BY KELLY MARIE MANCUSO
When a small group of local organizers first saw a dormant stretch of land beneath the M train line between Woodbine Street and Woodward Avenue, they envisioned a community space brimming with agriculture, urban farming and educational programs.
Now, facing eviction from MTA New York City Transit, the group is rallying support and petitioning the MTA in an effort to preserve what organizers call Ridgewood’s first community garden.
“Ridgewood’s powerful spirit of resilience and neighborhood autonomy within New York inspired us to start the community garden,” the group’s media representative Clark Fitzgerald said. “Yet despite the strength of its community ties, Ridgewood…distinctly lacks green space for neighbors to gather and share their lives.”
The Ridgewood Community Garden group is a self-described mix of “young but seasoned farmers, urban ecologists, social media promoters and community organizers” working together to create much-needed green space within Ridgewood’s urban landscape.
“This space in particular was the obvious choice: 2,250 square feet of land in the heart of the neighborhood, discarded for decades, no more than a local dumping ground and cesspool, but full of potential if we put in the work, and capable of bringing the block together if we did it right,” Fitzgerald said. “We surveyed the site, tested the soil, and found it ideal for our experiment in urban rehabilitation in the neighborhood we love.”
According to Fitzgerald, the group’s organizers assumed stewardship over the land after first seeking out the land’s owners.
“Initially the MTA could not tell us whether or not they owned the property,” he explained. “When we found a hole cut in the fence, we decided to install a gate to steward access to the plot and were met with vast enthusiasm from everyone who came by, including many MTA agents from the M stations and bus terminal. With their implicit support, we moved forward on cleaning and revitalizing the land.”
The group was recently awarded a $3,000 grant from Citizens Committee of New York City. In its 2014 grant application, the group expressed its goals for creating a “thriving complex ecosystem of edible plants, medicinal herbs, bees, hens and people like us” that would “become a center of Ridgewood social life and collective work for whoever wishes to jump in and get their hands dirty.”
Fitzgerald also credits strategic assistance from 596 Acres, a group that helps communities remediate abandoned lots, as well as huge political backing from Community Board 5, Councilman Antonio Reynoso and Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, with the garden’s initial success.
According to Fitzgerald, the garden’s problems began back in June.
“An absentee landlord was reported for illegally dumping tons of waste in the lot from an apartment renovation, and reported the garden [in the same condition], for reasons malicious and unknown,” Fitzgerald said. “That week, MTA representatives came by to take pictures and confirmed everything was fine to stay, until the next morning, when we found our locks changed and signs posted that we were illegally occupying the area. We now found ourselves unable to water our many plants, and unclear as to how to proceed to secure this vital resource for our community.”
In a statement, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the MTA issued the vacate order due to concerns over security.
“We asked the owner of the property adjacent to the lot (Woodward Avenue Commons) to clean up the lot and remove a dumpster that was placed on the lot by one of his tenants (a restaurant),” Ortiz said. “The lot has since been cleaned. 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. ”
In an effort to preserve the Ridgewood Community Garden, the group created a petition on change.org calling for the MTA to reach an agreement with the group allowing access to the land and plants, as well as guaranteeing custodianship through a garden license agreement.
“The garden’s necessity for us as a community is crystal clear, and I ask everyone who lives here and believes in Ridgewood’s future to do everything they can to preserve what we have managed to do at Ridgewood Community Garden,” Fitzgerald said.