This article was produced in partnership with Read the Dirt.
As austerity and privatization spread around the globe, there has never been a better time to fight to democratize local public life. Part of that work is to identify and catalogue what is already, or should be, ours: only then can we start to re-imagine our infrastructure, from community gardens to post offices, as the foundation for a more egalitarian society.
The organization I helped found, 596 Acres, champions community land access in cities around the world. For four years, we have been helping neighbors in New York City organize around and claim our city’s vacant public land.
596 Acres combines sophisticated online tools and grassroots outreach to turn municipal data into information useful to the public, connect neighborhood organizers, and help them navigate city politics. In the last three years, we have helped to create 39 new community spaces that now replace vacant lots.
We emerged out of a unique moment in the long struggle for local control of land in New York City. By 2011, community gardeners had been fighting to keep existing green spaces for over a decade. Following then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to auction off 112 city-owned garden sites in 1999, the State Attorney General successfully sued, winning a settlement to preserve many of them in 2002.
One of the terms required the transfer of some gardens to local community land trusts, managed by gardeners. In 2011, the fight to hang on to what New Yorkers already had was coming to a mutedly triumphant end—but the mechanisms for creating more gardens and more community spaces had faded from view. It seemed that the garden-making era was long past.
Enter the environmental and climate justice movements. Food justice groups and activists from the El Puente Green Light District initiative were all asking the same question: where is the land for the new community projects that we know we need?
In the 1970s, most vacant public land was left unfenced, allowing New Yorkers—driven both by hope and necessity—to transform the lots into community spaces. 2011-era vacant lots, whether city-owned or not, had fences around them. And jumping fences in both Giuliani’s and Michael Bloomberg’s New York was a clear first step to a night in jail for many, especially young people, immigrants, and people of color.
In this New York City flush with construction cranes and bike lanes, hundreds of acres of potential public infrastructure still lurked all around us. Located primarily in low-income communities of color that desperately lack green space, thousands of city-owned vacant lots languished, full of garbage, in the neighborhoods most in need of more healthy resources.
The Right to the City, and the Right to Understand the City
The “Right to the City” ethic, as first articulated by Henri Lefebvre in 1968, recognizes that the urban environment is akin to a work of art that is constantly being made anew by its inhabitants. Groups and individuals prevented from fully participating in this collective, creative act are denied the right to the city—a right grounded in the freedom to physically occupy and help shape the space around us. At its core, it is a right to personal autonomy and community self-determination.
Shortly after its founding in 2011, the 596 Acres team started hunting down all available data about city-owned land. Once we got the data, we worked to translate it into usable information. For each publicly owned “vacant” lot we found, we asked two questions: 1) “Is this lot in use already?” and 2) “Can you reach this lot from the street?”
With a combination of automated script, Google Maps, the interactive community maps at OASISNYC.net, and gardener surveys done by a NYC nonprofit, we answered both questions for each parcel. And we found that there are approximately 660 acres of accessible, vacant public land in New York City, distributed across 1,800 sites. In these empty, locked, and forgotten lands we saw gardens, playgrounds, and places for community gathering and cultural activity.
Armed with the new data, we set out to spread the word—starting right on the fences that enclose these lots. We made signs that announced clearly that the land behind each fence was public and that neighbors, together, may be able to get permission to transform the space into a garden, park, or farm.
Soon, we learned that transforming these little pieces of public land required building political power. To support this, we created an online map, livinglotsnyc.org, which provides detailed information about each vacant lot. This online space for each garden-to-be serves as a meeting place for neighbors, helping them connect their efforts and form a community of organizers.
596 Acres sees—and teaches others to see—“empty spaces” as sites of opportunity, both for potential green spaces in neighborhoods that lack them, and as focal points for community organizing and civic engagement.
Wherever possible, the goal is a permanent transfer of public land to the NYC Parks Department, or private land to a community land trust. But sometimes creating a temporary space for a few years until other planned development moves forward—arranged via an interim use agreement—is the only achievable outcome.
In each instance, residents must navigate a unique bureaucratic maze: applying for approval from their Community Board, winning endorsement from local elected officials, and negotiating with whichever agency holds title to the land. Along the way, 596 Acres provides legal advice, technical assistance, and a network for sharing best practices from successful campaigns.
Some of the benefits of building power this way have been unexpected.
In January 2015, when NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) published a list of 181 “hard to develop” properties that they would sell for $1 to developers willing to build affordable housing, we were able to quickly analyze the list and find out that it included 20 community garden lots. Six of those were gardens that had been formed with our support.
Within three weeks of the list’s publication, over 150 New Yorkers, including four City Council members, were rallying on the steps of City Hall. By the end of that year, the administration had transformed 36 formerly “interim use” spaces to permanently preserved NYC Parks Department gardens, including fifteen of the gardens on the January list. Using our network, community gardeners had preempted a major threat, ensuring that the largest wave of garden preservation in NYC history would happen without a legal battle.
Now, we have set our sights on public assets beyond the vacant lot: inaccessible and neglected NYC Parks buildings and post offices. Some are opportunities to organize new spaces for integrated community services; others we hope to preserve in the face of a real estate market hungry for places it can transform into luxury development.
Our work so far has revealed dozens of buildings in our parks that were built as community centers, public baths, and rest rooms in the 1930s and 40s, then closed during NYC’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s. Unsurprisingly, they are concentrated in low-income communities of color. (Here is a map of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and here is the emerging picture of the whole City). We have mobilized volunteers to investigate neglected buildings in their own neighborhood parks (instructions here!), and local campaigns to reopen them are gaining traction.
What we have learned about post offices is even more shocking and requires greater vigilance: in the 1980s, the federal government sold many post office locations to real estate investors who then leased the properties back to the US Postal Service. While the agency’s work continued uninterrupted, the government gave up ownership of approximately 70 buildings in NYC built to maintain our postal services. Here is a sample:
—West New Brighton Station in Staten Island: built in 1960, now owned by a guy named JOHN SWEDBERG
—Lindon Hill Station in Queens: built in 1958, now owned by AN ARMFUL CORP
—Steinway Station in Queens: built in 1928, now owned by NISIPRIAN ORGANIZATION
—Triborough Station in Manhattan: built in 1957, now owned by 167 EAST 124TH OWNER LLC
—Chinatown Station in Manhattan: built in 1977, now owned by CPOST, LLC
—Bay Ridge Station in Brooklyn: built in 1957, now owned by AHB MANAGEMENT CORP
The leases were generally 30 years long. They are expiring now and the owners can refuse to renew; when they do, post office administrators must scramble to relocate. We are assembling a database that will allow our elected advocates and residents to be able to predict and hopefully preempt the replacement of these key institutions with private luxury development.
Again, we are starting with data. Knowing what we own as a city, what kinds of opportunities our land and buildings present, and what puts them at risk of disappearing is crucial to protecting the commons. Without that understanding, we are fighting the dragons of austerity and commodification blindfolded. With it, we are a powerful force building an effective alternative. Join us.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For a related vision of how Canada’s postal service can be re-imagined as the hub for the sustainable next economy, check out the Delivering Community Power campaign.