Losing the Plot

Losing the Plot

Walking down Kent Avenue, it doesn’t look like much — a half-block expanse of dirt and patchy grass behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

But turn right onto Myrtle Avenue, and the scene is very different. Just inside an identical fence, sandwiched between a pet store and a car service are a series of narrow vegetable plots, compost bins, and flowerbeds. Just last month, second graders from P.S. 157 planted daffodils.

This is Myrtle Village Green: a parcel of land in Bedford-Stuyvesant that stretches, like the “S” piece in Tetris, from the east side of Kent to the south side of Myrtle, zigzagging around a small congregation of buildings on the corner. It is one of nearly two dozen sites in Brooklyn, scattered from Greenpoint to East New York, where residents have built community spaces after fighting for permission to revitalize vacant city-owned properties.

“There’s all these government agencies that have property, but sometimes they don’t do anything with it,” says Miguel Hernandez, an early organizer behind La Casita Verde, a garden and composting site that opened last November on a 0.12-acre lot in South Williamsburg. “And they don’t advertise this.”

These properties routinely stand abandoned for decades. The fences begin to collapse. Weeds grow taller than passersby, who turn the lots into de facto garbage dumps — eyesores in otherwise vibrant neighborhoods.

But in May 2011, a group called 596 Acres took it upon itself to publicize these vacancies, through “This Land Is Your Land” signs on fences and an interactive map showing every lot it had identified as potentially available for community use. Lots for which organizers have obtained licenses, mainly in northern Brooklyn, stand out in bright pink. Lots that residents have begun to pursue are highlighted in yellow. Click on one, and you will find details about the project and contact information for the people behind it.

In the three and a half years since 596 Acres — named for the amount of vacant public land the Department of City Planning counted in Brooklyn at the time, though the actual acreage turned out to be less — started its Community Land Access Project, spaces like Myrtle Village Green and La Casita Verde have sprouted fast. For each of the sites in Brooklyn that the city has given residents permission to transform — compared with seven in the four other boroughs combined — there are nearly three to which Brooklynites are seeking access.

The path, though, can be protracted and deeply aggravating. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development owns more vacant lots than any other city agency, but it is not funded to turn them into open spaces, even if it will never put housing on them. In some cases, it has taken organizers more than a decade to get the key to a lot — and that’s on top of the decades the land may have sat unused before anybody tried to do something about it.

And recently, another roadblock has emerged, an inadvertent clash of liberal ideals. Mayor Bill de Blasio has set a high goal for new affordable housing units, and HPD, imagining apartments and not gardens on its empty lots, has stopped licensing its properties for community use until it decides officially what fate best suits each one. And so numerous lots that won’t see construction for years remain vacant — as do lots on which housing will never be built at all.

At 1.46 acres, Myrtle Village Green is by far the largest of the Brooklyn lots to which organizers have gained access. The next largest, GreenSpace on 4th in Park Slope, is 0.41 acres, and most are smaller than a tenth of an acre.

The site — like many others, a work in progress — includes vegetable and herb gardens, flower beds, composting equipment, and a gathering space. Children at an elementary school half a block away, P.S. 157 Benjamin Franklin, come regularly with their science classes and after-school programs.

A young student, Karyme (center), poses with her family from inside Myrtle Village Green. She comes regularly to tend to the garden. Photo by Paula Segal, courtesy of Elba Cornier.

Organizers got the key from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection about three years ago. It was the culmination of a laborious process that had begun a decade earlier, when a group of local residents reached an agreement with the DEP in late 2001 to turn the lot into a park. Percent for Art, a program within the Department of Cultural Affairs, promised $375,000. The organizers picked a landscape architect, who received a deposit from that sum.

For the next nine years, nothing happened.

