Park official on ‘Gate-gate’: We violated garden to save it!

The Parks Department tore down a fence protecting a garden in McCarren Park this week. Walid Mokh put it back up.
Photo by Bess Adler

A Parks Department official revealed this week that the agency’s removal of a fence around a privately cultivated garden inside McCarren Park last week was the latest salvo in a war to reclaim the land for the public.

One day after parks workers uprooted a gate surrounding Nick’s Garden, a small garden near Lorimer and Bayard streets, North Brooklyn Parks administrator Stephanie Thayer accused gardeners Walid Mokh and Gina Risica of fencing off an area that is public space and promised additional changes.

“Working in parks, I am well aware of the challenges in caretaking within public space, but privatizing public space is not the answer to the challenge,” Thayer wrote in an e-mail to other parks volunteers that was later forwarded to the pair. “The garden area should be accessible for all park goers to see the beauty that’s been created, and for all to enjoy.”

On April 24, the fence was breached to allow a Boy Scout troop to plant several flowering trees in honor of its centennial. After the gardeners protested, the Scouts retreated, and Mokh hastily restored the garden’s fence.

Mokh and Risica argue that the fence was torn down, not opened for more access, and that the Parks Department’s disruptions could harm flowers in the garden. Both gardeners assert that they are constantly present in the garden and available to any community member who wants to learn more about horticulture.

“We’ve had a really good relationship with the Parks Department,” said Risica. “We’re in the park, we’ve been there forever, and it’s never been put to question that it shouldn’t be a community garden.”

Thayer says that she left several messages with the garden’s caretakers after a tense meeting two weeks ago, when Thayer explained that the Boy Scouts would be planting in the park on April 24. But Mokh asserts that Thayer did not tell him that the plantings would occur inside Nick’s Garden and that the fence would be removed for this to happen.

The garden was once registered under the city’s Green Thumb program as a community garden, but its permit expired in 2007. It may have been an oversight by the gardeners — but, then again, being in the Green Thumb program requires gardens to have some community involvement, said Parks spokesman Phil Abramson.

“There must be opportunity for the public to become involved if they wish to be a community garden,” said Abramson. “They are allowed to garden, but there must be public access to it. That was the goal over the weekend.”

Mokh rejected Abramson’s suggestion that he’s running a private park with a park.

“This garden is a community garden, not a private garden,” he said. “We do all our work in the garden for the community to enjoy — and this is what we get?”

Community Newspaper Group / Aaron Short

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