MATT FLEGENHEIMER of the New York Times reports on the unfortunate fate of a Dominican man’s New York City garden.
If they squint, neighbors say, the farm tilled by David Abreu begins to look a little like home — his cilantro is as green, his bean supply as tidy. And then there is the man himself: clutching his machete handle, pant legs stained black, surveying the soil like any farmer who takes pride in his land. “He could be my father,” said one neighbor, José Rodríguez, 52, originally from Santiago, Dominican Republic.
But Mr. Abreu is not home, and his farm, alas, is on public property — namely Highbridge Park in Upper Manhattan.
Or rather, it was.
In a city that is thinking more and more about being green, Mr. Abreu, 65, is one of a small number of immigrant gardeners who have plunged their shovels into what little surface soil there is. For about three years, Mr. Abreu says, his vegetable garden has thrived behind a playground on two plots near 193rd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights.
Last week, a parks department crew uprooted Mr. Abreu’s crops, piling the leafy detritus in the back of a green garbage truck. A district supervisor, according to William T. Castro, the Manhattan borough commissioner for parks, stumbled upon the garden about three weeks ago. “It’s an illegal farm,” Mr. Castro said. “Most people have common sense and know you don’t plant your own vegetable garden in a public park.”
Though Mr. Abreu has tended roughly a half-acre of land, it represents a small fraction of the soil lined with beans, corn and, occasionally, tomatoes, that has been tilled in Highbridge Park by area residents. When a visitor stopped by several times in recent days, however, the other farmers were nowhere to be found.
The parks department is aware of the additional gardens, Mr. Castro said — and some of Mr. Abreu’s less visible beans and cilantro were spared. Park employees may soon remove what is left, Mr. Castro added.
“I don’t see the problem,” Mr. Abreu said through an interpreter. “I clean it. I take care of it.”
Before digging up Mr. Abreu’s plots, parks department officials informed Ydanis Rodriguez, the local councilman, that years of herbicide spraying in the area had exposed the soil to contamination, the councilman said. But the soil has never been tested, Mr. Castro said, and the absence of a permit, not health concerns, was the primary reason the crops were torn out.
Mr. Abreu insisted neither he nor any friends or family members had ever gotten sick from eating the crops.
“Try it,” Mr. Abreu suggested Monday, raising a fistful of cilantro. Mr. Abreu, like many in the neighborhood, immigrated from the Dominican Republic. Both Mr. Abreu and Councilman Rodriguez were raised on family farms, they say, in Santo Domingo and Santiago, respectively. Like many in the community, they have come to see the local gardens as extensions of their former homes.
“Look how beautiful this is,” said Councilman Rodriguez, swatting away a tree limb as he cradled a bean pod. “It brings me back.”
Before the loss of his plants, Mr. Abreu spent as many as six hours a day looking after his plots. He and the other farmers share their crops with one another, Mr. Abreu said, and often offer some of their harvests to community members who request a taste. While he describes his motivation as “somewhat economic,” Mr. Abreu says his main interest is sustaining a lifelong hobby. His fight with the city was first reported on the Web site DNAinfo.com.
Dragging his leather satchel of tools down Fort George Avenue, grinning through his wrinkles, Mr. Abreu is known endearingly in the neighborhood as el viejo: the old man.
“Agriculture is the main thing in our culture,” José Rodríguez said, shouting over a fiercely argued game of dominoes outside the park. “I can bring my little girls to come water the plants. At school, they learn American history. But this is their background, their culture.”
Parks department employees who pulled up the crops last week noted the precision with which the plot was arranged. “It was all lined up, very neat, one row after another,” said one of the workers, Clifford Motley.
The councilman’s office said it had arranged a meeting between Mr. Abreu and parks department officials, and hoped the sides would meet soon to discuss alternative farming sites.
“If he had come to us, we would have found a location for him that made sense,” Mr. Castro said. “We have hundreds of free community gardens exactly for this purpose.”
According to Mr. Castro, members of his staff last year confronted a man they believe may have been Mr. Abreu about his garden.
Mr. Abreu says a park employee did approach him last year, but only to request he remove the wooden fence he had built around his beans. When he first decided to plant seeds three years ago, he said, he told a department official of his plans.
“All they told me was I couldn’t cut down any trees.”
Since the uprooting, Mr. Abreu said, he has lost the desire to keep his regular farming hours, though he does maintain another garden in the courtyard of his apartment building, across the street from Highbridge Park.
The circumstances have also produced consequences on the home front with his wife, Irene.
“She loves it when I garden,” Mr. Abreu said, holstering his machete. “It keeps me out of the house.”
For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/25/nyregion/all-his-crops-thrived-too-bad-they-were-in-a-park.html