The lot is above a shaft that connects to Water Tunnel No. 3 — a $5 billion project that will provide a backup to the two tunnels that have provided most of the city’s drinking water since before World War II — and the DEP’s offer of a license was premised on the belief that construction was almost complete. When that stalled, so did the park plans, says Paula Segal, the executive director of 596 Acres, who used to live a block from the Myrtle Village Green site and was involved in the efforts.

Construction continued for so long that the landscape architect’s contract lapsed. She walked. And by the time the work reached a point where community use of the lot was feasible, Segal says, “the agencies and groups that had cared a decade prior were no longer paying attention.”

This type of delay is far from unusual. In fact, compared with the time that elapsed for some other proposals between conception and completion, a decade was not even all that long.

Judy Janda, a Park Slope resident since the early 1970s, began meeting with other locals in 1994 to discuss creating a garden on a DEP-owned lot on Fourth Avenue. They hired a sculptor who “liked to work with stone and native plants and water,” Janda says. The artist came up with a model and presented it to the DEP.

The DEP proposed a temporary license for the space, a 0.41-acre lot between Sackett and Union streets that is, like Myrtle Village Green, above a shaft connected to Water Tunnel No. 3. That license would have lasted up to two years. But it was never signed.

“We were working with the lawyers to draw up whatever permissions and licenses that we would have to have,” Janda recalls. “And just as we were ready to complete, they said, ‘Uh oh, we just learned that there’s a lawsuit going on between the previous contractor and DEP,’ so we can’t use the land right now.”

A couple years later, “they said, ‘All right, let’s try this again for a year or two.’ And then we were also at the point of drawing things up with the lawyer, and they said, ‘We just found out that another part of DEP has licensed the use of the land for vehicles. They’re ripping up the streets to put in huge water mains in conjunction with the Third Water Tunnel. Sorry.’”

Then city officials stopped returning calls. And for nearly a decade, there was silence.

There are many ways city-owned land becomes vacant, and about as many ways to go about changing it.

Hernandez, the early La Casita Verde organizer, says he learned from “extensive research through land deeds” that a Hasidic man once owned the lot, on the corner of Bedford and Division avenues in Williamsburg. When the man died, he passed the deed on to his oldest son. When the oldest son died, it passed to the second-oldest son, and then to the third, and finally to the family’s youngest child — a woman who had moved to Canada.

The man’s will, Hernandez says, stipulated that the land never be sold — that if there came a time when none of his children wanted it, “he would rather give it to the city and let it be incorporated into the adjacent park,” now Bedford Playground.

Instead, the lot remained vacant for more than 30 years. This is because while HPD is the agency designated to accept private property given to the city, it has no mechanism to do anything with it that is not housing-related. Using the land for housing would have meant turning it over to a developer — and the former owner’s will forbid any sale, Hernandez says.

And so the lot sat and collected garbage. The chain-link fence sagged toward a lone tree amid a sea of unruly grass. During winters, the grass browned and disappeared, revealing graffiti at the base of the drab building adjacent.

While the way the land fell into that holding pattern may have been unusual, the holding pattern itself was not.

At various points since 1949, the city has acquired buildings through eminent domain and demolished them with the idea of revitalizing “blighted” neighborhoods. In doing so, it wrote a slew of neighborhood-specific redevelopment plans, including, says 596 Acres’ Segal, “the designation that some parcels were going to be turned into open space — gardens, parks, sitting areas, basketball courts.”

HPD received the land that came into the city’s possession through urban renewal, and the catch was the same: The department was equipped to carry out those redevelopment plans that had a residential component, but not those for open space. The Parks Department could have executed those plans, but it didn’t have jurisdiction over the properties.

“These were planned as open spaces, but there is no mechanism inside the city to move those parcels into Parks inventory and actually open them,” Segal says. “So many properties that were intended as open spaces have actually been at a dead end.”

A couple years ago, 596 Acres began working, with design help from Partner & Partners and funding from SmartSign, to catalogue the city’s more than 150 urban renewal plans, past and present, which cover areas ranging from a single square block to an entire neighborhood. It scoured public records and filed Freedom of Information Law requests, and compiled the data into a searchable map called Urban Reviewer.

