OASIS. A garden grows in Brooklyn

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`I LIKE spinach, but mostly I like to water,'' says five-year-old Anthony Carella, as he aims a hose and fires a jet of spray at a bean row. ``When I grow up I want to eat steak and water plants every day.''

Trees grow in Brooklyn, and so do gardens. The Garden of Union, by Iowa standards, is not much larger than a postage stamp. But on a block where working-class and welfare families live hard by drug dealers and middle-class co-op owners, it's a symbol of longed-for neighborhood unity and a source of pride.

``We don't have the most beautiful fa,cades down here,'' says Annie Thompson, one of the garden's founders. ``But we've earned respect with our garden.''

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On this bucolic island among the tenements, older people retire under the shade of mulberry trees, and working people grab their last glimpse of greenery before descending into the subway nearby.

Children help volunteer workers by lugging pails of water to parched beds of okra and collard greens. They pick raspberries and strawberries, though few make it to the basket.

In fact, some of the kids don't mind when the vegetables find their way to dinner tables.

Twenty years ago, two five-story apartment buildings - housing stevedores, seamstresses, and other working-class families - stood near the corner of Fourth Avenue and Union Street.

Ten years later, a gaping hole, strewn with the carcasses of abandoned automobiles, refrigerators, and other urban debris, was all that remained.

When Doug Wile, a professor of Chinese at Brooklyn College, moved onto Union Street, he noticed the neighborhood children using the rubble-strewn lot as a playground.

One day he rounded up some of those children, gathered a few rakes and shovels, and ``occupied'' the city-owned lot. Together they cleared out three truckloads of rubbish.

``Gangs of 20 kids were tugging on a single buried tire,'' Mr. Wile recalls. ``We had so much kid power that we went from rubble to rhubarb in one year.''

Using floor beams, flagstones, and bricks scavenged from abandoned buildings, volunteers built raised plots and laid footpaths. A Prospect Park ranger delivered a truckload of elephant manure from the local zoo. Each month the Park Slope Food Cop-op added half a ton of rotting vegetables to the compost pile.

The fledgling Garden of Union acquired a lease for the land, as well as a fence and tools from the city's Operation Green Thumb, which now assists more than 500 community gardens, all on formerly abandoned lots in inner-city neighborhoods. Taken together, the city's community gardens cover 90 acres.

Jane Weissman, director of Operation Green Thumb, says it helps beautify a bleak urban landscape. Often the gardens link disparate communities. Neighbors, who once ignored one another, come together to realize a common goal.

Most of the gardens help feed the families who work small plots, as well as the needy people who ask for a handout, sometimes in exchange for work.

Members of the Garden of Union sometimes call it the ``anarchist'' garden. They operate without a budget. A single attempt at fund raising lost hundreds of dollars. There are no set hours. The garden is open when someone feels like working.

``We're not very receptive to organization,'' says Janet Schumacher with a laugh as she plants a row of peas. ``But we are responsible.''

Doug Wile and Ms. Schumacher walked through the garden, showing off the Japanese mizuna, Chinese water convulvulus, Italian arugula, and Mexican tomatillo among the summer squash, corn, purple sage, and beans.

Bimlesh Aggwall, clad in sari and speaking halting English, interrupted the tour to say that she enjoys wandering up from her newsstand on Fourth Avenue to sit under the trellis. She likened the garden to a park and said it reminded her of the courtyard-size parks in New Delhi, her former home.

``We aren't staging this,'' jokes Wile. But many visitors do regard the garden as a sanctuary from the raucous streets. And yet it's likewise pinched by a hostile environment and an uncertain future.

Nearly every morning Annie Thompson sweeps up shattered whiskey bottles, empty crack vials, and plastic baggies from the previous night's drug dealing. Once she unearthed a small cache of cocaine. ``Angels wouldn't tread here, the drugs are so bad,'' she mutters.

Wile admits that he ``idealistically'' hoped that the garden would give teen-agers an alternative to the pervasive drug culture. ``But a lot of them look at us and think we're chumps for working so hard.''

Thieves made off with five wheelbarrows. Some wonder why they haven't taken the security fence.

Four years ago a developer attempted to buy the building that boarders the garden's west side and proposed that the garden be leveled for a parking lot. An enraged community deluged local elected officials with petitions to save the garden. The developer backed down.

According to operation Green Thumb, the city is negotiating a special long-term lease that would preserve the Garden of Union.

But as property values rise in an area pressed for housing, some believe that the garden will eventually undergo another transformation.

``I've had four good years here, but I know that one day it's going to end,'' says Schumacher. ``In the city, you don't get something for nothing.''

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