Granny guerrilla gardener ticketed for trespassing in Buffalo

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greatest-gardening-grandma-kneepadIf she keeps it up, they might slap the cuffs on her. I can see it now—Nettie Anderson, outlaw gardener. Dirt on her hands. A summons in her mailbox.

That is just the image this city needs: An 83-year-old grandmother with a rap sheet. The longtime community activist may get nailed with a trespassing violation for trying to spruce up her street. Standing with her is a legion of other citizen- gardeners who are trying to make Buffalo better, if only the mayor would let them.

City Hall has a nasty habit of making life tough for people who are trying to help themselves — and the city. Even so, count this absurdity among Byron Brown's Greatest Mis-hits.

The city has 16,000 vacant lots and no idea what to do with them. Folks on battered streets got tired of staring at scrub brush. They pulled out weeds and jacked up property values by putting in gardens. Lending a hand is Grassroots Gardens, a nonprofit group that donates plants and — amazingly — put up $1 million to legally cover the city's back. All that the city's chief planner, who takes marching orders from the mayor, has to do is sign off on the gift of citizens' sweat.

A legion of ready-to-go gardeners, as reported in Sunday's Buffalo News by Maki Becker, are waiting for City Hall's OK — some for longer than two years. Other frustrated gardeners, such as Anderson and her neighbors, got tired of blight and grabbed a trowel. The lot across from Anderson's East Side house is now covered with illegal blooms.

generic_graphic_crime_generic_handcuffs_arrest"It's not fair for us to have to look at weeds, trash and garbage," Anderson told me as we walked in the garden. "We can feel good about looking at flowers."

The garden — one of several "rogue" plantings in the city — puts Anderson on the wrong side of the law. Leave it to Brown & Co. to threaten to crack down on folks who destroy weed-strewn lots.

The way I see it, the outlaw gardeners are not the ones who stepped over the line. Brown should be cited for being part of the problem in America's third-poorest city. It is hard to believe he gets paid $105,000 by the same citizens whose civic efforts he sabotages.

"The city doesn't cut the weeds on these [vacant] lots," Anderson pointed out. "They should be glad that people are doing something with them."

Instead of counting his blessings for these people, Brown kicks the legs out from under them. It gets worse: Anderson a quarter- century ago co-founded the Grassroots political group. Yes, the same East Side organization that spawned, among others, Byron Brown.

"I believe it must be his department heads doing this," she offered. "But he's the boss, he can tell them what to do."

If the mayor showed the same passion about running the city as he does for playing politics, we would not have 16,000 vacant lots.

City Hall's excuses for holding up the community gardens are typical of Brown's infuriating insistence on hoeing the same ruts: Some neighbors prefer weed-strewn lots to gardens (like who, the Rat family?). Fear of vegetable gardens on toxic ground — even though gardeners get fresh soil and planting beds. And, most mind-numbing, the gardens might attract undesirables.

Sorry, but I didn't know we had a gang subculture with green thumbs.

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Community gardens on hold

By Maki Becker

BuffaloNews.com

When Mary Hardy sits on the front porch of her home on Cambridge Avenue, she sees a dove-shaped memorial to a young man who was shot in broad daylight last October.

Just a couple of houses down, she sees the spot on the street where she watched helplessly as another young man lay mortally wounded with a gunshot wound to the gut two months earlier.

Right next door to Hardy's home is a vacant city-owned lot.

Hardy and other members of the Cambridge Avenue Block Club 2 want to transform that ugly plot of barren land into a community garden where they can grow flowers and vegetables — a small step toward taking back their neighborhood.

But the city won't let them.

"I've been washing up blood," said Hardy, who began making plans for her community garden after last year's violence on her street. "Why can't we wash up lettuce and tomatoes and collard greens?"

The lot on Cambridge is one of 37 vacant city-owned lots where block clubs and other community groups are eager to start community gardens this spring but are being put on hold because City Hall has not given them permission to dig yet. For some block clubs, this spring marks the third growing season they've had to wait to get the go-ahead from the city.

