Thursday, May 27, 2021

Thursday May 20 Was One Of My Worst Days On Roosevelt Island Says Living Library Gardener Accused Of Trespassing For Trying To Water Thirsty Plants And Trees During Heat Wave By RIOC Community Affairs Director Who Filed Public Safety Complaint Against Gardener Too

The Roosevelt Island Living Library and Think Park Gardens is one of many community groups working hard to make Roosevelt Island a beautiful place to live. According to the Living Library website:

...The RI Living Library & Think Park Gardens serve as a thriving and healthy, hands-on ecological learning hub for youth and adults to explore and learn about nature, and work with soil and plants, so they grow and thrive in an urban setting. 

Bonnie Ora Sherk, Founder & Director of A Living Library, and its nonprofit sponsor, Life Frames, Inc., has been working together with the Roosevelt Island community since 2001. She has been joined by China Bushell, who is working with the community in transforming the R.I. Living Library & Think Park Gardens into the ecological artwork we see today, and teaching all ages about plants, gardening, and all things natural, including healthy eating and cooking....

The Roosevelt Island Living Library is located next to the new Public Library branch (504 Main Street) and Roosevelt Island Youth Center (506 Main Street).  

On Saturday May 15, I spoke with Roosevelt Island Living Library Manager and Teacher China Bushell about their gardening projects and volunteer opportunities. Ms Bushell told me:
... every year we plant in this garden anywhere from 500 to a 1,000 plants, most of which are annuals... 

... we have every herb. Rosemary, Calendula, Basil, Parsley Cilantro. We have Lavender, we have flowers, Cosmos, Salvia, French Marigolds, African Marigolds. We have Snapdragons. 

We have vegetables we have four kinds of Peppers Serrano Jalapeno Cayenne and Bell. we have four types of tomato San Marzano Celebrity, Sweet 100 and Beef.  We have Zucchini, Cucumbers Kale, every Fennel. We have everything... 

... This year I want to do three major things probably four. I need help building a shed. I need help building beds around this wonderful area especially this overgrown area. I also need help with building a compost bin and also my favorite the fence...

Last Saturday, I learned of a very disturbing incident involving Ms Bushell and Roosevelt Island Operating Corp (RIOC) Communications & Community Affairs Director Erica Spencer-El. According to Ms Bushell:

Thursday, May 20th was one of my worst days on the Island. 

I am the Gardner, head teacher, for the Roosevelt Island Living Library & Think Park Gardens. Last week I had an encounter that shattered my belief about what this Island and the Community Groups of this Island stand for. As you all know, for three years I’ve been asking for water. Not once, not twice but numerous times, I’ve asked RIOC to assist us with water. 

Last year, the Contractor who renovated the new RI Public Library, assisted by hooking me up to the spout around the back of the new space for the Library - the Youth Center. This year, I asked again and have been lugging bottles full of water, in my car, from home. A ridiculous concept, but RI Living Library needed water. 

As all of you know who reside in NYC, the last 10 days; we’ve had a heatwave producing a long dry spell. So when I walked into our Garden this past Thursday, lugging water,  I realized that our trees and most of the garden was thirsty and dried out. My several gallons of water had not watered our Garden. Two of the trees were dying, so I had to act quickly. 

I went to the water connection that I had used two years ago and found out that it had been capped. I carry tools in my car, so I went and brought back tools to help me unlock the valve. I did, but realized the water had been turned off from within the building. 

So, I headed for the spout I used last year during the Pandemic - where the Contractor had hooked me up - behind the Youth Center. As I was attaching my hose, a security guard came out to ask what I was doing. I explained that I used this water source all of last year and that I was in desperate need of water. He looked as though he understood. A woman came out and told me I was trespassing and that I had to leave. I explained who I was and how desperate I was. She looked at me and told me I’m trespassing, and I would have to leave. She explained she was Erica and that Ms. Bonnie should know better. I then asked her, if she could make an exception today because all the plants were dying. 

“Plants are living creatures and need water, please help us ‘ I begged. She looked me in the eye and said ‘No’. Not even for a one time deal. I then told her that we are a small community and should help each other. She refused and told me to leave, ‘ Your trespassing!’ I left despondent. Upset and still desperate, I ran back to the Garden . 

