100 Gardens - Protests of the 1999 Garden Auction

October 10, 2017

NYC's community gardens haven't always been so idyllic!

Many of New York City’s community gardens got their start in the 1970s as residents, in an effort to revitalize their neighborhoods, began to reclaim vacant and trash-filled lots and turn them into beautiful, safe, fresh food producing community centers. These lots, however, were owned by the city, and despite the decades of work that went into them, in May of 1999 Mayor Giuliani decided to put more than 100 community gardens up for auction to build affordable housing.

Gardeners were outraged. Community members came together with nonprofits and land trust organizations, some of them newly formed to combat this issue, to bring lawsuits against the city and organize protests, parades, and acts of nonviolent disobedience.

As Jane Weissman, Director of GreenThumb from 1984-1998 put it, “For 20 years prior, when funding for housing development was not available, community gardens flourished, beautifying, stabilizing, and revitalizing their neighborhoods. And yet, the city is willing to sacrifice these gardens without holding any kind of formal review.”

In November of 1999, the cherished 22 year old Esperanza Garden in the East Village was threatened with development. As the case was being argued in court, protesters occupied the garden space around the clock for months to protect it from destruction. They stood sentry overnight in a large coqui frog sculpture (a Puerto Rican symbol to ward off foes). In February of 2000, things came to a head. More than 100 protesters came to the garden to demonstrate, chaining themselves to concrete blocks and fence posts and chanting songs. The police broke their way through, arrested 31 protestors, and in 15 minutes the bulldozer had completely destroyed the garden.

During the destruction, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer successfully procured a restraining order against the city to protect the gardens up for auction, but it came too late to save Esperanza. Spitzer argued that the lots should be considered parks, which can only be sold after an environmental review or by the state legislature’s approval.

While not all of NYC’s community gardens were spared, the protests brought international and national attention to their value, and many were saved. The day before the auction of the remaining 114 community gardens, the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project bought them, saving them from destruction. In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg and Attorney General Spitzer negotiated the Community Gardens Agreement, preserving an additional 198 gardens, subjecting 110 to review before development, and sentencing 38 to development.


This fall GrowNYC will build its 100th community garden. To celebrate, we are sharing stories from GrowNYC gardening history! 

But these stories are far from over

You can help ensure that all New Yorkers have access to green space by making a donation today to GrowNYC's New Garden Fund.

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