A developer aiming to evict a Crown Heights community garden from a long-vacant lot has tried fencing gardeners out, and even locked one in. Now, it is trying to oust them the old-fashioned way: in court. A lawyer for the green thumbs tending plots at the Roger That Garden on Rogers Avenue at Park Place said she only found out about the eviction attempt because a letter was mailed to her office yesterday—claiming that the gardeners had been served with a notice demanding they leave back in late April. They insist they haven't.
"I just got [the notice] and [the hearing is] Friday," said Paula Segal, director of the vacant-lot-access advocacy group 596 Acres. "That seems really sneaky. [The gardeners will] have to go and ask for more time."
The paperwork states that developer TYC Realty "lacks written information or notice of any address" for the gardeners and describes them as "John and Jane Doe," but nevertheless says that the eviction notice was mailed to them. The gardeners and Segal stressed they have been in contact with the company on and off for the last two years, and that it's the staff there that has been hard to reach. One gardener said TYC's approach should be setting off alarm bells for city officials.
"When we send them legal notices, they rip them off our fence and claim to not have received them at their office," said Emily-Bell Dinan, who has been working with the garden since 2010. "They change numbers constantly. They make it impossible for gardeners and local officials to sit down and talk with them about 'How did you get this property?' 'Are you sure you got it legally? Because you’re not acting like someone who did.'"
The garden's history goes back to a hardware store that occupied the lot until its owner disappeared back in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The corner building rotted for decades afterwards, and according to the gardeners, eventually became so unstable it was threatening the foundation of the building next door, which houses the juvenile outreach group Crown Heights Youth Collective. The Collective petitioned the city to have the derelict structure demolished, and in 2006, after the lot was cleared, neighbors moved in and started getting their hands dirty.
The gardeners say they have tried to find the lot's owner through the city, but that city agencies have long lost track of him. So it came as a surprise in 2013 when Dinan was applying for a grant and found out the deed had changed hands. According to property records on file with the city, TYC Realty tracked down Hub Plumbing, Hardware, Sales & Services owner Dudley McLachlan in Port Richey, Florida, and he signed over the deed for $10.
Last June, the company sent a work crew to erect a construction fence, but the gardeners negotiated continued access via the gate. The following month, the gardeners said they had scheduled a meeting with TYC, the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust, and Councilman Robert Cornegy, but when everyone convened the day of the meeting, TYC didn't show, and when called, they said they couldn't make it because their lawyer was on a cruise. The gardeners raised $15,000 to offer to buy the lot, but TYC demanded $1 million.
Then, this April, just before the company filed permits to build a four-story residential building on the site, workers arrived and locked the gate while a guy dropping off his compost was inside, and called police, the gardeners said. Officers arrived, as did Cornegy, and ultimately the lock came off because the company had not formally moved to evict the gardeners. Which brings us to Friday's eviction hearing.
"I'm not surprised [by the eviction], because at this point because this is my life for the past two years now," Dinan said. "Everyone in our garden works one if not two, three jobs, so, 'Let's give them 48 hours notice so they don't show up in court on a workday.' That's pretty common."
The gardeners say they will send someone, it's just a matter of who's available. Reached by phone, TYC's lawyer Kevin Spikes declined to comment on the eviction serving process and said the case is a simple matter of the gardeners "don't own the property, someone else owns the property." He hung up on this reporter after fewer than two minutes of questions.
"It sounds like based on the questions you're asking maybe you know somebody there, maybe someone there is a friend of yours," he said just before ending the call. "In any case, I have to go. Have a nice day."
A man who answered the phone at the office of John Emefieh, listed on the eviction papers as a representative of TYC, hung up on this reporter without taking a message, and a Facebook message to Emefieh was not returned. A voicemail and an email to Augustine Okundaye, listed on a building permit for the property, were not returned.
The Department of Investigation is looking into how exactly TYC acquired the property, Segal said, but in the meantime she is calling on the city to step in and buy the property for continued use as a garden, or to seize it using eminent domain.
"This is another situation where the city needs to act affirmatively to save the garden," she said. "If not, it's not benign neglect—it's just neglect."
Dinan said that the formal eviction process could yet work out in the gardeners' favor.
"We'd love to go to court because we'd love for a judge to say, 'How did you get this?'" she said.