From Seed Bombs to City Hall: Meet Aziz Dehkan

by Peter Hanlon

Published: 1/12/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

Since 1996, the New York City Community Garden Coalition (NYCCGC) has promoted the preservation, creation and empowerment of community gardens through education, advocacy and grassroots organizing. Aziz Dehkan, the Executive Director of NYCCGC, recently talked to us about the fascinating history of community gardens in New York City, how they address problems like food access and the long (but ultimately fruitful!) wait for grassroots action to be embraced by public officials.

How long have there been community gardens in New York City and why did they start?

Urban blight swept across New York City in the wake of financial decline and citywide bankruptcy in the mid-1970s. Entire neighborhoods became wastelands as abandoned buildings were destroyed by fire or neglect. Abandoned property became City property, some buildings were reclaimed, while others were razed. Desolation choked the Lower East Side.

In 1973 volunteer gardeners began to reclaim the land. Led by pioneer community organizer Liz Christy, they founded an environmental group, Green Guerillas. They threw “seed bombs” into vacant lots and held workshops on the Lower East Side to encourage the local communities, primarily African-American and Latino, to use as spaces for gardening and community gathering. In 1975 the City, recognizing the good work being done, hired Liz Christy as director of the Open Space Greening Program, which is now GrowNYC.

In 1978 the City began the GreenThumb Program giving leases on city-owned property to community groups to create gardens and maintain and improve the land. In 1995, the rules changed and community gardens were issued temporary licenses instead of given leases. The GreenThumb Program moved into the Parks Department and the City began to sell the gardens to developers. Demonstrations, bulldozers and arrests followed as gardeners mobilized to protect their gardens. Out of this struggle was born the New York City Community Garden Coalition, its mission to protect and preserve the gardens throughout the City. It took the intervention of New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer for an agreement to be reached in 2002 preserving some gardens while others were slated for development.

What has been the role of NYCCGC in the community garden movement in NYC?

In 2002, NYCCGC forged an agreement between the city and the state attorneys general, transferring 198 gardens to the NYC Parks Department, securing permanent protection for them. NYCCGC also stopped a citywide land auction that would have destroyed 115 community gardens. We advocated with state legislators to create the Office of Community Gardens within the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets. NYCCGC filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) application that forced New York City to disclose the history and legal status of community gardens and open spaces, and we then secured lease extensions from the city for each garden — from original one-year leases to the present four-year leases. The 2002 agreement with the State Attorney General expired, replaced in 2010 by the Bloomberg administration with new rules, framed as a means of preserving the city’s 282 gardens and offering firm pledges of protection to 198 gardens. At the time, NYCCGC was cautiously optimistic, even calling it a victory. These past 15 years have shown that rules and regulations are subject to change. Today gardens continue to be subject to destruction and developers.

What are the greatest benefits of community gardens, and what role can they play in improving food access?

Since the beginning of humankind, community gardens have played a role in societal evolution. The modern community gardening movement differs from the gardens of the past. In the 1890s, vacant lots were allotted to unemployed laborers to grow food, and school gardens were built at schools all over the country. During both World Wars, citizens planted victory gardens so produce and labor from the rural US agriculture sector could be utilized in the war effort. During the Great Depression, families could apply for plots in subsistence gardens to create jobs and increase food security. Gardens reappeared in the 1970s, particularly in poor neighborhoods of color, often built as acts of resistance to urban decline and disinvestment, and to provide resources to address inflation, express a new environmental ethic, and reconnect neighbors during a time of social unrest. And of course, they continue to provide fresh food to the neighborhood.

We often talk about the critical moments in somebody’s life — where and when they can become self-sufficient. Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s housing and food and they’re interchangeable in terms of which is more important, but I think these days access to food is a real crucial issue. We often talk about the ability to have a sustainable living wage and I think that’s extremely important — but once you get to that point, how are you able to live a healthy lifestyle? How do we maintain the ability to eat well and when all too often the local grocery store is a bodega or a drugstore? How do you go from buying food from Walgreens or CVS to having access to food that’s both nutritious and reasonably priced? I think these are real important pieces of food policy. How do we get access to food to people who are in communities where you must go many, many, many blocks away to find some fresh produce? Those are critical issues that we need to continue to address. Community gardens are often the bridge to fresh food in neighborhoods.

