In Praise of Urban Gardens


This week: a bit of a love song. But who can help it? It’s spring. The weather’s been warming and rain’s been waking up the dirt, and if you’re a New York love/hater, that means it’s time to plant. Yes, they remind us how painful it can be to live in a city, and how measly our connection is with things that grow, but on a perfect spring day, community gardens are one of the best things about New York.

Ours has been around since the 1940s. It has a dozen or so plots, a nice peach tree, some composting bins, and benches for barbecues. It started as a victory garden during the war. Eleanor Roosevelt had one at the White House, and now the Obamas do too. Most of the 600 or so community gardens in New York, though, started in the ’70s and ’80s, when the city decided to let community groups take over vacant lots. Gardens were everywhere, and then Giuliani came along. Remember this? “If you live in an unrealistic world then you can say everything should be a community garden,” he said back in 2000, when he tried to sell off about 250 gardens to real estate developers. But Spitzer stalled the sale, and a compromise in 2002 saved most of them.

We’re not going to get all preachy on you. Pollan and Waters do enough of that. And even though we’re growing heirloom tomatoes and a strange breed of hot pepper we got from a local, organic seed distributor, the garden isn’t really about food. Truth is, it’s our first season wielding a trowel, and we’re unsure anything will even sprout. It’s not about neighborliness either. New York’s aggression seeps through even the leafiest of bulwarks — garden meetings fall into bureaucratic chicken fights and bitchy posturing. Instead, it’s about architecture. Parks are nice, but parks are big. There’s something more profound in a sliver of green squeezed in like a splinter through the city’s thick brick-and-steel skin. Sometimes the spaces buildings leave behind are the best places to think about the buildings themselves.

So join up! For the food, the people, the buildings. Because you’re sick of the shitty tomatoes at Key Food. Because you want a place to compost. Whatever. The New York Times City Room is answering questions about community gardens all week, if you’re unsure of how to start. On days like these, at least, you won’t regret it.