Approximately a decade ago, the Parks Department planned to turn a piece of land at the intersection of Astoria Boulevard and 8th Street into a park, but the agency didn’t have the money to complete the project, and the plot became a wasteland and unsightly dumping ground.
Then, a group of industrious Astoria residents cleaned up the lot and transformed it into the Two Coves Community Garden, which has approximately 200 members who farm the land in small plots, as well as take care of the area, performing tasks such as locking and unlocking the gates, picking up litter, and even shoveling the sidewalks during the winter.
Members of the public are invited to stroll and the enjoy the garden whenever the gates are open, and the Two Coves Community Garden is an officially recognized community garden by GreenThumb, a program of the New York City Parks Department.
Recently, however, Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr., who represents the area, allocated $460,000 to the Parks Department to move ahead with a public park, which some means the end of the Two Coves Community Garden.
“A community garden provides everything that a park provides, and so much more,” said Lynn Serpe, a local activist and gardener at Two Coves.
Serpe and other gardeners argue that the area already has enough manicured parks, which don’t provide the same services that a community garden provides – everything from open space to fresh produce to educational opportunities.
Vanessa Hall, who lives in nearby Astoria Houses, joined the garden last April after finally stopping to inquire about the activity going on at what was once a dumping ground. She promptly got to work, and planted two apple trees, one in honor of her mother and the other in honor of her grandparents, who moved to Astoria Houses in 1951.
“We used to have places at the Astoria Houses where we could do some gardening, but they replaced them all with concrete when they added a playground,” she recalled on a walk around the garden on a sunny Saturday afternoon last weekend. “We lost a lot of trees.”
Hall also argued that the neighborhood has enough parks, and said if the garden had to go she would rather see it replaced with a supermarket rather than another park.
“This community garden provides a lot of fresh produce for a lot of people,” said Hall.
According to Wesley Miller, himself a local activist and avid gardener at Two Coves, it’s not just the gardeners that benefit from the bounty, either. If these urban farmers have too much for themselves, they put the extra produce near the entrance to the garden for passersby to take home.
“I’ve had people stop me and ask if I have any produce, and then I just run back and get a few zucchini and say ‘here you go,’” said Miller.
Hall said the garden has also become a focal point of social interaction for Astoria.
“You have people of all different economic and ethnic backgrounds coming here to make something beautiful for the community,” she said. “There’s a lot of passion here.”
Hall said that the garden also serves an educational purpose.
“Kids can come here and see how a tomato grows from a seed in the ground up to the point when they chop it up and put it on top of their salad,” she said.
And it’s not just young kids and older adults that are taking advantage of the garden, Hall said teenagers and young adults are getting involved as well. Miller agrees.
“This is an alternative to just hanging out on the streets and getting into trouble,” he said.
On Monday, Vallone visited the site with about 20 people, including representatives from the Parks Department and other city agencies, and said he was hopeful that a compromise could be worked out.
“While there is a need for parkland that needs to be there for the community, no elected official understands the need for sustainable agriculture more than I do,” said Vallone, who praised members of the Two Coves Community Garden for their initiative in transforming what was essentially a vacant lot and community eyesore. “Working with all of the parties, I think that we can come up with a plan that includes a park with some sort of farming component.”
Queen Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski also praised the gardeners.
“It’s a wonderful open space,” she said.
Lewandowksi said that the money allocated by Vallone would be used to add benches and a shade structure to the property, as well as a permanent water source, as the gardeners current water source is a fire hydrant.
Lewandowski said the department wasn’t looking to force the gardeners out, but rather have a meaningful dialogue to make the most of the space.
“We want to make a wonderful open space that serves everybody in the community, not just gardeners,” she said.
Lewandowski said the Parks Department has agreed to put off any work at Two Coves until after the growing season ends in November. She added that any work the department does should be complete by the start of the 2010 growing season.