeners: A

license forces the licensee to beg and

barter for permission, but a lease solidifies

our connection to the land.

Urban gardens standing today are

each a testament to the resilient and

unbreakable spirit of community across

New York City. In defiance of the despairing

reality of the 1970s, when buildings

from the LES to the South Bronx were

burned to the ground and left to decay,

community members rolled up their

sleeves, cleared rubble, and transformed

vacant lots through hard work and unity.

From sites of destruction and hopelessness,

beautiful flowers blossomed and

neighbors affirmed what it means to be a

part of a community.

This past summer, a family of three,

Melissa, her husband Paul and their son,

attended a meeting at the La Finca El

Sur Garden in the South Bronx to raise

awareness and share concerns about the

new license agreement. Melissa is inheriting

the El Batey De Doña Provi Garden in

the Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx,

which her father brought to life in 1983.

She recalled living in an apartment across

the street as a child and watching the

building in that very lot burn down. The

first item to be brought into the lot was a

domino table. In the years to come, that

garden would become a refuge for young

and old to hang out and avoid drug ridden

parks, serving as a lively hub with birthday

parties, hip hop events, educational workshops

and cultural celebrations. Melissa’s

father constructed the prize of the garden,

a casita: “The one he wasn’t able to build

in Puerto Rico, he built it here.”

Melissa’s recollection is just one out

of many meaningful legacies that community

gardens represent. Across the city,

community gardens uniquely contribute

to, even define, any given neighborhood’s

culture. Perhaps the most valuable aspect

of community gardens is the space it offers

for gathering, socializing, mobilizing and

organizing. As the rich attempt to extend

their control over everything, community

gardens are the last place in the city where

poor and working class people have

autonomy and power over land. Protecting

our autonomy means retaining our right

to collectively decide what kind of activities

and events we host in our gardens,

along with how we will accommodate our

gardens to our neighborhood’s needs.

Since we have sustained our gardens

this way from the beginning, we see no

reason for city interference starting now.

As gardeners see it, the new Green Thumb

license agreement threatens the cultural

and practical autonomy of their gardens

by requiring permission from the city for

every use.

One of the more blatant examples

of restrictions being placed on gardeners

includes a line in the new license

agreement, which reads: “Licensee shall

not plant new trees, damage or remove

existing trees, or prune large limbs from

existing trees without the prior written

approval of Parks.”

The new license agreement also

dictates that construction of any permanent

or temporary structure, “including

sheds, storage facilities, greenhouses,

rainwater capture systems or other similar

structures,” requires “prior written permission

from Green Thumb, and where

applicable, a valid construction permit

from Parks, and where applicable, the

New York City Department of Buildings,

and where applicable, the posting of a

payment bond in accordance with Section

5 of the Lien Law.” Gardeners wonder what

the criteria will be to determine whether

or not a particular structure should be

built, and why construction in gardens

should be a concern for the city in the

first place. The structures we build in our

gardens both personalize and establish

our permanence.

Another line in the new license agreement

declares that painting murals, or any

permanent work of art, “must have prior

written permission” from Green Thumb. If

the popular mural on display in the back

of La Plaza Community Garden at Ninth

Street and Avenue C would have been

painted today, instead of “The Struggle

Continues”, the artist would have had to

write “The Struggle Will Continue Once

We Receive A Permit.”

One of the biggest threats to the

autonomy of our gardens is a clause in

the license agreement which says that for

any and all future events: “Garden groups

are responsible for obtaining all required

permits and approvals on advance of

the event.” The consequences this will

produce for social, cultural and political

events will be dramatic and limiting.

Gardeners would be forced to go through

the process of obtaining and paying for

permits for birthday parties and children’s

events, gatherings, and even gardening

workshops. Cultural celebrations and

community events should not have to be


Overseeing social events gives the

city power to monitor and prohibit political

events that are not in the city’s interest.

Requiring permits appears to be a “politically

correct” way of determining who will

and will not have access to organize any

form of gathering. This is a matter of classism,

racism and discrimination. How much

money, time, energy and legal understanding

is necessary to obtain a permit?

How might this turn away non-English

speaking folks, undocumented community

members, the elderly and/or those unfamiliar

with the workings of the system?

The consistent theme throughout the

new Green Thumb license agreement is

a decrease in autonomy and control that

community members have held over our

own gardens. In the larger agenda of displacement,

this is a strategy to cut ties that

local people have to our neighborhoods.

Small businesses move out and new developers

move in, changing who has visible

power in any neighborhood. As transient

monied populations increasingly take over

our cities, establishing multi-generational

and secure ownership of our gardens is

resistance to gentrification. Across all five

boroughs, protecting our gardens is instrumental

to preserving our neighborhoods.

Although the new license agreement

took many months to be drafted, many

gardeners have reported that they are

being pressured by Green Thumb to

sign the agreement immediately, though

this issue deserves careful and collective


At this time, it is critical to increase

community awareness regarding the

consequences of signing the new license

agreement. As we all benefit from green

spaces, gardeners should be met with the

attention and support of entire neighborhoods.

Thanks to groups like Loisaida

United Neighborhood Gardens [LUNG],

The New York City Community Garden

Coalition and Time’s Up Environmental

Organization, important rallies and meetings

have been put together and legal

challenges continue. To us, our community

gardens are vibrant and beloved community

homes. To corrupt politicians, our gardens

are nothing more than city property.

At a town hall meeting in May, gardeners

voted unanimously NOT to sign the

agreement. In the past 40 years, there has

never been such widespread opposition

to garden licenses. We have tried to negotiate

changes to the license, but the city

has gone so far to threaten garden groups

with a lockout. We say “DO NOT SIGN” the

new Green Thumb licensing agreement

and protect our gardens at all costs.

Community gardens are the lungs of

New York City. we refuse to be suffocated.