This data enabled 596 Acres to provide the sort of advisory and logistical support to residents organizing around open-space urban renewal lots that it does to residents organizing around lots never formally designated for one thing or another. In many ways, urban renewal lots are easier to gain access to, because “the planners had done their work already, designating the parcel as open space,” Segal says.

Most of Brooklyn’s urban renewal plans are in the northern half of the borough, including large swaths of Brownsville, Greenpoint, East New York, and Williamsburg. South of Prospect Park, there are only five: one covering thirteen lots in Flatbush, one covering eleven lots in Sunset Park, and three in Coney Island encompassing several hundred lots altogether.

A 0.05-acre lot on the corner of South Fourth and Keap streets in Williamsburg, for example, was designated for open space in the city’s “Southside” urban renewal plan. Unlike many plans, that one is still active — it was adopted in 1992 and does not expire until 2032. But when 596 Acres first looked at it, the two-decade absence of city attention seemed unlikely to change. So for two years, the group worked with locals to claim the land.

The most reliable way to secure an open-space urban renewal site for the long term, Segal says, is to get it transferred from HPD to an agency that can support its development as a park, garden, or other community space. In most cases, that is the Parks Department. The lot on South Fourth and Keap was moved to Parks, and the product of the organizers’ efforts was unveiled in a ribbon-cutting ceremony in June: Keap Fourth Community Garden.

The transformation can be seen vividly in the archives of Google Street View. An image from October 2007 shows a fence sinking inward on overgrown grass, the perimeter strewn with garbage. But if you walk by today, you will see neat rows of raised planting beds, benches, and a gazebo.

The phone call came out of the blue in early 2010, some fifteen years after the initial push to create a community garden in Park Slope had stalled. A DEP official, Janda says, wanted to talk again about the possibility of interim community use of the lot on Fourth Avenue.

Several meetings ensued, and each time, Janda recalls, the DEP was offering a different section of the lot. When they finally got that squared away, the DEP informed her that part of the water shaft under the site had to be replaced, which dragged the process into 2011. After Craig Hammerman, a member of Community Board 6, met with the DEP commissioner about another topic and mentioned the continuing limbo, an official contacted Janda and told her the department would draw up a license. More than a year went by. Then Hurricane Sandy hit, Janda says, and suddenly the New York City Law Department, which had to review the license, “had a lot bigger and more important things to handle than us.”

By the time the group got its license in November 2013, nearly two decades had passed since the first efforts to organize around the site.

Come spring 2014, the locals put up a metal shed, brought over gardening tools, and picked up free plastic outdoor furniture from a MetroTech giveaway. And so GreenSpace on 4th was born.

There are two parts of the lot that the group cannot use for gardening: a large, arc-shaped driveway and a ten-foot-wide line along the fence that separates GreenSpace on 4th from the area still controlled by the DEP. “But the place is so big, and the fact that it’s next door to the other part of the DEP site, it’s all open land, which is great,” Janda says. “Even though there’s a fence there, it just feels enormous. And once you’re in there, you’re not really too aware of what’s going on on Fourth Avenue.”

A new push to open Myrtle Village Green started four or five years ago, says Elba Cornier, a science teacher at P.S. 157 and one of the organizers. Locals met in church basements, collected thousands of petition signatures, and spoke with the DEP commissioner. Their proposal was approved, but even then, it took months for the city to turn over the key to the lot; they finally got it about three years ago.

Today, there is a community bed where members plant food, and from which locals “can take whatever they need, kind of like a food bank,” Cornier says. There is a three-bin compost system, with another on the way. The organizers have an agreement with the nearby Pratt Institute for its autumn leaves; it recently delivered 100 bags.

But the heart of the site is a garden run by students at P.S. 157, kindergartners through fifth graders. It is an invaluable resource, Cornier says, for a school where 22 percent of students are learning English as a second language, 24 percent are special ed, and many have never seen a garden, much less a farm animal.

