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NYFS Newsletter 1998-vol19-no4-1
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Fall/Winter 1998 Newsletter

With Greenspace for All
by Laura Hansen and Steve Zeitlin

There are no gazebos, and no cappuccinos are served at the Rincon Criollo casita and community garden in the South Bronx. But on any given day, while midtown crowds lunch, stroll, or listen to music on the "great lawn" of Bryant Park, the members of Rincon Criollo, their friends, and anyone who happens by perform and teach bomba and plena music, play dominoes, or tend their communal vegetable garden. Both the casita and Bryant Park embody public life and the sense of community that well-planned spaces inspire; but while the city considers the midtown park a jewel in its crown, the casita is a thorn in its side, which the Giuliani administration is taking steps to painfully remove.

The rebirth of Bryant Park is widely, and rightfully, celebrated as a key feature of New York City’s renaissance. Yet nearly a decade before the comeback of Bryant Park—from a derelict ""needle park" to a safe, clean urban oasis, scores of abandoned lots in New York’s low-income neighborhoods were being transformed into smaller, but no less significant, sanctuaries. The same entrepreneurial spirit that reclaimed the park is manifest in the more than 700 community gardens built on vacant lots throughout the five boroughs of New York. The pioneering vision, planning, and hard labor that have turned languishing public properties into vibrant social and cultural centers also deserve credit for improving the city’s quality of life.

In the early 1980s when Andrew Heiskell, former chief executive officer of TIME, Inc. set out to resuscitate the New York Public Library (as chair of its board of trustees), he realized that to save the library, he must save Bryant Park. Heiskell’s plan, and the park’s ultimate success, was based, in part, on the principles of urban-planning visionary Jane Jacobs, whose "eyes on the street" theory gave credence to the notion that social activity and interaction, not just policing, make public spaces safe and attractive.

Before Rincon Criollo was created, its site also needed to be saved; the lot was filled with abandoned cars and garbage, another victim of the widespread disinvestment and rampant arson in the South Bronx in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, José Manuel "Chema" Soto and some friends cleared enough space for some folding chairs. While sitting by a bonfire there, Soto looked around and saw Puerto Rico. They cleared the lot, planted a small garden, and built a casita, or "little house" reminiscent of the wood farmhouses scattered through the Puerto Rican countryside. The neighborhood flocked to the site. Today, this is one of the oldest community gardens and casitas in the South Bronx, serving close to 300 members. Its community significance has been recognized far beyond its immediate neighborhood. Rincon Criollo has been featured in exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and in a forthcoming exhibit at El Museo del Barrio. It is the subject of documentary films, cultural studies, and citywide festivals of Puerto Rican musical traditions.

Rincon Criollo is also a testament to Jacobs’ "eyes on the street." It is a haven for neighborhood children and senior citizens and a deterrent to street crime (cars belonging to the local police precinct are regularly parked next door, with the tacit understanding that they will be monitored by the nearly always-crowded casita).

In midtown such a transformation would be legitimized by law and lionized as a great success story of the public-private partnership known as the Business Improvement District (BID). In neighborhoods like the South Bronx, East Harlem, Coney Island, and the Lower East Side, the transformation is viewed by the city as only a stopgap measure. Unlike the BIDs, the gardens’ influence on community stabilization is given little credence, and their very existence is precarious.

Funded through property owners’ self-assessed taxes and monitored by the city through a renewable contract, a BID supplements an area’s city services such as sanitation, security, and maintenance, and it frequently provides social services and public programming as well. As another kind of public-private partnership, a community garden or casita functions in much the same way. The city "supplies" the land in the form of unused lots, the residents supply the time and labor to cultivate the land, to render it an asset for the neighborhood. The members of Rincon Criollo spend their own money (a self-assessment) on improvements, repairs, plantings, performances, and community events. Unlike the BIDs however, their cultural center is continually vulnerable to the real estate market and most recently, to changes in city policy directly affecting these sites.

Since 1978, most community gardens are recognized through the city’s GreenThumb program, which has provided renewable land leases, technical assistance to gardeners, and a process by which some gardens can apply for permanent status as parkland. In recent months, jurisdiction of all community gardens included has been assigned to the Housing Preservation and Development Department (HPD), which now controls approval of new gardens and renewal of existing leases. GreenThumb continues to provide technical assistance, but its role as a city-sanctioned advocate for the gardens has been substantially diminished. Under this policy change, HPD is no longer obligated to work with either GreenThumb or the Parks Department in the eviction process. HPD is required to notify community boards of its plans, but given that community gardens are not included on city maps, notification to the gardens is slow or does not happen at all. In May of 1998 Rincon Criollo’s last GreenThumb lease expired. The site is slated for development: there will be no renewal, only a 30-day notice of eviction from HPD.

GreenThumb needs to be strengthened, not diminished. As folklorist and New York University professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes, "Now that you can put a card in a slot and do your banking without ever meeting a teller, now that you eat fast food without ever meeting a waitress, now more than ever we need to protect the shoemaker, the barbershop, the casita, places that hold together the fabric of community." Urban dwellers, she notes, "live in a city which they did not build and over which they have little control." At a time of diminishing government and philanthropic support, the city needs to support residents’ efforts to take control of their own environment and provide for their own cultural expression.

Several open-space and civic organizations have long advocated for a public policy that gives the gardens fair treatment in the face of the need for new housing. The two are not necessarily incompatible; of more than 11,000 vacant lots citywide, community gardens use fewer than 1,000. Their recommendations include: 1) a comprehensive survey and assessment of existing gardens, based on agreed upon criteria for preservation, to be conducted by the Department of City Planning, the Department of Parks, GreenThumb, and HPD in consultation with community boards; 2) a 60-day notice prior to disposition, time for assessment by GreenThumb, and full public review by the community board; and 3) a new long-term lease program for gardens deemed worthy of protection but not deemed eligible for permanent parkland status.

There are other options to be explored as well. Could community gardens be incorporated into the mechanism of BIDs, for example? With 39 BIDs throughout New York, many gardens could benefit from and contribute to this successful public-private mechanism. Rincon Criollo and 15 other community gardens are now slated for demolition in the Melrose Commons urban renewal plan. These 15 gardens deserve a serious assessment of their social, cultural, aesthetic, and environmental value. Rincon Criollo deserves preservation.

The business community and the city administration argue that Bryant Park is the epicenter of the city, that Times Square and Midtown are the center of the universe, the crossroads of the world. People feel the same way about Rincon Criollo at 158th Street and Brooke Avenue. Long-time member Micky Sierra points out: "When Juan Gutierrez (National Heritage Award winner) wanted to play bomba and plena music, he came here; when the Bronx Museum and the Smithsonian wanted to create an exhibit on casitas, they came here." When hundreds of people in the Bronx want to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, they come here. On a daily basis, Rincon’s pull is equally strong. Member Norma Cruz explains: "When I get out of work each day, I have to think, should I go home, or should I come here. Usually, I come here."


Steve Zeitlin is executive director of City Lore. Laura Hansen is project coordinator of Place Matters, an advocacy project for New York’s places of history, story, and tradition, cosponsored by The Municipal Art Society of New York and City Lore.

Photo of Rincon Criollo
Rincon Criollo.
Photograph courtesy of City Lore

Both the casita [Rincon Criollo] and Bryant Park embody public life and the sense of community that well-planned spaces inspire; but while the city considers the midtown park a jewel in its crown, the casita is a thorn in its side, which the Giuliani administration is taking steps to painfully remove.

Photos of festivities at the casita
Festivities at Rincon Criollo.
Photograph courtesy of City Lore.

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