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Urban community gardens are cool green oases in city environments that are often overwhelming in their density and complexity. Beyond their role as refuge, however, community gardens have provided the basis for a number of novel sociocultural experiments. Neighborhood residents grow vegetables to supplement their grocery budgets, giving them greater control over their own food and nutrition. Children have an opportunity to learn about gardening, plants and insects, and the ecology of their own neighborhoods. Artists stage music, theater, and other performances in gardens for audiences who otherwise might not have access to cultural resources. With the advent of development and the struggle to defend green space, the community gardens have also become the locus of grassroots political organizing.
History of Community Gardens
Urban agriculture has a lengthy history in the United States. The Work Projects Administration (1935-43) sponsored relief gardens in vacant lots and city parks during the Depression, and many urbanites grew Victory Gardens on city land during World War II. Historical accounts of community gardening, however, usually begin with the 1970s. American cities like New York, Detroit, and Boston were experiencing severe fiscal crises, city services were unavailable or very low quality in many neighborhoods, and properties were abandoned or burned down by absentee landlords. The vacant lots, plagued by illegal dumping, vermin, and crime, were a disaster for property values and neighborhoods’ quality of life.
The community gardens were born out of citizen direct action in response to this urban devastation. Gardeners cut locks on fences, hauled away tons of trash and rubble, and on occasion drove away drug dealers by force. In place of these unwanted land uses, gardeners created a wide variety of public green spaces. Many of the community gardens reflected the ethnic character of their neighborhoods and gardeners. For example, Puerto Rican gardeners throughout New York recreated the Puerto Rican countryside with casita gardens.
In many cases, land for community gardens was provided as a sort of city service, akin to the Victory Gardens of the World War II era or the allotment gardens in the United Kingdom. For example, New York City’s Operation Green Thumb helped gardeners secure free temporary leases to their lots. In such cases, the leasing process was often a bureaucratic challenge, requiring the gardens to establish a board of directors and regular meetings. Many of the garden groups lacked the experience or resources to pursue this route, so many of them persisted in a semi-legal status, facilitated by benign neglect from authorities.
On the other hand, many gardeners were essentially squatters, occupying city-owned or vacant lots without any sort of official sanction. As urban real estate values climbed through the 1980s, gardens increasingly came under pressure from development. Community garden activists responded in a variety of fashions, from fund drives to direct action. The New York garden conflicts became famously bitter; Mayor Guiliani told garden supporters, “This is a free-market system. Welcome to the era after communism.” Meanwhile, garden supporters compared the mayor to Hitler. Many of these conflicts over community gardens remain unresolved, even when a number of specific settlements have been reached and the political context of community gardening continues to evolve.
- Richard Goodman, Report on Community Gardening (National Gardening Association, 2000);
- Barbara Huff, Greening the City Streets: The Story of Community Gardens (Clarion Books, 1990);
- Patricia Hynes, A Patch of Eden: America’s Inner City Gardeners (Chelsea Green Publishing, 1996);
- Malve von Hassell, The Struggle for Eden: Community Gardens in New York City (Bergin & Garvey, 2002).