Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Jane Weissman and her Vision for New York's Community Gardens

City Lore has established the People's Hall of Fame in conjunction with the Museum of the City of New York.
Awards Ceremony, November 19, 1998, honoring grassroots contributions to New York's cultural life.
Award given to:
"Jane Weissman and her vision for New York's community gardens; for tireless work promoting New York's community gardens and casitas."

"City Lore believes that the quality of life of a city and a nation is tied to the vitality of its grassroots folk cultures, and the neighborhoods and communities in which we live our daily lives. We highlight and advocate for local communities rather than mass culture; the artistry of ordinary people rather than celebrities. The People's Hall of Fame honorees are ordinary people making extraordinary contributions."

Jane Weissman

As director of GreenThumb, New York City's community gardening program, long-time New Yorker Jane Weissman put community gardens on the map. Not on official maps, but on the metaphorical map of our hearts and minds. Yet, in the view of city government, New York's 700 thriving and productive vegetable and flower gardens - once vacant lots scarred by garbage, rats and abandoned cars - are little more than potential housing sites.

For 14 years, from 1984 until September 1998, Jane embodied GreenThumb, licensing city-owned land to neighborhood groups and training them in garden design, construction and horticultural techniques, all at no charge. Cultivating a strong "rats to roses" ethos, Jane encouraged hundreds of city gardeners to transform many of the ugliest parts of New York into the most beautiful. With her help, the gardens laid down deep roots and became valuable community resources, responsible for stabilizing and revitalizing some of New York's most blighted neighborhoods. Leading the effort to build a citywide consensus on open space policy, Jane is a pioneer in negotiating enlightened land use policy for the gardens and a tireless advocate for their deserved preservation.

Jane is among the few city officials who see value in casitas, the little houses surrounded by gardens prevalent in East Harlem, the South Bronx and the Lower East Side. Casitas recall the look and feel of the Puerto Rican countryside. As places for sociable gathering, gardening and community events, they create a sense of welcome and home in neighborhoods too often neglected by the city. Jane protected casita builders from losing their gardens by encouraging them to adapt their structures to meet both building code and GreenThumb requirements.

A veteran of Greenmarket (Jane likes to say she used to work with country farmers, but now she works with city farmers), Jane organized a traveling photographic exhibition about community gardens, co-produced an hour-long documentary film about the gardeners, and published two oral histories with them. For Jane, the gardens are central to community life, and she established art and children's education programs amidst their abundant crops and foliage. She fought for the gardens against numerous attacks by the Giuliani administration, which places scant value on Jane's dedication and skills. In May 1998, the Mayor transferred the gardens and all licensing operations from GreenThumb to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Since then, HPD has not granted any licenses for new gardens and casitas.

In the opening to Jane's oral history, Tales from the Field II, Terese Miller, a local gardener said, "My garden makes me get down on my knees and pray to God when all I am doing is pulling up weeds." By honoring Jane Weissman, we stand up and tip our hats to a true believer, and we encourage all of New York's beleaguered community gardeners to continue their prodigious efforts. Thanks to Jane and the gardeners, our quality of life has greatly improved and our city is a more beautiful place to live.

Jane Weissman can be reached at:

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Revised Saturday, October 24, 1998

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture