A piece of abandoned land near the Queensbridge Houses, in Long Island City, is finally getting cleaned up after seven years of neglect.
Residents and volunteers, on Sept. 19, started to remove decomposed tree branches and garbage, to finally transform the area into a community garden. It took seven years for the day to come, as Queensbridge residents have been in a back and forth with New York City officials over ownership of the land. Since city agencies continue to remain silent on the community’s request to take ownership of the space, residents said they’ve chosen to move forward with the project on their own.
Lashawn Marston, a Queensbridge resident since 1986, who also goes by Suga Ray, said the land had been empty as long as he could remember. While trash bags, dog feces and old tires gradually occupied the space, Marston said he was determined to transform it into a place where residents could make the best use of it. He said he had a vision of a beautiful and healing space where residents could enjoy nature, plant, do yoga and meditate.
According to New York City’s Zoning and Land Use Map, the abandoned area, located on 12th Street and 41st Road, by the Queensbridge Houses, in Long Island City, is owned by the New York City Housing Authority.
However, Marston said he reached out to NYCHA, New York City Parks and the Department of Transportation multiple times, starting in 2013, to get permission to use the land. But all of the agencies refused to claim responsibility for the land and “passed the buck” to one another, he said. So, residents decided to “take it” and “guerrilla garden” the land themselves, said Marston.
“These bureaucracies are put into place to deter people who try to get access to a land or to a property,” said Marston. “This one project encompasses so many other big issues that we have in the urban community, so if anyone disagrees or does not approve of the project, it’s telling me that you don’t really care about the people.”
“NYCHA is a very large and very complicated agency. It relies on the federal dollars,” said a city council staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of retaliation for speaking to the press without approval. “We talk about NYCHA as one thing, but there’s really so many different components of NYCHA as an authority as it is.” The staffer said money could be the reason why the agency isn’t rushing to claim responsibility for it. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t be responsive. They might just not have a ton of resources to give to this.”
Florence Koulouris, district manager of Community Board 1 in Queens, said that before the board can speak on the issue of the land, the parks department or other related entities need to bring it to the board for comments. But, she said there could be reasons why it has been challenging for residents to identify ownership.
“There are three parcels of land, one right next to the other, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact parcel they are talking about,” said Koulouris.
In 2015, Marston invited his friend Donald Odukogbe, an architect and the lead project manager at John Ciardullo Associates, to bring his vision for the garden to life, he said. Together, they gathered residents and volunteers, along with five shovels, about 200 tires, and six cans of paint to transform the land, but the tools disappeared overnight, said Marston.
“They stole everything,” he said. “They stole from the community, they stole from the children’s future. That garden would be blooming right now.”
Marston said he doesn’t think residents took the tools. He believes it was NYCHA, and the operation stopped after that. NYCHA didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Lauren Ashcraft, a candidate for New York’s 12th Congressional District, met Marston on the street over the summer, while she was petitioning to get on the ballot. She said she decided to join the community to help Marston and other residents build the garden.
In July, Ashcraft started an online petition to restart the gardening project. It received over 2,000 signatures in a month from residents and people who used to live in Queensbridge. Marston said she and other supporters reached out to city officials again.
“NYCHA and NYC Parks both said that the other one owned the lot, and we could not get permission to use the land from either,” said Ashcraft. “This was reminiscent of Suga Ray’s experience in 2013. We decided to just guerilla garden to get it done rather than wait for permission, because we realize we never would have gotten it.”
Marston said residents would continue to work on the garden in the coming weeks, and named the land the “Queensbridge Sacred Garden,” he said. On Sept. 26, residents in the neighborhood, who’d lost their loved ones to violence, were invited to the Sacred Garden to plant flowers in their memory.
Ashcraft said that she wants to make sure that, “all residents know that this garden belongs to them now.”
(Photo provided by Lashawn Marston)