The Metropolitan Topiary Authority

by Brendan O’Connor

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In the outer boroughs, the M train runs above ground. Travelling away from Manhattan, M train riders in Williamsburg and Bushwick mostly travel over busy thoroughfares like Broadway and Myrtle Avenue. In Ridgewood, Queens, after the Seneca Avenue station, the M train turns and begins cutting through blocks of residential buildings. Between Seneca and Forest Avenue, the elevated tracks cut diagonally across the northeast corner of the block bordered by Woodward Avenue to the north and Woodbine Street to the west, beneath which, earlier this year, Ridgewood residents took over an empty plot of land and turned it into a community garden. They patched up a hole in a fence around the property and built a gate. They cleared out the garbage, cut back the weeds, and started building planters. Last month, without warning, city officials changed the locks on the fence — which the gardeners had fixed — and put up signs threatening anyone found inside with felony trespassing.

Clark Fitzgerald, one of the Ridgewood Community Garden’s co-founders, told me that he and others began taking steps to bring the garden into being early last year. “We wanted to make sure we were doing it the right way, that we wouldn’t be doing it for nothing. We tried to go through the Transit authority, but for over a year they were unable to tell us who owned it, if at all,” he said. “They just didn’t know. They said, ‘Our property management systems are really complicated, we really can’t ascertain whether it’s within MTA, the New York City Transit Authority, if it’s the city’s, if it’s a local landlord and we’re leasing it from them for the air rights.’ They really couldn’t say.”

The nascent community garden garnered support from the local community board and received a three-thousand-dollar grant from the non-profit Citizens Committee of New York City. “Many times with issues like getting permission, the grant helps move things along,” Saleen Shah, Citizens Committee’s director of communications wrote in an email. In this case, unfortunately, it did not, and the community gardeners decided to move ahead without the MTA’s permission. About a dozen people from the neighborhood were involved on a semi-regular basis, Fitzgerald said. “We see each other here every few days, and then on Sundays we host a big public work days,” he said. “Upwards of thirty people generally. We do workshops, we do resilience think-tank type things. We act as a compost hub for the neighborhood. We take plant donations. Throughout the summer I’d say we’ve seen a circulation of over a hundred people around here.”

Two buildings back up to the garden along its north side, off Woodbine Street: the ground floor of one is currently being used as a collective workshop space, members of which also participated in cultivating the community garden; the landlord of the other recently began conducting renovations. The day before the locks were changed, Fitzgerald said, “an assessment team came by to scope out this huge pile of debris which had accumulated by one of the local landlords during a renovation. They cited him for illegal dumping; they assessed what we had done; they said, ‘Okay, it’s not an impediment to our operations. It looks pretty. It’s far better than what came before — you guys can stay here.’” The next day, however, they were locked out: “New chain, new lock. No heads up.”

According to Fitzgerald, the MTA claimed at first that they had plans to pave the land over and lease it as a parking lot. “It became apparent that that was not the case whatsoever. That was like a neat excuse. The next reason was, It’s not suitable for gardening. But we weren’t consulted about how we were gardening, because we’re doing it with the tenets of permaculture and resilience in mind — we don’t intend to eat any of this stuff, it’s mostly for remediation of the soil and as a gathering place for the neighborhood,” Fitzgerald said. “And then they said, ‘Oh, it’s a security issue.’ Which is, you know, a classic ‘explanation’ that needs no explanation whatsoever.”

Even publicly, the MTA’s messaging on the issue has been contradictory. Spokesman Kevin Ortiz confirmed to the Queens Courier that the MTA had asked the owner of an adjacent property to clean up the lot and remove the dumpster improperly placed there by one of his tenants. “The lot has since been cleaned,” Ortiz said. (Yes, but… by whom?) “The Ridgewood Community Garden group never received permission to enter or use the lot and they are essentially trespassing. We’ve asked them to vacate the lot no later than Aug. 3. We cannot have anyone occupy the lot under our structure as it is deemed a security risk.” But, the next day, MTA spokeswoman Amanda Kwan told Gothamist that the issue wasn’t “security” but access. “A garden is not a suitable use for that space because we need to be able to get in equipment and trucks,” Kwan said. “We may have said something like we need access — it’s a matter of safety in terms for our people to get in… I don’t think we used the word ‘security.’”