I wasn’t at the Garden for five minutes, before the security guard shows up with a public safety police person. Apparently Erica filed a complaint with them and asked for them to write me up.
I mean in the age of George Floyd, a black woman calling the police on another black woman .....and for water!!! Ridiculous.... 

To my benefit, the security guard who was originally at the scene with Erica heard in my voice my desperation for water and shared that with the public safety cop, so they both stated they came to help.
They shared they didn’t understand Erica, and her objection to watering, at least once, and suggested I use the water at the Blackwell House. I told them I wasn’t sure because the hose crosses a major walking path which many Roosevelt Islanders cross. They found me cones to create awareness. Luckily for me, the water turned on. 

Before, I could water, public safety asked for my license to write me up. Appalling!!! 

I’m trying to create this year’s respite, as I did last year , on the Island; and I have to search, beg and look for water. I have to listen to a woman who runs the YOUTH Center, tell me I’m trespassing, instead of allowing me to use the water once, in a time of drought and a heat wave. And the fact that we are all funded by the same entity, where is our comradery ? 

Where is our Community? It’s water!!! I wasn’t stealing her plants or invading her space. I was using one of two working water outlets available to me. 

To this end, I’m still upset! For the life of me, I can’t understand how anyone would deny me one of the only sources of water in my area during a drought and heat wave. I can’t understand how someone, who is supposed to help youth, and can’t share water? 

Her attitude, her sending the police after me is Unacceptable and Uncalled for. I don’t know the politics of the Island, and I have tried to create relationships, even with the people I vie competitively with, because we have one goal: to help, improve and support the people who live on Roosevelt Island. 

I’d like water in our area!!! We need it. 

I Never want to be in this position again. It’s UNFAIR and UNACCEPTABLE !! 

Upon learning of the incident, Bonnie Ora Sherk, the Founder and Director of A Living Library sent this May 25 email below to Ms Bushell and copying RIOC staff and directors, NYC Council Member Ben Kallos, NY State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and Roosevelt Island community members

Dear China, 

I am so sorry that you had this vicious, rude, and disrespectful experience that you described in your email with Erica Spencer-El Al. She has a terrible reputation with so many RI community members as being an extremely cold, mean-spirited communicator and person. Hopefully RIOC management and the RIOC Board will talk with her about this incident so that an apology will be offered to you for your treatment, and the police report will be expunged from your record.

Please just know there is even more History to this situation than you alluded to, or perhaps even know about:

In addition to you asking for water, I have too; for many years, been asking for water for this site, even before you came to work with Life Frames, Inc. and the RI Community a few years back.

The RI Living Library & Think Park Gardens have been in our current location behind the RI Public Library since FY 2010-11, when Steve Chironis, then RIOC COO, invited us to move from our many sites at PS/IS 217, where we had been greening the school and nearby environments since right after 9/11, working with the full community in planning and doing. We created Orchards on the riverside of the school planted by the students, and gorgeous, lush, Organic Vegetable, Flower, Herb Gardens and a Compost 3-Bin complex inside the school yard, also planted, maintained, and built by the students as part of their A.L.L. STEAM + Literacy Program that Life Frames provided to PreK-8 students during the school day, after school, and summers, for about 10 years at this site. 

When the School went into construction and had scaffolding surrounding the building for many years, and used our RI Living Library & Think Park Orchard for its construction staging area, Steve Chironis helped to move us to our current site adjacent to, and behind the new Library. I am attaching a couple of pics for you to see its former state of underused, barren emptiness - nothing resembling its vital beauty today.
For many years, we used the water spigots behind the building where the newly renovated Library is now, to access water for the Gardens. I even met with Library management and the architects to discuss many times, the idea of adding outdoor water and electricity to the building. That made so much sense, but unfortunately, did not happen.

When the actual renovations finally began those many years ago, the building was gutted and all utilities were removed. At that point, there was no longer any water available, so we used water from behind the Youth Center for some time, but it was awkward as it was often locked even though we were allowed to use the water by the then Director of the Youth Center. 

