It’s June in New York City—a humid late afternoon—and a dozen neighbors are gathered just outside the community garden they care for at 237 Maple Street, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. They sit in folding chairs in the street, wedged between the bike lane and the sidewalk, because they are not allowed to enter the garden. Just the day before, the Supreme Court of New York issued a restraining order to keep them out. Everyone looks damp and, deflated by the news, they sink into their seats.
The Maple Street Community Garden sits on a patch of earth where the home of Oscar and Germaine Kirton once stood. The Kirtons were both deceased by 1990; with no known will or immediate heirs, their house fell into disrepair; it burned down in 1997. For 15 years thereafter, the empty lot at 237 Maple Street was a repository for junk and trash—not only wasted space but an eyesore. Eventually, the block association decided to do something with the unused land.
One block-association member, Cameron Page, searched public records to find the property’s listed owner: Housing Urban Development LLC—notably, not the federal housing agency with a nearly identical name, but rather a private corporation. When Page called the number listed for the company in October 2012, the person who answered refused to discuss the property. Page then sought guidance from 596 Acres, a nonprofit organization that had mapped all the vacant land in New York City in 2011 and has encouraged people to make use of the spaces in their neighborhoods.
The block association got a $1,000 grant from a local nonprofit to clean up the lot and started planting food for a community garden. The office of City Councilman Mathieu Eugene allocated another $4,800. Over the next year, the garden became central to the diverse neighborhood that cared for it.
Tim Webster and Kate DiGerolamo’s 15-month-old son, Maurice, took some of his earliest steps under the 100-year-old elm tree that anchors the lot. “I’d bring him here every day,” Webster says. Sixty-nine-year-old Earl Bonus planted callaloo and Scotch bonnet peppers—just the right ingredients for dishes that remind him of his Trinidadian roots. Bob and Nancy Treuber live just one door up, so they let neighbors working in the garden use their bathroom. The community built the garden, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that the garden built a community.
This sort of thing has been going on in New York since the 1970s, when a garden movement emerged after decades of urban-renewal projects that, in many cases, went unrealized. “Slums” were cleared, but the promised parks and housing never materialized. Vacant lots of public land dotted the streets in any given neighborhood. But by 1973, the late community organizer Liz Christy had founded the Green Guerillas, a group that still thrives today. They got their start throwing “seed bombs”—packets of fertilizer, seeds, and water—over the fences of vacant lots in the East Village.