By Tanya Fields
Residents of Mott Haven, Longwood and Hunts Point deal with a shortage of green space and poor food quality, even though we are surrounded by privately- and publicly-owned land that has been fallow for years. Empty lots have been used as illegal dumping grounds; they are ripe for illicit activities and are eyesores in communities with so many needs.
The Bronx has overcome so much. Communities that once were burning are now blooming. New activist groups continue the work begun by our elders of putting out the fires of the 1970s. We know how much power there is in a shovel and a watering can. We have understood that you must feed peoples’ brains as well as their bellies, and we are turning fallow lots into community gardens and urban farms. Residents have reacted with resounding optimism.
Kids from so-called “failing high schools” helped harvest vegetables at the Morning Glory Garden on East 147 Street and Southern Boulevard in Mott Haven, one of those empty lots residents had brought to life. But in November, officials from the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation ordered the garden razed to put up buildings instead.
Similarly, the Parks Department bulldozed Libertad Urban Farm, the garden I planted in the Fox Street playground in Longwood, where elders, children and displaced families got their hands dirty in the soil, creating beauty in spaces others long ago gave up on.
And as on Fox Street, once the Morning Glory project started to gain community support, the gardeners were “evicted” from the lot. When they protested peacefully, officers from the 40th precinct arrested five people.
When my efforts to organize farming projects on city park land were mowed down, Bronx Parks Commissioner Hector Aponte told me, “As long as I am commissioner, there will be no growing food on Parks Department land.”
Police from the 41st Precinct refused to grant a permit for block parties because I organized an act of civil disobedience on a fenced-in lot that residents cleaned up and where they had planted sunflowers.
The problem isn’t that police and government officials don’t want us to eat well or that they don’t want us to have green grass for our children to play on. The problem is that they put the interest of others before the needs of communities. The city pits development against green space as if the two can’t—and shouldn’t—coexist.
City officials’ allegiance is to the developer, not to community members who have organized to care for each other. City Hall turns a blind eye when police use force against residents because we scare them when we speak up. So those who should “protect and serve” are allowed to overstep their authority to act as mercenaries for landowners and businesses, further disenfranchising people. Residents who take the risk of getting involved feel powerless, and give up.
Residents ask themselves, “If this is what happens when you try to plant a garden, how can we create change for ‘bigger’ issues?” It is the responsibility of our elected officials to come to the table with residents in a meaningful way.
I reject the word “occupy” as a label for our movement. My community has been occupied by developers, politicians, overzealous police officers and egotistical bureaucrats. What we need is more green space, better food to eat, quality housing and better economic opportunities.
That isn’t occupation. That is liberation.
Tanya Fields is a mother, community activist and the executive director of The BLK Projek.
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