“They have never seen a chicken or an egg outside of a supermarket,” she says. “Literally, they think tomatoes come in a can.”

The students, who can take home the vegetables they grow, recently planted a pumpkin patch. They had an astronomy night, where they looked at Jupiter and Saturn through a telescope. In the spring, Cornier and others plan to create a maze out of an as-yet-undetermined type of tall plant.

“It’s really exciting for them to actually see something grow for the first time,” Cornier says. “They get to be involved in the community and hopefully become future stewards.” And in the meantime, she adds with a smile, they get to tell their parents, “I planted that tomato. I planted that carrot. I know what a turnip is now.”

The support 596 Acres provides is multifold. Its first and most visible role is helping people identify potential sites, both through its signs and through the interactive map on its website. And it helps connect Brooklynites with a general desire to organize with people who are already on the ground. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Throughout the process, the organization tries to expedite interactions with city agencies and officials, and generally cut through the red tape. The goal, Segal says, is to “take the shortest route between seeing a vacant lot with a fence around it and actually getting the key.”

Once residents have found what 596 Acres likes to call “the lot in their life,” the group guides them to the proper resources. “Most of the people we work with have never done something like this before, but there is a massive infrastructure that actually does exist in New York City for community greening of space,” Segal says. GreenThumb, a division of the Parks Department, takes the lead in that infrastructure, but there are also foundations that offer grants, free materials from a variety of sources, and free soil from the Department of Sanitation. And 596 Acres itself holds regular meetings where organizers at various stages of the process, from various parts of the city, can discuss obstacles and trade advice in what Segal describes as “kind of like a group therapy session.”

The most recent meeting, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, took place at a greenhouse in Harlem, amid rows of hydroponic equipment nourishing an assortment of vegetables and herbs: kale, basil, arugula, fennel.

Minico Roberts said she was pursuing a site on West 25th Street and Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. The lot, 0.55 acres, was designated for open space in an urban renewal plan that the city adopted in 1968. That plan expired six years ago after four decades, but the lot remains untouched. If Roberts and her fellow organizers get a license, their vacant-lot-turned-community-garden will supplant GreenSpace on 4th as the second largest in Brooklyn.

Another attendee, Sunshine Flint, reported a recent piece of disconcerting news: Though the site she helps run, South Brooklyn Children’s Garden, has a license that is valid through June, HPD had no record of it.

The garden, on the corner of Columbia and Sackett streets in the Columbia Waterfront District, is a cooperative: members, who pay an annual fee and commit to several hours of volunteer work on the site per season, decide together what to plant each year, and each receives a share of the harvest. Two planting beds are reserved for children from local schools, who often visit on field trips.

Shannon Mulholland, one of the original organizers, says she believes the issue with HPD’s records will be resolved without practical consequences. The real problem, she says, is timing: HPD has indicated that it will renew the garden’s license, but not until a month before the current one expires. That means the garden must pursue grants and do legwork for a season that begins in March without knowing for sure whether it will be able to finish it.

This type of uncertainty is one of the toughest challenges facing community gardens. HPD, Segal told the organizers seated on stools and milk crates outside the Harlem Grown greenhouse on West 134th Street, “is not going to try to hurt you.” But it is “so used to having an inventory of vacant lots that no one cares about,” she said, that if a clerical error went unnoticed, HPD might think that a lot licensed to a community group was vacant and close a deal with a developer without ever visiting the site and realizing there had been a mistake.

“It’s totally transactional,” Segal warned. “You signed things that laid out just how precarious the situation is.”

But, she reminded the gathering, every one of the 575 community gardens in the Parks Department’s inventory, where they have some degree of protection, started out in equally precarious circumstances. They were all once in other city departments, such as HPD, operating from short-term license to short-term license, with renewals never guaranteed.

