Sunday, April 14, 2024

HOME GROWN: Urban gardens – oases amid concrete


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Most readers wouldn’t suspect it but I have been living in Barbados for only the last three years.
The beauty of our island home is a stark contrast to the concrete jungle that I used to call home – New York City. Many people are surprised when I tell them of my involvement in an urban gardening collective called the Green Oasis Community Garden.
New York City, specifically Manhattan, experienced a terrific boom in the last ten to 15 years; I like to call it the three Gs – glamour, glitz and gentrification.
Crime was down, real estate was up, and urban was chic again. But it wasn’t always easy street. The 1960s and 1970s were marked by high crime and hard times. Before “The City That Never Sleeps” was trendy, it was most definitely gritty.
What, you may ask, does all of this have to do with an urban gardening collective? Let me tell you.
The epicentre of urban gardening in NYC is easily identified as a neighbourhood called the Lower East Side or LES for short.
By the early 1980s the LES – then bound by 14th Street to the north, Houston Street to the south, 1st Avenue to the west and Avenue D to the east – resembled a war zone, characterised by four- and five-storey residential tenements: crumbling, dilapidated buildings, some still standing and others reduced to piles of rubble.
The further east you ventured in to the LES, the more likely you were to encounter trouble; a safe neighbourhood it was not.
The buildings that remained intact attracted young creative types – artists, musicians and writers, to name few – with affordable rents and a central location.
Green Oasis was started in 1981 when its founder sought to revitalise five unsightly vacant lots outside his apartment window. The premise was simple and has remained so over the past 30 years: pay a minimal membership fee, donate eight hours of your time per month to the upkeep of the garden, respect the garden and enjoy.
For two years I maintained a small plot, growing vegetables and herbs; others planted flowers or tended to the fish pond; in the spirit of community there was something for everyone.
Today, the LES is another world, hardly recognisable. When gardens like Green Oasis were established 30 years ago these properties, in many cases, were abandoned by their owners and written off as unwanted.
Over time property taxes accrued and the lands defaulted to the City of New York. All the while the neighbourhood, some say fuelled by the community gardens, steadily improved.
The improvements were so great that the trailblazing creative types that originally sought out the neighbourhood for its low rents, while at the same time seeking to build a sense of community, could today no longer afford to live there.
With gentrification the gardens too came under threat. With skyrocketing real estate values, almost overnight the gardens found themselves sitting on multimillion-dollar pieces of property. The problem was that they were in effect squatters and their number was up.
Luckily, the City of New York has realised the important role that community gardens play. The Parks Department now shepherds the gardens through a programme called Green Thumb. There are 282 protected community gardens in NYC.
Belonging to Green Oasis is an experience that I will never forget. As the name implies, it and other community gardens like it are oases in an otherwise concrete jungle.


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