Guerrillas of Green

Drawing of green guerrillas

Can planting a flower be a political act? Consider Kate Gilliam. On a crisp Sunday afternoon in late March, she is dressed in a black coat and tight black jeans and is standing behind a high chain-link fence at the corner of McKibbin and Bogart streets in Brooklyn, holding an unplanted tray of pansies. A thin woman with intelligent eyes and black hair cropped closely to her head, Gilliam plants things on land she does not own, often clandestinely. She is a guerrilla gardener, a peculiar kind of renegade, trying to fortify a community rather than tear down a government.

A little over two years ago, Gilliam founded Trees Not Trash, an organization that is trying to green up the industrial expanse of Bushwick, Brooklyn. She and her compatriots clear out rubble-strewn lots to make way for flowers. On vacant property, they throw "seed bombs"—bundles of wildflower seeds, clay, and compost. They create green space out of garbage dumps and plant trees in a neighborhood that until recently had hardly any. Even though they sometimes wear bandanas or camouflage, Gilliam and her sympathizers are armed not with weapons but with hyacinth and honeysuckle.

"When I moved to Bushwick from Vancouver in 2005, there were these old revolting tires everywhere, and I walked around in the spring by myself collecting them," she says. "People would just dump huge amounts of industrial garbage everywhere." Gilliam started painting the tires and planting flowers in them. She also began to recruit partners in crime by posting flyers around the neighborhood asking "Do you want to make your neighborhood green? Call me."

As Kate began her efforts to make Bushwick greener, she knew she faced an inhospitable urban environment as well as the headwind of much stronger political forces—forces that the poet and farmer Wendell Berry said have led us to embrace the economy of money over the "economies of nature, energy, and the human spirit." But despite it all, she has persisted. Her stubbornness ultimately leads us to an uncomfortable question: How on earth has planting flowers become countercultural?

Origins of a Movement

Gilliam's work as a furtive horticultural agent, as unique as it may seem at first, is part of a broader movement. Thirty-five years ago, a young New York painter named Liz Christy coined the term "guerrilla gardening." She lived on the Lower East Side at a time of suburban flight, rising crime, and fiscal crisis. New York City was dealing with the growing number of vacant and abandoned lots by simply erecting chain-link fences around them. These spaces inevitably became repositories for trash and dumping grounds for drug addicts.

Christy gathered friends to focus on a particularly forlorn 50- by 300-foot plot on the northeast corner of Bowery and Houston streets. It was strewn with bed frames, old refrigerators, trash, and car parts. Christy and her compatriots began to creep in secretly to clear the property; it took an entire year just to prepare the ground to plant trees and flowers. The volunteers relied on donated plants and were able to beg manure for fertilizer from the local police station's horse stables.

"It is my contention that the Mayor presently has under his jurisdiction more acres of open space than any mayor since at least the turn of the century," Christy wrote at the time. "These vast and scattered acres of wasted land, 'lazy lots,' acres of rubble and debris represent a tremendous opportunity to start to plan humane and vital areas for the city and its future residents." In time, City Hall recognized the value of the admittedly illegal gardening at Houston and Bowery and granted Christy's group—which had named itself the Green Guerrillas—an insecure lease for $1 a year.

The gardeners began to expand their efforts to other vacant lots owned by the city and encouraged others to do the same. "In those early days," says Steve Frillmann, the current director of Green Guerrillas, "people would throw seed bombs into vacant lots or plant sunflower seeds on medians. Some of them didn't have a vision that what they were doing would last 35 years. They were simply trying to take a pile of lemons and make lemonade."

In time, though, it became apparent how emotionally invested residents became in their new gardens. "Rather than cowering around, people planted these gardens against all odds," says Frillmann. "And they began to be part of the city's renewal. They helped stabilize blocks." In 1978, at the beginning of the Koch administration, the city acknowledged the value of expanding the garden program by offering short-term leases for abandoned properties through a new program called Operation GreenThumb. The organization, which would later became part of the city's parks department, gave permission to garden when the city's land-use committee could find no other immediate commercial use for the land. These leases were essentially a stopgap measure during a period of blight. Yet the validity that these leases conferred also allowed people to tend to their gardens openly, and in many cases, what began as temporary green spaces took on the semblance of permanent community gardens.

Even as guerrilla gardening has helped revitalize New York's neighborhoods, the success of the gardens themselves has threatened their continued existence. During the economic prosperity of the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani came to view the gardens as a revenue drain—places where condominiums could potentially be built and property taxes collected. In 1998, Giuliani announced that several hundred of them would be put up for public auction. There was a swift and vehement public outcry. Lawsuits filed by then attorney general Eliot Spitzer and the Green Guerrillas sought to block the sale, and entertainer Bette Midler offered to purchase many of the threatened properties to protect them from development.

The 2002 settlement that resolved the issue was mostly a positive outcome for the gardeners. It preserved nearly 200 of the gardens by turning them over to the parks department or to land trusts, though it also granted the city the right to sell the land of more than 100 other gardens. It left the status of scores of other existing gardens undetermined. The settlement did ensure, however, that a thorough environmental review process would be in place whenever the city tried to sell a GreenThumb garden, making it more difficult for City Hall to summarily reclaim land.

