A community space and garden in Clinton Hill is facing a springtime drought after the city shut off its water.
Advocates for Myrtle Village Green, which sits on lots owned by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection on Myrtle Avenue between Franklin and Kent avenues, is at loggerheads with the agency over getting its water back after it was shut off during the winter because of a leak. At the same time as the flow was cut off, the city notified the group that it could lose control of the space if it fails to banish animals, including a dog run, a chicken coop, and beehives. The dry spell has gardeners of all ages praying for rain.
“We really do hope that our water gets turned back on,” said McKenzie McLean, a sixth grader at the Brooklyn Urban Garden School in Windsor Terrace. “So we can freely water our plants and they can be happy.”
The spacious plot was an empty lot for decades and neighbors had been trying to get access to it for 20 years when the city finally relented in 2012, offering green thumbs a two-year, rent-free lease that expires this July. The dirt patch contains an access point for one of the city’s water mains, and is owned by the environmental protection agency. When gardeners took control of the property it had a working water source that an old contractor had left behind, but few signs of life. Volunteers have since transformed the place into a garden, outdoor classroom, and gathering place, but now the good will has run dry and the city is telling the group to clean up its act, or else.
“We want to make this garden work,” said a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. “But they have to be in compliance with regulations.”
McLean volunteers at the garden with her family, who used to live in the neighborhood but moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant. For them, the space is a place to spend time together.
“Last year, it was a great bonding experience for us,” said Tabitha McLean, McKenzie’s mother. “Usually on Saturdays and Sundays we’d all go together. And when people came to visit, we’d bring them to the garden to show them.”
Gardeners have already removed the chicken coop and beehives and closed the dog run in an effort to appease the bean counters who demanded it because the fauna violates the occupancy agreement. But the water troubles run deeper.
Deep freezes this winter caused the big pipe to spring a leak and required it be shut off before it froze and burst. The city handled it, but when the gardeners asked to have service restored for the spring planting season, it told the group it needed to spend $2,500 on an anti-contamination fixture before it would turn the water back on. Officials say the equipment is mandatory and should have been there all along.
“It’s required for every facility with a spigot like that,” said a Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman. “We just don’t want to contaminate the water system.”
The gardeners don’t have the cash on hand and have held off on planting for now. Some are hauling in jugs and buckets to keep their sprouting crops alive.
“About half the beds are empty because people are concerned they wouldn’t have water,” said Eddie Bricker, a volunteer at the space who is also a mechanical engineer and is trying to hook up a temporary water supply. “The number one temporary solution is to bring water in buckets. But a lot of people in the garden just aren’t up for that.”
The city offered the gardeners some rain barrels if they decided not to pursue the spigot upgrade. Smaller gardens often irrigate using rain water collected from the roofs of nearby buildings, but Bricker says the gardeners have not been able to contact their neighbors’ landlords and that the garden’s 80 plots need more water than most storage systems can supply. Another solution could be to fill barrels with water from a fire hydrant, but the gardeners have not yet been able to get that approved either.
“It’s incredibly frustrating and really disappointing,” said Bricker.
Councilman Stephen Levin (D—Clinton Hill) has been helping negotiate the terms of a renewal agreement and getting the pipes running again. An aide to the pol said that muttering about an eviction plot is overblown.
“Everyone kind of kicked up some dust and ruffled some feathers,” said a spokeswoman from Levin’s office. “But no one’s trying to kick them out.”
She also pointed out that the Department of Environmental Protection is not an adept garden landlord because it only owns a few sites with community gardens on them. Most are controlled by the city’s parks department.
“DEP wants to be a good neighbor. But they aren’t necessarily good park stewards,” she said.
As for the livestock, the chickens, bees, and dogs are clearly banned in the agreement the Pratt Area Community Council signed on the gardeners’ behalf, but the gardeners say no one clued them in and there is no good reason to kick the critters out.
“They’re part of the ecosystem,” said Paula Segal about the bees. Segal helped organize community groups behind the space.
“It doesn’t make sense to remove them,” she said.
No matter whether the lease gets renewed this year, the gardeners are planting the prime real estate on borrowed time. Past ideas floated for the lots have included a below-market-rate housing complex, but no development plans for the site are currently public.