Old Brooklyn Faces Off Against New Over Urban Farm

By Leif Skodnick

Sept. 17, 2013

BROOKLYN – Maintained by neighbors for decades, a proposal to grow vegetables on an empty lot at 503 President Street in Gowanus has residents up in arms.

In a battle that pits the old Brooklyn against the new, Ivan Rodriguez and his longtime neighbors are fighting to keep urban farmers from taking over the lot on their block.

“We’ve been using that back end of that lot for all those years, cleaning it, maintaining it, I’ve laid down sod and flowers. We kept it clean and rodent free, organized,” said Ivan Rodriguez, who has lived next door to the lot for 24 years. “When the snow falls, I’m the one who shovels that area, so no one is going to fall and sue the city. I do it as a courtesy, I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

Rodriguez continued to do so until the lot was fenced off within the last year – then flyers went up announcing that the urban farm was coming in.

Raphael Ford sits on his stoop at 501 President Street in Brooklyn. He opposes an urban farm moving in on the empty lot next door.

Raphael Ford sits on his stoop at 501 President Street in Brooklyn. He opposes an urban farm moving in on the empty lot next door.

The urban farm would be tended by the Brooklyn-based group A Small Green Patch. Currently, they operate a vegetable garden located at 344-346 Bergen St. The proposed farm would be a relocation of the Bergen Street garden, which is moving because the Department of Housing and Preservation Development and the land’s owner are planning new housing on the site.

The Bergen Street garden is administered under the city parks department’s GreenThumb Program. GreenThumb provides programming and material support to turn empty lots into gardens. Under that program’s rules, when a GreenThumb garden has to move, the Parks Department must offer to move it to available public land within a half mile.

According to an email from Paula Segal, executive director of 596 Acres, a land access advocacy group, Housing and Preservation Development offered to transfer the parcel to the parks department after learning the lot was still in its’ inventory.

Residents of President Street had been maintaining the lot for years, until a fence was put up last year.

“There’s been no communication, not to us, which is the most frustrating part, because for 25 years, I’ve called HPD and I’ve asked, ‘Can we turn it into a garden? What can we do with it? Can we buy it?’”

The sense of community on this section of President Street is underscored by Barbara Quadrello, 60, who is adamantly opposed to the use of the lot as a farm.

“I’ve lived here my whole life. It doesn’t matter who comes into the block, whether they’re newcomers, we welcome you,” stated Quadrello, who attended a Sept. 11 Brooklyn Community Board Six meeting to voice her opposition. “No one has been able to get anything on this lot, any information on this lot.”

Quadrello and Rodriguez said they have secured signatures from approximately 40 residents on their block who oppose the use of the lot as a farm, and have submitted their petition to Community Board Six District Manager Craig Hammerman.

“HPD treated it as a transfer, not a new garden, so they decided no such public review was needed,” Hammerman said by phone. He said the board’s parks committee is willing to call a special meeting to address residents concerns to Housing Preservation and Development.

Because the garden was never brought before Community Board Six’s parks committee, residents never had the opportunity to voice their opposition.

At its September meeting, the executive committee of Community Board Six passed a resolution recommending that that the Department Housing Preservation and Development treat the President Street Lot as a new garden so the neighbors would have a chance to voice their concerns.

“Our Parks committee is willing to have a special meeting with HPD and the garden group before our October general meeting,” said Hammerman. “The ball is in their court. We’ve asked them to take no action before we can review this.”

Housing Preservation and Development officials did not reply to requests for comment.

Residents object to the lot being put to agricultural use. They feel such a use doesn’t meet the needs of the community.

“We sat down and we came up with an idea of what the park would look like, our vision of our park,” said Rodriguez, holding out an architectural sketch of a proposed alternative to the farm. “It’s more of a sit-down park, more of a quiet respite place, a place where kids will have a little grass knoll with no rodents that they could roll in.”

Also of concern to the President Street residents is the possibility of rats infesting the neighborhood, attracted by the food grown in the garden.

“You wanna make a vegetable garden here, and you go home at night, who’s going to have to deal with the rats?” Quadrello asked, drawing nods from Rodriguez.

According to a neighbor and former volunteer at the Bergen Street garden, those fears are legitimate.

“When I came on the block, there was an enormous amount of rats on one end,” said Donald Rankin, who has lived on Bergen Street near the garden for nine years. “Six months later, the city came in, and they were gone; they disappeared. Then the garden came in.”

The neighbors of the lot on President Street also worry about outsiders denying them access to the lot in their neighborhood, which Rankin says has occurred on Bergen Street.

“I’d like to know what ‘community garden’ means to everyone,” said Rankin, who volunteered in the garden when it first came to Bergen Street, but is no longer involved. “I felt they were secluding the garden for themselves. It’s disguised as a community garden, but it’s for them and people in their social circles.”

Tami Johnson of A Small Green Patch did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Rodriguez thinks the folks on President Street will prevail.

“Their goal is to maximize the amount of vegetable production, and our goal is to create a better neighborhood and a better park for us to manage, with no food production,” stated Rodriguez flatly. “I believe we’re going to stop the garden, and I believe we’re going to get the end goal, which is a park for our community, for our street.”

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