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NYC Neighborhoods

Mean Streets to Green Streets

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 Max UlrichThomas Jefferson Park, 1939 Photo: Max UlrichIn the smoldering heat of summer, one of my greatest pleasures has been to find reprieve in New York City’s lush and thriving community gardens. For all the grandeur of the city’s more widely celebrated green spaces like Central Park and Prospect Park, there are hundreds of small-scale urban oases nestled in formerly decrepit lots across the five boroughs.

At one community garden that I visited in Alphabet City, a woman was simmering curry over the communal grill. “I love to cook outside in the summer”, she proclaimed while welcoming my companion and me into her sanctuary. “It’s so much more joyful to be out here, talking to people and making food, than to be trapped in my apartment all day.” It was a simple statement, but one that speaks to the fundamental values of the urban community garden movement that burgeoned in the 1970s - open public areas, clean air, green spaces, sustainable food production, and meaningful interaction with one’s community.

Green Streets (1989), a documentary film in the Reserve Film and Video Collection, showcases a wide range of community gardens that have sprouted up in New York City thanks to this grassroots movement. Since 1973, when guerilla gardener Liz Christy threw the first seed bombs into a barren lot on the Bowery, community gardens have taken root in Manhattan neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side and Harlem in addition to many parts of the outer boroughs (particularly Brooklyn and the Bronx). It takes hard work from dedicated individuals to transform neglected and often dangerous urban land into organic living rooms for the neighborhood. Nonetheless, many believe that community gardens reduce crime by providing, at a minimal cost, direly-needed greenery, nourishment, recreation, and inclusive communal space that would otherwise be inaccessible to many inner-city communities. Reflecting the diversity of people who lovingly tend and utilize them, each garden featured in the film possesses its own unique flavor, aesthetic and purpose.

1975 image of Liz Christy in one of her Lower East Side gardens. Courtesy of Donald Loggins.1975 image of Liz Christy in one of her Lower East Side gardens. Courtesy of Donald Loggins.While Green Streets is in many ways a celebratory film about neighborhood diversity, unity and pride, advocacy for community gardens remains an ongoing battle. In a city as densely populated as New York, tensions between public and private bids for space are complex and divisive. With the city’s Community Gardens Agreement set to expire this month – thereby removing legal protection for gardens on city property - many supporters fear that their beloved gardens will be bulldozed by developers in a bitterly ironic cycle of destruction and growth. In the midst of the concrete jungle, films like Green Streets, Plant a Seed (1975), and 40,000 Acres, with View (1984) are gentle reminders of the immeasurable impact of urban plant life in fostering healthy, vibrant, and peaceful communities.

Of course, community gardens would hardly have come into existence if not for the mobilized efforts of people sharing a common desire for sustainable, pleasurable, and accessible spaces. Community activism manifests itself in other powerful ways and has, for very good reason, been at the heart of a number of films in our collection.

Photo courtesy of Flatbush GardenerPhoto courtesy of Flatbush GardenerIn various neighborhoods across New York City, residents have organized to turn garbage dumps into parks and playgrounds (A Park on Our Block (1969), A Community Park (1970)); collaborated on public murals (The Mural On Our Street (1964)); participated in urban renewal projects (The Heart of Losaida (1979), Bronx River Restoration (1980), 24th and Tomorrow (1965), A Sense of Pride: Hamilton Heights (1977)); and fought for essential community services and housing rights (People’s Firehouse #1 (1979), Metropolitan Avenue (1985), Where Can I Live: A Story of Gentrification (1983), Yes, On our Block!: The Capitol Hall Story (2001)).

If you would like to screen these or other films in the collection or to make a request for a consultation appointment with a staff member, please call the Reserve Film and Video Collection at (212) 870-1741. All films must be requested at least one week in advance.

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