With nearly 16,000 vacant lots in the city and no clear plan on what to do with them, Hardy and other community gardeners across the city are puzzled, frustrated and incensed that anyone would get in the way of their efforts to bring a little beauty to their neighborhoods.

For almost two decades now, community gardens have been established through an agreement with Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, a private nonprofit organization. It was founded in 1992 by the late businessman J. Milton Zeckhauser, who wanted community groups to be able to start green spaces in the city's growing multitude of vacant lots.

"Our whole purpose is to support folks in the community that want to start and maintain community gardens," explained Susannah Barton, executive director of Grassroots Gardens.

Grassroots Gardens takes on the legal responsibility for the community gardens by putting the city-owned vacant lots on a master lease that the organization has with the city.

The organization then provides $1 million in liability insurance — something the city requires for anyone wanting to do pretty much anything on a city-owned vacant lot. Grassroots Gardens also provides the same support for privately owned vacant property.

Once the sites are approved, Grassroots Gardens gives the gardeners some materials — including top soil and a few plants — and a little guidance. Residents are expected to do all the work.

Right now, there are 60 city-owned vacant lots on Grassroots Gardens' master lease. The group wants to add 37 more parcels, with some applications two years old. In most of those cases, an individual block club is asking for a single lot. The University at Buffalo's Center for Urban Studies is asking for 10 connected lots in the Fruit Belt.

All of the proposed gardens were vetted by Grassroots Gardens and then submitted to the city.

The city's Real Estate Department has signed off on the properties, having made sure there aren't any pending sales or any other legal complications.

But the Brown Administration has held off on giving its approval for the properties except for two proposed gardens in the Masten District that were given the go-ahead last summer.

COMMUNITY CONCERNS

"I think this is unconscionable," said Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera. "[People] want to be out there working on their gardens, and they're unable to do it because the City of Buffalo for some unknown reason is holding back on these lease agreements."

It's not a slam-dunk issue, according to Brendan Mehaffy, Buffalo's chief planner and the Mayor Byron W. Brown's point man on community gardens. "What seems like something that would be a relatively straightforward process, isn't," he told The Buffalo News.

Part of the problem is defining what a community garden is, he said.

"Some people think of it as a garden in a community and some as a garden of the community," he said.

Some neighbors don't want community gardens and are worried they could become spots for young people to hang out or possibly even locations for drug activity, Mehaffy said.

Mehaffy has had cases where people complain to the city about a community garden but insist on staying anonymous because they're worried about backlash from the neighbors who do want one. The city also has concerns about people growing produce on city lots because of food safety concerns. The soil in some of the lots could contain toxic chemicals.

He stressed that city officials have an obligation to carefully review applications.

"The challenge is people think it's an obvious answer, but it's not," he said.

Mehaffy acknowledged that groups have been asked to wait a long time and that the process needs to be improved.

He said one suggestion he has made is to have someone from city planning be part of Grassroots Gardens' vetting process.

Mehaffy also told The News that he expects that the majority of the proposed gardens will get the administration's greenlight this coming week. It will then be up to the Common Council to give the final OK.

Rivera criticized Mehaffy for failing to acknowledge that there are already numerous safeguards and vetting processes in place. The city also has the ultimate "trigger mechanism," Rivera said — a 30-day revocation clause for any site that encounters problems.

"It's a win-win for the city," he said.

In the meantime, community gardeners have been left twiddling their green thumbs.

An anti-violence group on the West Side had wanted to start a school-based community garden across from School 18 last spring.

But without the liability insurance provided by Grassroots Gardens — especially important because children would be in the space — the group has had to wait to put a single shovel into the ground.

ROGUE GARDENERS

But many gardeners aren't waiting. They've gone rogue.

Elizabeth Triggs, founder of an outreach group called None Like You/We Care, already has 15 community gardens throughout the city's East Side through Grassroots Gardens' master lease. She has submitted applications for two more, one on the corner of Sycamore and Johnson streets and the other on Girard Place, off Fillmore Avenue.

"Yeah, we're guerrilla gardening," she acknowledged as she showed a reporter the two pending locations.

