Sierra Club Productions
Sierra Club Chronicles
Episode 7: Rats to Roses
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About this Episode
This multi-year time arc witnesses the threat and loss of the community gardens in New York - but also the commitment and resilience of community organizers. Charles Louis founder of the Euclid 500 Gardens, says "these gardens have become community centers for people with nowhere else to go."
Since the mid-1970s through the present day, citizens in the most diverse and economically challenged parts of New York City have created small oases of hope and safety through some 800 "community gardens." In most cases, the gardens were once empty lots full of weeds, trash and graffiti, but local residents got together to plant flowers, foliage, and, in many cases, to grow vegetables and fruits used to feed the needy.
But problems began when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in an attempt to bring in additional revenue for the city, began to offer up the lots - now gardens - to housing developers. Community members and activists kicked into gear, and NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed a lawsuit in 1999 on behalf of community activists arguing that the years of garden development should confer special status as "protected parks."
We follow two main gardens at the heart of this story, the Esperanza Garden and the Euclid 500 Garden. The Esperanza Garden, created in the mid-1970s, has become a center of the community, where both older people and young maintain it as a community space. The Euclid 500 Garden, operated by Charles Louis, serves a special purpose in the community - the many fruits and vegetables grown there by volunteers are used to supply food pantries for the most needy in the area.
It seemed like Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's lawsuit would save the day for Esperanza - the court would soon order the city to hold bulldozers away from all gardens until further review. But activists and neighbors knew that the threat was imminent. Fearing the worst, a group of local activists and neighbors began a 24-hour vigil in the garden in case bulldozers showed up - and they did.
More police arrived and began to order the protestors away from the garden. Alicia Torres, founder of the garden, says "it was like one of my children dying when the bulldozers came." One by one, the remaining activists were carted away by police. In just a few hours, the bulldozers completely destroyed 25 years of work, just hours ahead of the court ruling.
Eliot Spitzer's office reports the current situation with the lawsuit settlement means that developers are now required to complete environmental impact studies and to seek public comment before bulldozing new gardens. With the settlement of the Spitzer lawsuit, over 200 community gardens are considered protected parks.