Radical Roots

"New York is a microcosm of the progress of the guerrilla gardening movement as a whole," says Richard Reynolds, the 30-year-old author of a new book called On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries (Bloomsbury). "People put blood and sweat into these gardens. And when they thrive, the fight becomes less about neglect and moves on to a fight about gentrification and control and the scarcity of land."

Reynolds, who lives in London, was working in advertising when his career as a guerrilla gardener began in 2004. Embarrassed by the neglected flower beds outside his nondescript high-rise building, he began sneaking outside at two in the morning with lavender, red cyclamen, spiky cabbage palms, and his trowel. His efforts have since expanded to guerrilla projects throughout London, where he is often joined by dozens of other volunteers, many of whom find their way to him through his website, guerrillagardening.org. They have cleaned and brightened up scores of traffic islands in places like Hackney and on Westminster Bridge Road.

Reynolds's book examines the guerrilla gardening movement globally, where patterns of struggle emerge between gardeners and developers. In Friedrichshain, a gritty section in Berlin that lacks green areas, residents removed trash and hauled in several tons of soil to create the Garten Rosa Rose. They began to host cookouts and outdoor film nights; but in March of this year, a redeveloper broke a chain of protesters and plowed over their hard work. In spite of such opposition, guerrilla gardeners are also planting in Amsterdam, Paris, Toronto, Dublin, and cities throughout the United States, and are nourished by a growing presence online.

In Portland, Oregon, one guerrilla gardener documented how he transformed a box hedge of the Mercedes logo outside a car dealership into a box hedge of a peace sign. (The dealership eventually changed it back.)

Reynolds sees some danger in his movement being co-opted by the mainstream establishment. The London city government recently held a daylight event that it called "guerrilla gardening," in which it temporarily laid 20,000 feet of turf in Trafalgar Square. To Reynolds, the central premise of guerrilla gardening is that it is an act of rebellion, something that's done without permission.

"If you want to work with the state, that's fine, and there are situations where that is right," Reynolds says. "But there are a lot of good reasons why it's good to go out and do it on one's own. If you involve the landowner, there are issues of what the land could be used for instead, who decides what the gardening could be, who funds it, who looks after maintenance. A clear answer is going to be unlikely, because it's going to involve effort on the landowners' part.

"Guerrilla gardeners, by doing it themselves, are going around that," Reynolds continues. "They are essentially saying to the landowners: 'We want nothing from you.' When you have a garden that's thriving, then you can go to them and say: 'Hey, we've got this thriving garden, do you have a problem with it?' Once it exists, it's really hard to turn the momentum."

Bringing Bushes to Bushwick

Kate Gilliam's work in Bushwick is gaining momentum. In a city that has seen a remarkable turnaround over the past two decades, Bushwick retains the abandoned industrial feeling of the Bowery, circa 1973, just when Liz Christy's work was starting. (Christy died in 1985 at the age of 39. The garden at Houston and Bowery that she was instrumental in creating is now a protected green space and bears her name.)

As Gilliam began to scatter more tire planters and wooden planters around her neighborhood, she set up a Trees Not Trash website and began to attract more volunteers who were eager to help. She turned her focus to a rusty fenced-in area on Bogart Street next to the Morgan Street subway entrance; it was overgrown with eight-foot-high weeds and filled with trash of all kinds—syringes, dead rats, used batteries, glass. Gilliam did not know who owned the property, but she did know that if she and her friends waded into the mess with trash bags and gave the appearance that they knew what they were doing, the cops were unlikely to disturb them.

Over several months, Gilliam's volunteers cleared the trash and rubble, and they have since planted a lovely garden filled with cherry and maple trees, delphiniums, hostas, hydrangeas, ornamental grasses, herbs, vegetables, hollyhocks, forsythia, begonias, and butterfly bushes. Gilliam has learned that the city owns the plot, but the parks department has not protested her intervention, and a city employee recently helped set up a faucet so she won't have to haul water in with buckets.

Gilliam has found ways to work both within the system as well as outside it. On the morning that I visited, she and her fellow gardeners were replanting some flower boxes outside the neighborhood's only coffee shop, whose owners eagerly agreed to let her work there. She has collaborated with the parks department to encourage them to plant more trees in Bushwick as part of Mayor Bloomberg's MillionTreesNYC initiative, which aims to install a million new street trees throughout the five boroughs by 2017. Yet she also continues to undertake projects without formal permission. Recently, she invited local kids to help her create a new green space on Jefferson Street on a derelict piece of land being used as a dumping ground. She planted in broad daylight with the children, even though she had no idea who the land belonged to. She was relieved to find later that the owner was thrilled with what they had done.

Gilliam's work is helping to strengthen the fabric of the Bushwick community, much as Christy's efforts and the work of the original guerrilla gardeners strengthened neighborhoods in Manhattan three decades ago. "I'm still pretty much under the radar," she says. "I don't advertise what I'm doing. It's not my land. Then on the flip side, there is also a brazen element to it as well. I don't hide it. I involve a lot of the community in it. And I tell the kids that if anything ever happens and someone approaches them about what they're doing, you send them to me. I am happy to go to bat for planting flowers."


Charles Wilson cowrote, with Eric Schlosser, Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). He lives in New York City.


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