Vol. 12, No. 25 Dec. 30, 1999 - Jan. 12, 2000


A Norwood News Exclusive

NYBG Donors Rescued Community Gardens


When the Giuliani administration announced last year that 125 of the city's community gardens would be auctioned off to the highest bidder, long-time green thumbs rallied and hoped against hope that the beloved plots they had reclaimed from rubble and refuse would somehow survive the ordeal.

They did survive, but not without the behind-the-scenes participation of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and two of the institution's biggest supporters.

Henry Everett and Lewis Cullman, both members of the NYBG's board of directors, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), the non-profit that eventually bought the 29 Bronx gardens put up for sale. Cullman's and Everett's contributions were enough to cover the cost of the Bronx plots.

"Both were incredibly generous and concerned about [the auction] and stepped right up to the plate," said Rose Harvey, a senior vice president at TPL. "They were fabulous. They came to us. We didn't go to them." 

The NYBG had a tremendous interest in the sale because it runs the Bronx Green-Up program, which provides materials and technical assistance to all of the Bronx gardens. Because the NYBG receives a significant portion of its budget from the city, it did not publicly decry the auction, irking some community garden activists. Karen Washington, a Crotona gardener who got her start in 1988 when the NYBG helped her and her neighbors reclaim a vacant lot and replace it with the Garden of Happiness, said she understood the organization's situation and was glad it stepped in when it did. But, at the time, she and many other gardeners desperately wanted the institution to at least issue a brief statement in support of community gardens.

NYBG officials, though, decided against making a statement. "We didn't believe that that would be the most effective way for us to create value in this situation," said Earl Brown, the NYBG's director of government relations.

But, out of the public spotlight, Brown said -- and Harvey confirmed -- the NYBG and its donors were instrumental in saving the community gardens.

Harvey said the NYBG was "hugely supportive of the initiative" to buy the plots. "They couldn't take an active role as an institution given their circumstances," she said, "but behind the scenes they offered strategy, time, support, and were helpful in directing us to potential donors who ultimately did give to the cause."

One of those donors was Henry Everett, a philanthropist whose name is familiar to most Garden patrons because the Everett Children's Adventure Garden bears his name. Everett, who with his wife, Edith, donated $125,000 to the cause, sees the gardens as central to the civic and cultural life of the city's neighborhoods. "Local people take pride in them," he said. "They get together and work together and exchange neighborhood information."

Cullman, who was not available for comment, gave even more money to the effort, Everett said. Cullman is known for his company that makes the At-a-Glance calendars used by millions of Americans. Everett said he made his fortune in the investment management business.

Brown said the NYBG's participation in the effort is central to its mission. "The Garden feels that the commitment we have to the Bronx community is of the utmost importance," he said. "We believe that Green-Up is very important and is an integral part of this institution."

Green-Up's budget is about $500,000, most of which is raised privately by the NYBG, Brown said. In addition to lending a helping hand to local gardeners, the project, which was founded about nine years ago with the help of Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, encourages young green thumbs by working with schools in the borough on garden projects.

Though gardeners and open space advocates were relieved not to lose the precious parcels, many say, that because several hundred more plots could still eventually be sold, gardeners are not out of the woods yet.

"This will be a success if it's the end of private purchase of public land and the beginning of a policy to protect existing parkland," Harvey said. "I didn't see it as an unmitigated success, and I don't think a precedent should be set of more purchases. I don't think the philanthropic world would provide substantial dollars for more purchases." 

Harvey said her organization has a letter of agreement with the city which TPL officials believe will allow it to acquire the remaining gardens "for no further consideration." Harvey said that basically means that the properties would be transferred to them at no cost "in return for us assuming the stewardship."

Nonetheless, gardeners are keeping their guards up, preparing for any eventuality. Washington said she is looking forward to discussing strategies to further protect the garden plots when she and other Green-Up veterans meet with Brown and other NYBG officials early in the New Year.

See Related Article:
  A Green Thumb with Big Plans

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