Then, the great, Doryne Isley, from Urban America, gave us access to one of her buildings just past the Youth Center to access water from an outside spigot. That was quite a distance from the A.L.L. Gardens, but to worked for us for several years, even though we had to lug several hundred feet of hose to the site, until the renovations for the Library began, and Doryne’s building access was eliminated due to construction. 

During the construction, the then RIOC Senior Capital Planning Director, Steven T. Noone, asked me to create a Master Plan for the site, also attached below, which I did. We discussed at great length our need for water, and the ideas that he had to include new water quick couplers under the ground as part of the Blackwell House renovations. He also was going to include some other capital funds for improvements to the area like: new paving (including recycling the beautiful Belgian Blocks behind the Library), wheelchair accessible planters, a shed, fencing, and other needs for the space. Unfortunately he left RIOC some years ago and his ideas were not implemented.

During this time, I also met with, and had many discussions about the water, fencing, greenhouse and shed needs, with Prince Shah, Senior Capital Project Manager and his colleague, Janet Fasano (no longer at RIOC). Although we discussed the water need and other needs for several years nothing happened.
After Steve Noone left, another Senior Capital Planner was hired, Jonna Carmona-Graf, with whom I also worked closely to get these basic needs met. She too left after a few years and no water source came to our A.L.L. Gardens. 

Then, Patrick McCauley was brought in as the RIOC Communications Director, and Prince said I was to work with him to get water and other needs met. I did, and we worked together, and then he left last year, but again, no water source was brought to the A.L.L. Gardens. 

During these years, by the way, Erica was cc’d on many of these emails that went back and forth, so she should have been more familiar with our needs and the situation, and not surprised, and saying to you last Thursday, that I "should have known better”. Quite ironic, don’t you think ?

Then, earlier this year, during our PPF presentation, John O’Reilly and I discussed the need for water during the public meeting. He seemed to indicate we could discuss this together as well as other needs we have for this public amenity we are creating. I have tried to reach him since then to discuss further, with no response from him.

At any rate, as you can see, we have been trying to get water - a basic need - to this site - for at least 10 years. Perhaps this year, someone at RIOC will see the light and prevail.

Thanks for OUR patience.

Sending you much Gratitude, Thanks, and RESPECT for your devoted service to the RI community and the RI Living Library & Think Park Gardens,

Long time Roosevelt Island resident and former Roosevelt Island Residents Association President Matt Katz added:

This is nothing new. Erica has never been inclined to find solutions to problems that I am aware of. That sources of water should be capped, on an Island surrounded by a River, is absurd.  

Bonnie Sherk and the Living Library have been a source of beauty for the community and a resource for educating children, seniors and the disabled for the over twenty years in which she has served us. Her obstacles have been dramatic. New York City has never supported her projects in the way San Francisco, her other nexus, has; how short-sighted!

RIOC, with its massive turn-over in department heads makes promises and then, reneges as new,leadership that doesn't have a clue comes on board. As for the top spot, President and CEO, I think there have been 15 or 16 heads of the corporation in the 32 years I've lived on Roosevelt Island. By the time they start to learn the issues and address them, they're gone! A "public benefit" corporation, whose leadership and employees who don't live here and have no stake in the community, is no way to run a residential and commercial community. Elective government is. 

And while we are politically a part of New York City our municipal electeds do not make the nuts and bolts decisions here that they are responsible for elsewhere. We attempted to require the RIOC Board of Directors, that sets policy for the corporation, be a majority of residents (it is) and that they be chosen by residential plebiscite. As a result of massive effort by the Resident Association, this was the case until Andrew Cuomo was elected Governor, destroyed our attempt at elective democracy, and returned the Board to appointment by fiat. 

We deserve better. The Living Library deserves better. Our Island of gardens deserves better.

Resident Vicki Feinmel agrees with Mr Katz:

Well said Matt. That RIOC can’t allow the Living Library easy access to water is absolutely ridiculous. The garden is wonderful and enjoyed by all. I just can’t understand what the problem is.  

The Living Library has been here for years and deserves better treatment.

I've asked RIOC twice this week for comment on this issue. So far, no response.

Will update if RIOC replies.