When food policy fails to address crucial health and nutrition needs in communities, how can grassroots efforts like community gardens most effectively fill the gaps?

We need accessibility. Don’t call it a food desert. We have a food system that can be labeled food apartheid. Farmers’ markets and community gardens are critical components of a comprehensive food policy. When you go to community gardens they are growing vegetables, leafy greens, a wide variety of produce. It’s amazing to see what they can do in those spaces, and even more is the mixing of different ethnicities and the mixing of ethnic food. The way people are growing in community gardens — that’s food policy. I think food policy does not come from the city, not from the government. It’s coming from the hyper-local level — from community gardeners, from people who are demanding more choice. I think that’s where we really are: a truly grassroots effort building within the community and finding your own food sources, making ways to be able to provide good sources of nutritious healthy food.

What challenges do the city’s community gardens face today; what does the future look like?

Currently there are more than 500 community gardens in New York City. Many are vulnerable to development, particularly those on land still held by the NYC Department for Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). In the face of gentrification and commercial real estate development pressures, the community gardeners of affected gardens — empowered by NYCCGC and allies — are working as hard as they can with very limited resources to fiercely resist by showing up in massive numbers at Community Board meetings; organizing lawsuits and taking developers to court; creating draft legislation calling for the permanent preservation of all community gardens; and raising their issues, their voices at every city-wide level.

Vicki Been, the current head of HPD, in March 2006 wrote:

We find that the opening of a community garden has a statistically significant positive impact on residential properties within 1000 feet of the garden, and that the impact increases over time. We find that gardens have the greatest impact in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Higher quality gardens have the greatest positive impact. Finally, we find that the opening of a garden is associated with other changes in the neighborhood, such as increasing rates of homeownership, and thus may be serving as catalysts for economic redevelopment of the community.

I often have asked if the reverse was true: If community gardens were destroyed would property values go down? I have yet to receive an answer. I do believe that we have momentum, we are in a place where the value of community gardens is being recognized on more levels than ever before.

Do you see other forms of urban agriculture like rooftop farms and indoor hydroponic farms as a natural extension of the community garden movement, or are they addressing different needs?

Rooftop farms and indoor hydroponic farms are an extension of the community garden movement but they address different issues. Regarding rooftop gardens, accessibility is a problem as well as retrofitting roofs to accommodate the added weight of soil.

The sustainability of hydroponic farms is questionable. Typically, this is a greenhouse venture and the big question here involves energy use. Plants, regardless of how they’re grown, need light. If that light doesn’t come directly from the sun, it must be provided through artificial means. Ultimately where does the water come from? How much space is required? In NYC with space a premium it may not be a viable alternative. But I never ever want to rule any type of growing out.

Has your career in food and justice work been a straight path, or do you find yourself in a different place than you might have expected years ago?

Nothing I do is ever in a straight line! I’m not sure that anything worth doing is a straight path. There are barriers that need to be knocked down, partnerships to be formed, alliances to be created. What I’ve learned over the years is this: It’s a combination to break down the door and be ready to negotiate to have positions that people will understand and hopefully accept. I think now community gardens and food justice have quite a bit of momentum, perhaps more than I would I have envisioned years ago. And it so often seems that grassroots community actions take time to percolate before it is embraced by elected officials.

Does any one garden or perhaps volunteer you worked with stick out in your mind and why?

At a recent New York City Community Garden Coalition meeting, I heard the story of a gardener who has lived in his apartment for 26 years and doesn’t know his across-the-hall neighbor. Yet, he knows the people in his community through his local community garden. That interaction is what makes New York City a livable place. When I hear stories like this, I know that the work of New York City Community Garden Coalition is vital and continues to make New York City great.

Keep up with the New York Community Garden Coalition:

Twitter: @NYCCGC

Facebook: @NYCCGC

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