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N.Y.C. Sells Community Gardens

May 12, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ Over the years, Molly Rusnak has seen birds and butterflies alight in the tiny, shady garden next to her Brooklyn home. She once gave a tea party for her granddaughter on the leafy patch of land.

City-owned land, that is.

On Thursday, her neighborhood’s cool, green oasis goes on the auction block, one of 114 community gardens throughout the city Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration is looking to sell. Giuliani has said that he wants the property back on the tax rolls and that the city shouldn’t own so much land.

The move has enraged the city’s urban gardeners, who argue the plots improve the quality of life that Giuliani prizes.

``I can’t stand the fact that they want to do this!″ said Chinita Pointer, a neighbor of Ms. Rusnak’s who has held birthday parties for her children in the same garden. ``I think it’s horrible!″

The gardeners tried at first to prevent the sale, testifying at hearings and subjecting themselves to arrest at protests. One man dressed like a sunflower, climbed a tree outside City Hall and demanded a meeting with the mayor.

That battle lost, several groups have scraped together donations to make bids. The Trust for Public Land offered the city $2 million for 65 plots and an option to review others up for sale, but said it doesn’t want to enter a bidding war. In Brooklyn, Ms. Rusnak’s neighbors have collected a few thousand dollars to bid on their plot.

Community gardens began springing up in New York about 25 years ago, when residents tired of the trash-strewn lots and illegal dumping grounds scattered around the city. They cleared out broken bottles and rusted-out cars, replacing them with pansies, petunias, collard greens and corn.

Orlean For, 78, who tends the All People’s Garden on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, planted a willow tree 20 years ago amid the fetid debris.

``I was very interested in cleaning up the garbage,″ For said. ``And it was garbage. I mean it smelled!″

Now the gardens are as diverse as the gardeners, capturing neighborhood character. One in Queens was photographed recently for National Geographic; another in Harlem looks to yield vegetables this summer for meals at soup kitchens.

For tends All People’s in the rough Alphabet City section of Manhattan, offering horticultural lessons to Head Start children and clothes to the drug-addicted homeless.

She said her neighbors can’t afford to bid on the land they have always regarded as theirs.

``I hope that they will make a deal where we can keep some of the land,″ she said. ``That’s my wish, that they will give us some of the gardens on each block. Don’t you think that is fair?″

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