The organizers “developed their gardens, proved they were valuable,” Segal said. “Then Parks took jurisdiction.”

One of the first projects 596 Acres helped with was Java Street Community Garden, between Franklin and West streets in Greenpoint. The original lead organizer, Stella Goodall, who has since moved overseas, lived just west of the empty lot and passed it every day, says Bevin Ross, a volunteer and member of the garden’s steering committee. Goodall knew Segal and in fall 2011, with her help, began seeking access. She had the key by February 2012, and that summer was the first growing season.

“It was anarchy, but happy anarchy,” Ross says. “All about just having fun, seeing what we could grow and having barbecues and whatnot. And then the next summer, we got more organized.”

The lot is small, 0.06 acres, on a quiet residential block. From the back, amid the three-by-five-foot individual planting beds and the larger community beds, you can see a patch of the Manhattan skyline, including the Empire State Building. At this time of year, there isn’t much else to look at, but Ross and another of the original organizers, Nicole De Feo, pointed out the plants that, come springtime, will grow along with newly seeded vegetables. There are berries of all varieties — blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries. And, Ross says, “blueberries that come back every year.”

“Every year meaning we planted them last year,” De Feo says, laughing.

“Yeah, but they will come back,” Ross replies. “I’m an optimist!”

Members get an individual bed in exchange for working four hours a month to maintain the garden and keep it open to the public from April 1 to November 1 for the 20 hours a week required of sites receiving support from GreenThumb. Locals who don’t want that commitment can participate in other events, such as barbecues every month or two and “work days” on the second Saturday of each month. And anybody can drop off waste for composting.

De Feo emphasizes that she wants Java Street to be more than just a garden. “The idea being to not just walk into the garden and see and feel the raised beds; there’s no place to gather, there’s no place to walk around,” she says. “That’s what a lot of community gardens look like, and that’s one approach, but I think we wanted to offer a mix. Like, what are the other things you can do with a garden space, as well as having the more traditional raised beds, growing vegetables, digging them out?”

Another project with which 596 Acres has worked closely is on the edge of Bed-Stuy and Brownsville, jointly run by the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger and two public schools that share a building across the street from the lot, Eagle Academy for Young Men II and Mott Hall IV Middle School. The garden, officially the Saratoga Urban Agro-Ecological Center, opened two years ago on the northeast corner of Saratoga Avenue and Fulton Street. According to Elliott Maruffi-Cowley, the Eagle Academy social worker behind the project, it only took four months to go from his first contact with city officials to holding the key to the lot.

He knows how unusual that is.

“I think I got fortunate and struck at the right time,” Maruffi-Cowley says. “It moved relatively quickly, which I was pleasantly surprised with. I had heard that there can be a lot of red tape.”

Like so many other organizers, his attention was drawn to the lot by a sign 596 Acres had placed on the fence. “I thought, ‘It’s a shame that this open lot is simply gathering garbage across the street from two public schools,’” he recalls. “We should be able to utilize that for something.”

The Saratoga Urban Agro-Ecological Center, on the edge of Bed-Stuy and Brownsville. Photo courtesy of Elliott Maruffi-Cowley.

He quickly connected with the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger — headquartered just west of the schools, on Fulton Street — and the Brooklyn Food Coalition. He called their guidance indispensable, in terms of both financial resources and garden operations. “Once I connected with them, I was really out of my element,” he says. “I have no gardening experience. But I definitely desire to help the community to come together and have healthy eating options” — he noted that a few years ago, the New York Times called the neighborhood a “food desert,” meaning there were few such options — “and also to see our scholars have a garden and be self-sufficient.”

The students — 20 participate each semester, mostly sixth and seventh graders — have planted and harvested okra, kale, beans, peppers, and collard greens, to name a few. Neighbors, Maruffi-Cowley says, have approached him to say, “I never thought we’d see a farm stand in Brownsville.”

