Dispute Grows Tense Over Community Garden in Queens
Evergreen Community Garden Has Become the Site of Violent Confrontations
By Derek Kravitz
The Wall Street Journal
August 1, 2013
Despite its serene setting and rows of flowers and vegetables, a community garden in Flushing, Queens, has turned into a battlefield.
Violent fights, death threats and shouting matches, sometimes involving fistfuls of dirt, have become routine at Evergreen Community Garden, leading to volunteer guards at the entrance and police patrols. And almost all of the tangles involve elderly Korean gardeners, officials and witnesses say.
The disputes grew out of the city Parks & Recreation Department's decision last year to take control of the 5-acre garden from a Korean-American senior citizens' group, which had transformed the trash-filled public space into a working garden back in the early 1980s.
The parks department—which contends the seniors' group had been improperly selling produce from the city-owned plot and excluding outsiders—turned control of the park over to its GreenThumb network of community gardens and installed a manager last year.
But the older gardeners are still trying to reclaim the land, at times by drastic means.
A year ago, the garden's 75-year-old former manager clutched a lighter and container of gasoline, threatening to light himself on fire if he didn't get his old job back, city officials said. The incident prompted a police hostage negotiation team to respond and two nearby schools to be locked down.
Then earlier this summer, 100 gardeners signed a petition saying they feared for their safety around one of the garden's new managers—and one person took out a restraining order against him, according to court documents. That manager now has a gardening schedule, set by city GreenThumb officials, so he doesn't violate the court order.
Parks officials say they are trying to keep the peace at the garden, located in Kissena Corridor Park.
"We want to make sure the gardening there is safe and that the passion is put into the activity at hand, not into attacking each other," said Larry Scott Blackmon, the parks department's deputy commissioner for community outreach.
Home to one of the largest concentrations of Koreans in the country, Flushing contains more than half of the city's poor Korean-Americans, according to the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit New York-based policy think tank. The center also says that 94% of Korean seniors in Flushing struggle with English.
The fight over the garden touches on these generational and cultural issues, said Kyung Yoon, executive director of the Korean American Community Foundation. As first-generation Koreans—many of whom lived their entire lives under military rule—grow old and retire, community leaders say isolation and suicide have increased.
"For many of these seniors, gardens and senior centers become very, very precious," Ms. Yoon said. "The act of cultivating and growing something, like squash or cucumbers, it reminds them of their homeland, it's a lifeline. It's critical to their emotional and mental health."
Officials say that before the elderly Korean immigrants took over the park in 1982, it was a forgotten and overgrown site of a 19th-century railroad amid a scramble of middle-class row houses.
"This was a dump ground," said Roland "Chuck" Wade, a former executive director at the Queens Botanical Garden who gardens at Evergreen. "It was essentially weed-land with cement blocks and buried tires."
After much care, it became the Evergreen Community Garden, a sprawling space with narrow dirt paths filled with firs, Korean bellflowers and lotus. But pride over the space, some observers say, transformed into an inappropriate sense of ownership.
"Some of the Asian seniors, they've become obsessed with the garden," said Dorothy Woo, the Chinese-born president of Flushing's Holly Civic Association. "Some of this is a cultural difference: 'I should be the leader. I need to be respected. You should listen to me.'"
City officials said the new leadership was necessary to give other residents a chance to use a public space that had long been dominated by a few Korean families. But several Korean community groups said they were ignored and left out of the new garden's management.
In September, San Ok Kim, a former 7-Eleven shop owner who long oversaw the garden, went on a hunger strike and threatened to set himself on fire if he wasn't allowed to stay in his job. Mr. Kim was arrested and underwent a psychiatric evaluation before being released, officials said.
In an interview at the nearby Korean American Senior Center in Queens, Mr. Kim said he had decided to commit suicide as a "representative" of the Korean community to protest the city's action.
"When we made it into a farm, you have no idea how hard it was," he said, fighting back tears as he spoke through a translator. "It took five years. Now it's scary, like a war zone."
Given the history and bad blood, gardeners and officials on both sides fear the fighting will continue.
Just last week at a news conference about the dispute, a fight broke out that resulted in one man being hospitalized and another being arrested, according to city officials. The assault case is open and under investigation, police said.