On Monday, the MTA opened the gates temporarily to let the Ridgewood Community Garden salvage whatever they could. (“We still haven’t seen any actual proof that they do own it other than that they have a greater capacity to cut and change locks than we do,” Fitzgerald said.) A few plants had survived and are to be moved to friends’ apartment nearby, above Topos, a recently-opened used bookstore where Fitzgerald works and that, along with the garden and the Woodbine collective space, has come to function as a kind of community gathering place, especially for people looking to unite newcomers to the neighborhood and those who have been living there for more time. The garden group took advantage of their last few hours with the space, hosting a small party. Early in the night, the small crowd was diverse: bearded hipsters, but also an older, white-haired man fixing a wheelbarrow and a Hispanic woman with her children. A week before, Fitzgerald had said he had high hopes for the garden, which he understood to be “bridging the gap between people who’d be divided and conquered otherwise.”

Well within the Williamsburg periphery at thirty-five minutes from Manhattan, Ridgewood is very attractive to developers looking to capitalize on the L train corridor as much as possible. “We’d always thought about this as really an experiment in very basic neighborhood resilience, which means: knowing your neighbors, learning skills together, being capable of facing up to the questions that are posed by the time we’re in,” Fitzgerald said. Ridgewood is also, however, situated between two Superfund sites: Newtown Creek to the west and Wolff-Alport chemical company, which the New Yorker dubbed the most radioactive place in New York City, to the east. “For a neighborhood of this size and cultural integrity, we’re still laid siege to by a nuclear waste site on one hand and that hellish moat over there. And according to all reports they’re just going to be creeping in as time goes on.” In this view, the city’s ecological crisis and its housing crisis are both concurrent and concomitant. Fitzgerald, who grew up in Manhattan, said that gentrification is “another disaster we have to face up to, another consideration we have to take into consideration as a group of people that have become interested in the land we inhabit and not as a dispersed group of individuals.”

State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and City Councilman Antonio Reynoso have both reportedly promised to help the community group find a new space in the neighborhood to establish a garden. “I look forward to working with the Ridgewood Community Garden group and other interested parties to locate possible green space in the Ridgewood community in the future,” Nolan said in a statement. Reynoso did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, Peter H. Kostmayer, CEO of the Citizens Committee for New York City, who awarded the community garden the three-thousand-dollar grant, said, “We gave a grant for this new community garden and we hope it can be saved. If the MTA’s only issue is access I am sure the group will provide access. That really should not be an issue. I am asking Council Member Crowley, State Senator Addabbo, Assembly Member Nolan and Congresswoman Meng to sit down with Citizens Committee, the MTA and the local gardeners and resolve this neighborhood improvement issue in a fair and reasonable way.”

On Tuesday, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz confirmed that the Ridgewood Community Garden group had been evicted. “They have cleared out of the space,” he wrote in an email. Asked whether the MTA has any plans to make sure the lot doesn’t fill up with garbage again — and wouldn’t having a group of locals maintaining the space, so long as they didn’t impede access to the tracks, accomplish that better than the MTA could — he wrote, “We will maintain it. And that’s exactly the point, they would impede access to our tracks in the case of an emergency.”

Already trash has begun to accumulate behind the now-locked gates. “You can’t just clean something up and leave it and expect it to stay fine. You gotta reintroduce a new vitality into it,” Fitzgerald said last week. “If they’d nipped it right in the bud, that would have been one thing. But to wait until it’s already started to bloom? Brutal.”