For a while, with projects like these, the efforts of 596 Acres and the local organizers whom it supported bore fairly consistent fruit. But recently, they began running into an unexpected wall.

When I met Eve Mosher and Alexander Khost in Bed-Stuy in late October in front of a wildly overgrown lot on Jefferson Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, they were planning enthusiastically for a children’s play space that the children themselves would build, quite literally, from the ground up.

“What you really work with in the beginning is dirt, water, shovels, and then you slowly work up,” Khost says. “And then, as we become more comfortable and experienced, and as we become more familiar with the kids who regularly come in, then you start introducing more complicated materials.”

The idea comes from Denmark, where Khost recently traveled to make contacts. The Danes call them “adventure playgrounds.”

Both Mosher and Khost have young children — Mosher has a 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son, and Khost has two sons, ages 6 and 8 — and speak passionately about the difficulty of finding good play spaces, especially outdoors, in a place as crowded as Brooklyn.

“In playgrounds, playrooms, classrooms, children don’t really get a sense of ownership,” Khost says. “And so when you remove things that have precious value to adults, it gives children permission to have their own ownership over it, where then they can start making their own decisions — real, true, legitimate decisions. And that gives them responsibility and enables them to have creativity.”

In addition, they envision the usual community-garden fare: native plants, raised beds, and composting equipment.

When we spoke, Mosher and Khost had only been working on the project for a couple of months. They had found the lot by searching block by block on 596 Acres’ online map, and then biking around to check out each site. They liked the big tree that rose out of the towering weeds — taller in places than any of the three of us — and they liked what Khost called “the neighborhood feel.”

“We really want this to be for the neighborhood, where kids just sort of walk off the street,” Khost says. “This felt like a lot where that’s possible.”

They began drafting a mission statement, researching community organizations that might want to be involved, and recruiting experts and advisers, from nearby and from as far afield as Denmark and Wales.

But the day after we met, Mosher emailed to say that she had heard from GreenThumb — which acts as a liaison between organizers and the agencies that own the land they want to use — that the lot was “not available.”

Mark Parsons, who has lived in Bed-Stuy for seven years and wanted to create a garden at 463 Tompkins Avenue, had gotten similar news two days before: HPD intended to solicit proposals from developers to build affordable housing on the lot. He had been working on the project since July, recruiting neighborhood figures — the reverend of Stuyvesant Heights Christian Church; the landowner of an adjacent lot; officials at a local preschool — courting support on Community Board 3, and enlisting an architect.

“We need accessible green space for little kids to explore and plant and learn, and for the elderly of this community to be able to pause and sit and have oxygenated shade,” he wrote in an email. “I’m disappointed that there will be another building adding to the hard ’scape of Tompkins Avenue.”

Actually, there may not be. But that doesn’t mean Parsons — or Mosher and Khost; or Maruffi-Cowley, who has been trying without success to expand the Saratoga garden to another lot diagonally across the street — can move forward anytime soon.

Because of the de Blasio administration’s high affordable housing targets, HPD — which owns about half of the city’s public property, especially in neighborhoods historically deemed blighted — “is looking at every single parcel, no matter how small, as a potential place to put housing,” Segal says, “even if it means they can only put three units of housing on a particular parcel, it is that small.” (The Jefferson Avenue lot is less than 0.06 acres, and the Tompkins Avenue lot is less than 0.05 acres.) The administration is hoping to find a financial model — some combination of market-rate and affordable units — that will make construction on that scale feasible.

“I have a feeling that a lot of these small lots will again be released, and we’ll be able to move forward helping people organize,” Segal says. “But basically, it’s a freeze right now on half of the city’s land inventory. So that’s new; that’s fun.”

There are ways around this: HPD can, for example, transfer lots to the Parks Department if it determines that they are not suitable for affordable housing. Yet, a worst-of-both-worlds scenario has long predominated: lots that could become affordable housing or community spaces spend decades becoming neither.

