[UPDATE BELOW] A group of green-thumbed Ridgewood residents responsible for beautifying a vacant, trash-strewn lot under the M train tracks have been given until August 3rd to clear out, thanks to an MTA edict that asserts the volunteers were trespassing.
The off-the-books "Ridgewood Community Garden" was launched in April with the intention of bringing some much-needed green space to the otherwise industrial, concrete-laden neighborhood. Clark Fitzgerald, a founding member of the garden who works in a nearby coffee shop, tells us the derelict filth patch below the tracks was ripe not only for a good cleaning, but also seemed like an ideal place to nurture some plant life.
"It’d been kind of a recurring complaint and problem in the neighborhood, with rat infestation that was spreading into the surrounding buildings," he tell us. "It had just become a repository for all the vices and excesses of the environs, so we decided to try and kill two birds with one stone."
Fitzgerald and his cohorts, who say they had the blessing of the local Community Board, spent two weeks in April hauling away rotting wood, old tires, broken glass and other detritus from the 2,250-square-foot plot between Woodward Avenue and Woodbine Street. In May, area volunteers began to plant, with the goal of remediating the soil through vegetation good for sucking up heavy metals: Sunflowers, tomatoes, peppers, watermelon and herbs were all put into the ground by around 100 total volunteers. They were even awarded a $3,000 grant by the nonprofit Citizens Committee of New York City.
According to Fitzgerald, the group did attempt to seek the MTA's permission to co-opt the land, but the agency was unable to offer a clear answer as to who owned the property. In early July, he arrived to the garden to find it closed off and locked.
According to a statement MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz issued to the Queens Courier last week, the group "never received permission to enter or use the lot and they are essentially trespassing...We cannot have anyone occupy the lot under our structure as it is deemed a security risk. ”
Today, the MTA's Amanda Kwan told us the real reason for the sudden shut-out is that the agency needs access to the space under the tracks. "A garden is not a suitable use for that space because we need to be able to get in equipment and trucks," she said. "Having large planters, large piles of mulch, plants—which we would kill instantly if we were to go in with a vehicle...you could see how a garden is not suitable."
But moreover, she said, the gardeners are also using land that isn't theirs, regardless of how pure the intentions. "Primarily, they are trespassing—we didn’t allow them to go in there to make a garden."
She added also that security did not factor into the reasoning. "We may have said something like we need access—it’s a matter of safety in terms for our people to get in," she said. "I don’t think we used the word 'security.'"
Fitzgerald says he's been given several explanations for why the garden is not practicable, including that it's slated for future development as a parking lot. But Kwan said she has heard of no such plan.
"I don’t believe there’s any plans for that space, other than that we want to make sure that it’s cleared out so that we can get access," she said.
It's unclear what will become of the garden in the event that it's not dismantled by the MTA's deadline. But organizers are committed to fighting, and have launched a petition to save it, which has thus far collected more than 300 signatures.
"We’ve already seen since they locked it up that people have started dumping there again," Fitzgerald said. "It’s really not a feasible solution, long-term."
Update: MTA spokesperson Marisa Baldeo tells us that the space was "vacated" on Monday, August 3rd, as expected. According to the Awl, trash has already "begun to accumulate behind the now-locked gates."