February 1, 2016
In the raised beds of Brooklyn’s Maple Street Community Garden, in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, neighbors recently harvested kale, eggplant, okra, and peppers. A hand-painted sign (Stop—Not Ready Yet) guarded cherry tomatoes that were still green.
“When people are left out of land use decisions, their lives are disrespected…we’re trying to flip that script.” —Paula Segal (’11)
But in this pleasant green space, something grander than fresh produce has taken root: a seedbed for community activism, born of a legal battle between gardeners and real estate developers.
At the center of the struggle is Paula Segal (’11). Through her nonprofit, 596 Acres, which she started in 2011, Segal is helping neighborhood residents throughout New York City transform vacant city lots into pastoral community gardens.
Segal’s work encompasses more than gardening. It aims to undo a history of urban planning that has been riddled with racism. “It’s a question of who has the power in our neighborhoods,” she says, “and making sure that the people who are most impacted have a voice in decisions that are made.
“When people are left out of land use decisions, their lives are disrespected,” she adds. “We’re trying to flip that script.”
She criticizes practices such as race-based restrictions on sales of properties and redlining that she asserts have produced stark segregation.
“New York is one of the most segregated places by race, as well as by class, in the world. And that’s not an accident.”
Not surprisingly, the neighborhoods with the greatest number of neglected lots are also the neighborhoods with the fewest white residents.
To “flip the script,” Segal started putting up notices. On locked fences where city agencies had previously affixed No Trespassing/No Dumping signs, she has posted signs saying, This Land is Your Land. Each sign explains how people can create a neighborhood garden or other asset on the site.
She has guided residents through presentations to community boards, helped them gain media attention and support from elected officials, and steered them through negotiations with city agencies. She’s fought for, and alongside, Maple Street residents for their right to hold on to their garden.
“Paula is really good at getting people to organize themselves, and she has a simple pedagogy for people to do it,” says Maple Street Community Garden gardener Tom LaFarge. But untangling the legal knot at Maple Street hasn’t been easy.
The last owner of the parcel died in 1990. No heirs claimed the property; the house that sat on it eventually burned down. City workers cleared the lot, and it became a weedy dumping ground for broken washing machines and abandoned cars. In 2012, a block association representative asked Segal for advice on creating a garden there. She suggested that volunteers clean up the lot and start planting. After two years of work, crops were growing in the new beds—but this past summer, a pair of real estate developers claimed they owned the property.
Armed with a restraining order, the developers locked the entrance. Segal, representing the gardeners pro bono, went to the Appellate Division and argued to get the order overturned. She won. (The deed showed signs of fraud, a growing problem in New York’s booming real estate market.) The monthlong lockout cost the gardeners some crops, but for now, they can keep gardening as two pending court cases—a “quiet title” action in the Supreme Court and an eviction in the Civil Court—are being resolved.
Because of 596 Acres, there are 32 new community gardens where fenced eyesores once stood.
“There aren’t a lot of people doing what Paula is doing,” says Julia Stanat, another Maple Street gardener. “She’s very passionate and driven. She’s the one who finds the pathway to help us keep this an open space. Sometimes we get deflated after our court dates, and she’s the one who rises up and says, ‘Remember what we’re trying to do,’ to keep us motivated.”
Segal is quick to deflect compliments that cast her as an indispensable leader. She believes most people have the desire and the ability to advocate for themselves. By shepherding residents through the process, she is teaching them how to make the system work, and proving that top-down, profit-driven planning isn’t inevitable.
Born in the former Soviet Union, Segal came to the U.S. with her family when she was 8. Her organizing career started early. In her Massachusetts middle school, she successfully rallied for school officials to end the use of Styrofoam trays and return to reusable plastic trays.
After college, she moved to New York, settling in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. After teaching English to immigrants for a few years, she grew frustrated. She wanted to do more to help people advocate on their own behalf against injustice and inequality. CUNY Law offered her a fellowship and a living stipend. While at the law school, she worked in the Economic Justice Project, representing CUNY students whose benefits had been cut off by the City.
She had thought about specializing in land rights, and even imagined working internationally, but a struggle much closer to home would shape her career.
In 2010, she joined a campaign—stalled for nearly a decade—to turn a vacant lot in her own neighborhood into a park, to be called Myrtle Village Green. That park has yet to be built, but it has served as a thriving community garden since 2012.
While working on that campaign, Segal realized that there were a great many unused properties in New York. In 2011, city data showed that Brooklyn alone contained 596 acres of vacant public land—thus the name of the organization she founded that year.
596 Acres operates on a shoestring; about a quarter of its budget comes from individual donations. But Segal is effective: So far, her efforts have resulted in 32 new community gardens where fenced eyesores once stood, in Brooklyn and other boroughs.
In addition, together with programmer Eric Brelsford, she’s created a database of vacant City-owned lots in an interactive online map (LivingLotsNYC.org), showing 603 acres of opportunity on 1,264 lots* in New York City that communities could potentially use.
In October 2015, the Maple Street gardeners celebrated recent court victories with a small neighborhood party. New York State Senator Jesse Hamilton and NYC Councilman Mathieu Eugene briefly attended, a testament to Segal’s ability to enlist allies. Senator Hamilton announced that he had just introduced a state bill to make the garden permanent via eminent domain—legislation that Segal requested and helped draft.
Senator Hamilton, whose district includes Maple Street, admires Segal’s organizing prowess: “It is inspiring to see how she has brought together a diverse coalition of neighbors and activists. It’s hard to know if the garden would have any chance without Ms. Segal.”
Because of the real estate industry’s power, Segal says most vacant parcels will end up in the hands of private developers. But she believes steadfastly that increased public participation will eventually change the way land use decisions are made in New York.
In the end, she says, “It’s about the right of people to shape their own city.”
*Information accurate at press time.