Affordable housing “is certainly necessary, but also, green spaces are absolutely necessary,” Maruffi-Cowley says. “I don’t think anybody doubts that.”

The 61 Franklin Street Community Garden — on the corner of Oak Street in Greenpoint, just five blocks south of the Java Street garden — will be transferred to the Parks Department in January, says Shaun Dubreuil, a garden volunteer and committee member. With a touch of incredulity in her voice, she says the transfer came about without much effort on the part of her or other organizers.

What happened, Segal explains, is that while the garden is on one of the small lots, 0.04 acres, that HPD had frozen, the North Brooklyn Development Corporation — the developer HPD would have turned to if it wanted to use the site for housing — made it “very clear that they were not interested in building on that scale.”

Grand Street Community Garden, a 0.04-acre lot between Berry Street and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, also appears likely to be transferred, Segal says.

Then there is Java Street. While the organizers got access to the lot before the new mayoral administration put out its affordable housing goals, and the garden has been operating for two years, their license from HPD expires in June. And in seeking a renewal, they could fall into the same holding pattern as people like Mosher, Khost, and Parsons.

“They could take it away from us at any time,” Ross says. “And it happens to people. It’s a common thing. I mean, we don’t have anybody who’s looking to do that right now, but…”

De Feo notes, as does Segal, that no one has yet come forward with an economically viable model to build affordable housing on such a small piece of land. De Feo thinks the Java Street lot could accommodate only four to six units.

But that is not wholly reassuring, especially because the city continues to seek just such a model. So what the Java Street steering committee intends to work on this winter is a detailed illustration of what the garden contributes to the community.

They aim to capture the intangible benefits of, for example, “providing a space to sit and look at the garden,” De Feo says. Or, Ross adds, “inspiring people to do stuff and make changes in their own personal lives.” GreenThumb’s website notes that community gardens “provide important green space, thus improving air quality, biodiversity, and the well-being of residents.”

But they also have to go beyond that. So 596 Acres put Java Street in touch with Farming Concrete, a service that helps define the quantitative benefits of gardens: the pounds of produce harvested; the gallons of waste composted.

They have spruced up the space with the help of a $20,000 grant from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, obtained this past spring “primarily to improve the physical capacity of the garden,” De Feo says.

The first thing they did was replace the standard-issue chain-link fence that all vacant HPD lots have, which had only a small door and could not accommodate, for example, the 20 cubic yards of soil the garden had delivered last summer. To accept such deliveries, volunteers had to “peel back the chain-link and take out the posts,” De Feo recalls. The new fence is black steel and has a 10-foot-wide vehicular gate. They had it installed slightly further back to allow for two sidewalk gardens and benches that are accessible even when the garden itself is closed.

They built a shed with a rainwater canopy, which provides a place to store tools and, no less important, shelter from summertime heat. They bought power tools, a ladder, pruners, soil, and plant materials. With some of the money that remains, they plan to order barrels to store rainwater and install a small solar energy system.

“The idea being that we do all these little projects, and now we can be a better host to the community,” De Feo says. “I think also the idea behind our grant and doing these very visible, physical projects is to have a demonstration that the lot is being actively used and cared for — that there are people in the community that are stewarding the land.”

This, Segal says, is exactly how organizers should go about pursuing that coveted transfer to the Parks Department.

“Stay visible,” she repeated throughout the most recent 596 Acres meeting for organizers. “The goal is to make these sites visible, and they have to be visible where it counts.” This means pursuing publicity. It means hosting open events, and lots of them. It means courting community support, especially from local politicians, and especially in writing. The South Brooklyn Children’s Garden has the backing of State Senator Daniel Squadron and City Council member Brad Lander. And Java Street is reaching out to elected officials in Greenpoint.

“HPD isn’t in the business of pissing people off,” Segal said at the meeting. “They really have no incentive to displace the gardens unless someone creates an incentive.” Of some 1,000 HPD-owned sites in the city, she noted, only 60 to 70 are community gardens. That gives HPD a lot of other options that don’t involve revoking a garden’s license — especially a garden with elected officials on board.

