There are rabbits with silken pelts and guinea pigs with curly hair, a flock of chickens, crops of eggplant, corn, apples and even a banana tree — all thriving in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in New York City.
James McCrae and a group of volunteers have spent two decades cultivating this once-barren stretch of Glenmore Avenue in East New York, Brooklyn, making it one of the city’s most resplendent community gardens, raising a grassy lawn to replace broken pavement and planting herbs for cooking. Shady benches sit under flowering bowers inside the garden, where the gardeners used to sit, reaching up occasionally to pluck wine grapes overhead. But today, they spend their days hunkered on folding chairs on the sidewalk outside the gates, watching the flowers wither and the blueberries rot.
On May 31 the city padlocked the garden, Green Gem, as a response to inspectors’ discovery of a startling crop: marijuana plants. The gardeners insist they were unaware of the illicit plants, sowed, they say, by a single volunteer gardener, whom they have since ejected. The gardeners say they are being unfairly punished.
“My stuff is dying, food is dying,” said Mr. McCrae, 60, who works as a hospital custodian. “I lost three trees of cherries, a tree of blueberries, a tree of apricot, a strawberry field. This was a junkyard before we got started. Nobody walked down these streets because they were afraid of guns and rats running out of this yard.”
The garden was so bountiful, he said, he has lived off what is left of the corn, collards and eggs that he does not give away. Local day care centers used the garden every day as a grassy playground, and neighbors held birthday parties for toddlers beside the koi pond he dug by hand.
“I don’t have time to grow marijuana,” he said. “I have too much to lose.”
Green Gem is one of about 600 community gardens in New York City that are part of the GreenThumb program, administered by the parks department. Volunteers like Mr. McCrae enter into agreements with the city to serve as stewards of the parks. They are responsible for tasks like planting and harvesting, weeding and pruning, but their licenses are conditional: They must follow the rules.
On surprise visits in 2014 and 2015, inspectors found that Green Gem, which Mr. McCrae, the son of farmers from South Carolina, started 23 years ago, had a number of violations. Those included keeping roosters, which are not permitted in New York City, and running an electrical cord from a building into the park. But the most egregious violation was discovered in 2014 where it had been hidden underneath a rain barrel: a two-foot-tall marijuana plant, according to Bill LoSasso, the director of the GreenThumb program. The plant was destroyed, and Mr. McCrae and the volunteer gardeners who work with him were put on notice, he said. But in summer 2015, two more marijuana plants were discovered, seedlings, the gardeners said, growing inside coffee cups.
The repeat violations led the city to move to close the garden, which was locked in the spring after formal proceedings had ended and its license was revoked, the parks department said; the move was reported by the Brownsville-East New York Patch website. No one was charged in connection with the growing of the marijuana plants, and the gardeners declined to reveal the name of the person they say grew them.
“When people become licensees of these community gardens they are taking on important leadership roles in their communities, they are role models of their community,” Mr. LoSasso said. “I think it goes without saying that growing marijuana in a community garden on public space is not acting in the best needs of this community, or any community.”
For the moment, the garden stands in limbo. Yet the neighborhood gardeners, most of them men of Puerto Rican descent like Gabriel Maldonado, 65, who used to tend to it seven days a week and built wooden toy cars from recycled pallets and old wheelchair parts, still show up every day. On an afternoon this month, Mr. Maldonado stood on the sidewalk, his fingers hooked through the wire gate, peering anxiously at wilting rose bushes and the accumulating litter he could not tidy up.
“It hurts,” Mr. Maldonado said. “It looks like a jungle. It never looks like this.”
The parks department said garden licenses were rarely revoked. The last time was in 2010, when the management of a garden in Brownsville, Brooklyn, was turned over to another group because administrators had failed to keep the garden open on a regular basis, according to Sam Biederman, a spokesman for the department. “We are not in the business of closing down gardens,” he said. “Only if something truly egregious happens does something like this happen.”
As for Green Gem, the goal is to reopen the garden under new operators, a decision that will be made after the parks department meets with community members. Some longtime gardeners and neighbors speculated that the garden’s closing was simply a land grab at a time when the neighborhood is poised for rapid development because of a recent rezoning and the city’s plan to invest heavily in East New York. The parks department rejected such rumors: The garden will remain a garden, Mr. Biederman said. But it is highly unlikely that control of the garden will ever be returned to Mr. McCrae, who is known locally as Mr. James, and the garden, as “Mr. James’s Garden.” “The breeze that this garden gives off — ooh!” said Jazzy Johnson, 38, a neighbor. “You leave your problems outside, you leave your problems down the block. I really, really pray he gets his garden back. It’s the community’s.”
Mr. McCrae said he was planning to sue the city to regain the right to run the garden. “These are my diamonds, these flowers, these trees,” he said. “Now all I get to do is walk up and down on the sidewalk saying to myself, ‘This is the world we live in.’”
As the garden’s future is decided, the rabbits and the chickens have been moved to a narrow vacant lot behind Green Gem. The space was lent by a neighbor to the gardenless gardeners, who still show up every day. When they arrived three weeks ago, the scrap of land was also a junkyard. Now eggplant is growing.
By Sarah Maslin Nir - The NY Times/June 21, 2016
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