"It's a risk," she said, adding that her organization does have liability insurance but still does not have legal access to the lots to the two pending gardens. "We're not saying someone is going to get hurt or anything. But we want to do it right. That's one of the things our organization tries to do — teach people how to work together with the city and make sure that everything is properly done."

Triggs strongly believes that community gardens are assets to communities.

"I do this because, the fact is, otherwise our community would be actually a disgrace," she said. "It would be high weeds, but not just high weeds. Drug problems. You have cars, rats, cockroaches and dead bodies in the lots."

At Sycamore and Johnson, she and a crew of volunteers cleared the land of waist-high weeds and debris and have planted several trees. She hopes to turn it into a pleasant green space for people waiting at the bus stop there.

The renegade garden on Girard is next to a legitimate, approved community garden started about five years ago on the site of a house that burned down. On a recent visit, the rogue garden, started last year, was neatly planted with lush green vegetation, each plant surrounded by mulch.

Nettie Anderson, 83, who lives across from the garden on Girard and is part of Triggs' army of volunteers, is mystified by the city's inaction.

"What would the city do with it?" she questioned. "They should be grateful that we're doing this ... Why would they stop us from doing beautification?"

The octogenarian had a message for City Hall: "Shape up, ship out and give us the lease for the lot. ... They should be releasing all the little lots across the city that's empty and let people interested in doing something do it. ... We are two old ladies. If we can do it, everyone else can do it."

Triggs was somewhat sympathetic to the city. She knows how hard it is to transform a trash-strewn overgrown lot into an eye-pleasing garden.

"It can be overwhelming," she said. "A lot of times, you don't have the volunteers to keep it up. But, I think they should lease the lots because that will help people do what they've got to do."

Over on the West Side, neighbors on Putnam Street decided they weren't waiting for City Hall either.

They have turned a trash-covered lot on Putnam near Lafayette Avenue into a vegetable and flower garden.

Luanne Firestone, a mother of a toddler who moved to the street two and a half years ago, began talking with other neighbors last spring about starting a garden in the lot. They got community support, came up with a plan and went to Grassroots Gardens.

'NO NEGATIVES'

By late summer, while still waiting for City Hall's OK, they decided they didn't want to lose the momentum they'd built up.

"People are going to start getting disillusioned," Firestone remembered thinking.

So they started working on the land anyway. They cleared away the debris and weeds and used their own money to buy plants and materials.

This spring, they're still waiting and they're still gardening.

Firestone, a Canisius College campus minister, is awed by how the neighborhood has rallied around their garden.

"The soil came last Thursday and it was like a miracle," she said. "People came out of nowhere with their shovels. People are excited."

She's stunned that the city hasn't already given them approval. "For me, it's just incomprehensible," she said. "The city is losing nothing ... It's just baffling."

She said a woman recently moved onto their street specifically because she liked the garden. "There are no negatives," Firestone said.

Grassroots Gardens doesn't support the rogue gardens.

"We want to support them, but our hands are tied," Barton said. "We're trying to work within our relationship with the city. We're trying to do it above board and do it the right way ... Guerrilla gardening is definitely happening. While the little rebel in us says, 'All right, do it. Don't wait on the government to tell you or make up their minds,' the reality is we can't support that because it does jeopardize our lease agreement."

READY TO DIG

And Mehaffy warned rogue gardeners that what they are doing is illegal.

"At some point, the city will have to enforce a trespassing law," he said.

He wouldn't say what could happen to such gardens.

There's "no desire" to bulldoze them down or arrest anyone, he said.

"But the city can't turn a blind eye to it indefinitely," he added. "For people who trespass and think they can go through the Grassroots Gardens process, there's no guarantees. We're working through this process. I just encourage them to work through the process even with the frustrations."

This Tuesday, the community members who want to start the pending gardens will address the City Council's legislative committee, which will discuss the situation and make a recommendation on what to do about it. Mary Hardy will be among them.

She and her neighbors on Cambridge Avenue say they're ready to start digging, with or without the city's approval.

"I'm going to have my garden any way," Hardy said defiantly. "If you see me in jail, come put your bail money up."

Learn More at Buffalo News and Food Freedom

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