Even so, Java Street has received no assurance that it will be able to stay past the end of its current license in June.

Java Street and South Brooklyn Children’s Garden are not the only ones to discover that even once they have won access to a lot, they may not have won for good.

For Myrtle Village Green, the future seems fairly clear. The city has the site divided into three lots. Lot A, on the Myrtle Avenue side, is the current community space. Lot C provides the DEP with water main access, and the community cannot touch it. Lot B, on the Kent Avenue side, is currently empty, and Cornier says the city will probably transfer them there in two or three years. This would not be a big upheaval, as the spaces are basically equivalent.

The situation for Janda and her fellow GreenSpace on 4th organizers, who have to renew their license with the DEP every two years, is less certain. They have been told that their interim access — eventually, the DEP will come back in to finish hooking up the water shaft beneath the lot to Water Tunnel No. 3 — could last anywhere from eight to 20 years. “At that point, supposedly, we’re supposed to get out for two, three years, whatever it takes to do what they have to do,” Janda says. “And nobody knows if we go back at all, whether we go back to the same space, whether we go back to a larger space.”

That is a ways off, she acknowledges, but she spoke preemptively last month with Lander, the local Council member. “I asked him if we could consider: What do they really need our part of the land for when that time comes?” she says. “Do we really have to get off, or could they work around? Could they do their parking where there’s already not planted areas, and could we use the garden after they leave at 3:30 or 4, whatever it is, in the summertime, and on weekends when they don’t work?

“In other words, would we really have to pick up and pack up and move everything, and they’ll just drive all over everything that we’ve done?”

Those questions remain unanswered. Lander, she says, told her he would look into it.

Still, all of the organizers I spoke to, those with solidly established spaces and those struggling to get started alike, said they believed similar projects would continue. They have seen too much support from those who live around these vacant lots, they say.

“There’s too many people interested in doing something like this in New York and not anything like it in New York,” Khost says of his and Mosher’s idea for an “adventure playground,” which they are now trying to arrange in Brower Park, next to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in Crown Heights.

In late November, De Feo said she believed she had “made some progress” in persuading the North Brooklyn Development Corporation to declare a lack of interest in the Java Street site, as it did for the Franklin Street garden, and support a transfer to the Parks Department.

“All the work that we’ve done this summer attracted people from the neighborhood,” De Feo says. “A lot of people have been coming out of the woodwork. Every time I’m in the garden doing work, I meet somebody new who saw the garden, who’s lived in Greenpoint for a while, that stops by and says, ‘I think it’s really great what you guys are doing. I really enjoy looking at this space. It’s really transformative; it’s really beautiful.’ And it’s really lovely to know that people notice.”

Correction (December 14, 2014): An earlier version of this article suggested that 596 Acres received funding from design firm Partners & Partners. The firm helped design 596 Acres’ interactive map, but did not provide funding. An earlier version of the article also stated that Judy Janda met with Park Slope residents in 1994 to discuss creating an art space on a DEP-owned lot along Fourth Avenue. Their intention was to create a garden, not an art space.

Maggie Astor is a freelance reporter and a copy editor for the New York Times. She has written for the New York Times, the International Business Times, and the Bergen Record.

Also in this issue

Consider the Oyster

Can the humble mollusk clean Brooklyn’s waterways and restore our connection to its shoreline? No — but maybe a billion can. By Jordan Fraade

Fir Sale

’Tis the seasons. Photos by Anthony Rhoades, with text by Sara Goudarzi

Q&A: Aldona Vaiciunas of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association

A local leader reflects on the life and times of a neighborhood mostly unshaken — for now, at least — by Brooklyn’s development boom. Interview by Angela Almeida

Q&A: David Ehrenberg of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation

The future of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, according to the man who hopes to remake it. Interview by John Surico