Bette Midler saves New York gardens

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MORE THAN one hundred community gardens in New York City have been saved from being sold at auction to developers after a last-minute intervention by Bette Midler, the actress sometimes known as the "Rose".

The deal, engineered by Ms Midler and a conservation group she founded called the New York Restoration Project, derailed the sale ordered by the city's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, which had been scheduled for yesterday. The actress gave $250,000 (pounds 158,000) of her own money to save the gardens.

"We're thrilled," Ms Midler said. "This is a joyous occasion and means these gardens will stay in perpetuity." The celebrity, a New York resident, has long been involved in city beautification projects. Last year, she named herself the "Queen of Trash" after leading a litter-removal scheme.

Mayor Giuliani had vowed to sell 115 of about 700 gardens - New York's equivalent of Britain's allotments - that pepper the city. Often tiny, they have all been reclaimed from patches of derelict and vacant ground that, in theory, belongs to the city. They are overseen by tightly knit associations, who designate parcels for residents who can then grow what they choose, whether vegetables, fruit or flowers.

The sale was meant to raise money for the city and return the lots to the commercial market. Experiencing a powerful economic boom, New York is desperately short of housing and many of the lots would have been turned into new apartment towers.

It was a plan, however, that infuriated the gardeners and other action groups, the most vocal being the "Garden Guerrillas, which staged several acts of civil disobedience.

"The gardeners are thrilled," said Steve Frillman of the Guerrillas, whose members had recently confronted the mayor in public whenever possible. Seeking to cause him maximum embarrassment, they dressed themselves as sunflowers, tomatoes and assorted vegetables. A few months ago, Mr Giuliani attempted to poke fun at the gardens' defenders. "This is a free-market economy," he teased. "Welcome to the era after communism."

Mostly located in the poorest corners of the city, the gardens act as a magnet for residents from the old to the very young, especially in the spring. Take a walking tour of the Lower East Side of Manhattan today, for example, an area of the city that was once a hive of crime and drug trafficking, and you will find one of the often pristine gardens on almost every block.

This newspaper recently reported on the success of a New York beekeeper, whose urban hives are mostly in corners of these miniature parks. Indeed the city itself has long had a "Green Thumb" programme, which supplies aspiring gardeners with tools and topsoil. Some saw in Mr Giuliani's determination to sell his own antipathy to the history of the gardens, most of which sprang from liberal action movements in the Seventies, when large swaths of New York were crumbling from neglect, poverty and the plague of crime.

The auction was cancelled when Ms Midler's Restoration Project joined forces with another group, the Trust for Public Land, to purchase them from the city. Together, they put up $4m (pounds 2.5m) to buy all 114 that were to be put on the block. Among those celebrating yesterday was David Soto, a regular at the Tu Pueblo Batey garden in a mostly Hispanic neighbourhood on East Fourth Street "Without gardens, people wouldn't get to know each other. We don't have much else in the neighbourhood," said David, who is eleven years old.