ITHACA COMMUNITY GARDENS: 40 YEARS OF HISTORY
In 1976, a handful of Ithaca gardeners approached the Lockwood family to inquire about turning some of their vacant lot into community gardens. The Lockwoods agreed and gardeners got to work, clearing out rubble, trash and saplings from a couple of acres behind the old P & C grocery store, now known as 210 Hancock. Four years later the handful of gardeners had multiplied to over 100 mainly low-income households now able to grow accessible, affordable organic produce for their families.
Negotiations to buy the now productive 2 acres began in 1979. In 1981, the city obtained a HUD grant of $42,000 to purchase the garden plots. Unfortunately, in February of 1982, the Lockwoods sold their entire parcel, including the gardens to a developer who allowed the gardens to remain for that growing season, but refused to negotiate for their purchase or lease and sold off the greatly improved topsoil the next year.
Meanwhile, the Gardens organized a not-for-profit corporation, Project Growing Hope, and the citywide search for a new site settled on a 10 acre property along Rt. 13 owned by NYSEG and not far from the Ithaca Farmers Market. In 1983 NYSEG consented to lease approximately 2 acres under the power lines in order to leave the remainder of the property open for development. A second massive land improvement operation ensued: gardeners banded together to remove concrete slabs, refrigerators and other rubble, buy and add manure and, with help from Cornell’s Agronomy Department, plow the rock-ridden soil.
In 1985, NYSEG sold their Rt. 13 property to the city for $186,000. The 1981 HUD grant intended to purchase the original gardens from the Lockwood family was used as part of the purchase price with the understanding that with that $42,000 the Community Gardens would be granted a lease on approximately 2 acres under the power lines, property that was appraised at $10,000/acre. At that time the city and PGH agreed to a 25-year lease for the Gardens. The next year the city announced plans to turn the 10 acre parcel into 6 light industrial sites with an access road requiring the relocation of a number of garden plots. This was the beginning of what is known as Carpenter Business Park.
In October 1993, the city added a service road through the existing Gardens (for which PGH agreed to accept a year’s loss of gardening), and gave the Gardens a 20-year lease on their current location. This lease was up December 31, 2013. At that time, the city issued a new 20-year lease, revocable with one year’s notice.
The history of the Gardens has been one of uncertainty. Had they been able to use the $42,000 grant for its original purpose of buying the land that many hands had turned into community gardens, they would have secured their future. Through the years, studies undertaken by both city staff and Cooperative Extension have shown that there are no viable alternatives to our present location. Phase I of the city’s 2015 Comprehensive Plan includes the Gardens in an Enterprise Zone, viewed as a prime site for development. After 40 years, the future of the Ithaca Community Gardens remains uncertain.