Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "The earth laughs in flowers." If that's the case, then the Green Guerillas are grinning from ear to ear. While some outreach programs spend a lot of their time working phones and crunching numbers to get work done, this New York-based organization has been brightening neighborhoods and spirits by getting their hands dirty - literally - for 30 years. The Green Guerillas, made up of over 800 volunteers, dozens of employees and generous donors, both corporate and private, have been changing the face of New York for decades using a different set of tools - vegetable seeds, flower pots, topsoil and mural paintings, just to name a few.
In 1973, a young artist named Liz Christy noticed an unsightly empty lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston on Manhattan's gritty Lower East Side. Most people, if they noticed the lot at all, saw only a blank bit of land, something that was attracting empty beer cans and old newspapers. Christy saw something else. Christy saw opportunity in that vacant lot in the form of a living garden.
Christy herself knew gardens to be places of peace and creativity - she bet a garden in her neighborhood could provide the same thing for others, and maybe foster an opportunity for community involvement and neighborhood pride. She was right. For a dollar a month, Christy and a small group of like-minded friends and neighbors rented the lot from the city's Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) office and began what is now known as the Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden. Calling themselves the "Green Guerillas," these young hopefuls planted their way into the fabric of New York's community gardening network.
In the nearly 30 years that have elapsed since the Green Guerilla's first garden, the work the group has taken on has risen exponentially. Geographically speaking, the group has its work cut out for them. The group branched out from Manhattan several years ago and now does work in several boroughs, including economically disadvantaged and historically tough neighborhoods like the South Bronx. Dedicated not only to the implementation of new gardens in empty spaces, one of the group's main projects is to preserve old or neglected gardens in the city. When a garden isn't taken care of properly (and even when it is) building developers are quick to request to build upon space they rarely see as anything but hot real estate. Through their Garden Preservation Initiative, the Green Guerillas mobilize communities and organize landowners so that valued gardens can remain intact. Fostering threatened gardens has been one of the group's main goals since its inception, and though the Guerillas hate to admit it, times haven't changed that much.
As a result of the latest community garden settlement between the City of New York and the New York State Attorney General, over 100 community gardens are at risk of "development or sale." (NYC Community Gardens Agreement, 2003.) From Manhattan's East Village to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, these gardens are being subjected to a "garden review," and, if they don't pass the test, they will be demolished. The Green Guerillas are at the forefront of those individuals and groups fighting to keep the city as green as possible, and they urge anyone who values these urban oases to call or write their City Council members or their Borough President to tell them the same. They also encourage a simple visit to your nearest community garden, and suggest getting involved with the community gardeners in your neighborhood. No matter what course of action one may take to let their voice be heard, the Green Guerillas will be there to provide backup.