How Utica’s inner city minority community is fighting to save its decades-old neighborhood green space from an out-of-town developer who surreptitiously acquired the land from the county
On September 7th, 2022, Cassandra Harris Lockwood celebrated her 71st birthday with a neighborhood party in the Cornhill Community Garden on Linwood Place. She played guitar and made a stew from produce she had grown on site: garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and lots of zucchini.
“I’m a picky eater, but I’ll try some,” Tru Lee said as she gingerly dipped a plastic spoon into her bowl.
In Tru Lee’s section of the garden, a long arbor she constructed had grown into a magical green tunnel covered by a mesh of Vietnamese squash vines. The fruit of the vines dangled almost to the ground. During the growing season, Tru Lee spends ten hours working on her plot daily, but she donates most of what she grows to the community.
“I don’t eat much,” she explained. “I give most of it to people in need.”
Tru Lee is seventy years old. She immigrated from Vietnam in 1985, then worked for ConMed for twenty-six years. Now she is retired.
“A lot of people come here to eat this food,” she said.
Carol Gable, another party attendee, had a fruitful year in the garden. Like Tru Lee, she gives away most of what she grows.
“I’ve been eating vegetables all summer long, but also taking stuff to the Rescue Mission,” she said. “… a ton of tomatoes, peppers, and lots of onions, and a ton of kale.”
Neighborhood children happily came and went, enjoying the birthday cake and cookies, but Harris Lockwood made sure they left with fresh produce.
Few things provide a setting as enchanted as a garden party in late summer near twilight. Between what the writer Irna Phillips described as “the fullness of summer and the harvest of autumn.”
But, the spell was soon to be broken. Cassandra Harris Lockwood picked up her guitar and began singing “The Times They Are A’ Changing” by Bob Dylan.
“The line it is drawn. The curse it is cast.”
The party was more than a birthday celebration; it was a rally. The lyrics she sang were more than music; they were a cri de coeur.
Two years earlier, unbeknownst to Harris Lockwood and the gardeners, Oneida County had seized the garden’s lot and sold it to a developer, Drozdov & Sons Construction.
“Look at this flourishing garden,” Natalie Williams said, gesturing to the verdant plots abundant with vegetables, corn stalks, fruit trees, and neighbors collecting the bounty of their harvest. “This garden produces thousands of pounds of food for the community.”
Williams is a community activist who has written about the garden in articles published by Phoenix Media. In one such article from November 14th, 2021, she characterized the county’s actions as a “land theft.”
“If you look around, other than this garden, the community is otherwise blighted,” she said. “This is what the white man did back with the Indians, starve them out,”
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “food deserts” as areas where residents do not live near supermarkets or other food retailers that carry affordable and nutritious foods. 31% of residents in Oneida County do not consume fruits or vegetables, according to a study published in 2019 by the New York State Department of Health. The United States Census Bureau found that 11.3% of the people in Utica under 65 are disabled, and 6.6% have no health insurance. The city poverty rate is an astounding 27.4%.
A 2015 “Needs Assessment” report issued by the office of Mayor Robert Palmieri articulated a four-step plan with six goals to address the needs of the city residents. The fifth of these goals included; “improv[ing] healthy food access through community gardens,” with a “subgoal” of eliminating food deserts by including innovative environmental designs in neighborhood renewal projects and by promoting community gardens, farmers markets, and other healthy retail options.”
While Harris Lockwood blew out the candles on her cake, everyone at the party likely wished the garden would be around when it came time for next year’s birthday. The fear was that it had been irretrievably lost to what Natalie Williams described as “a land-grabbing developer.”
Then, adding insult to injury, the news broke that Mayor Robert Palmieri and the City of Utica intends to award two million dollars to the Valley View Golf Course. There were groans and disbelief as those gathered heard about how the golfing set will soon enjoy tax-payer funded renovations to their clubhouse and a 6,000-square-foot-addition complete with a new patio area, “grill room,” and “golf simulators.” These amenities will be funded using dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, an initiative of the Biden Administration that, according to the White House website, is supposed to be used to “deliver direct relief to the American people.”
Someone in Utica who could use direct relief is Toby Gaston. For Gaston, like most residents of Utica’s inner city, the rarefied air of the country club on the hill might as well be a million miles away.
Gaston went viral first on TikTok and then on Reddit for confronting Mayor Palmieri about his lack of follow-through for the people who most need the American Rescue funding. According to Gaston, the encounter occurred because he and a group of community members distributed food to homeless and impoverished people just off Utica’s Oneida Square roundabout.
Gaston says the mayor shouted to him to “get off the corner” while driving by. When he refused, the mayor yelled, “Do you know who I am?” and threatened to have the police arrest Gaston.
“I don’t give a [expletive deleted] who you are!” Gaston shouted back with righteous indignation.
The mayor then exited his car, and as the TikTok video recorded by user @jayyfury begins, he can be seen in suit and tie (because what else would one wear to “clean up a street?”) chest puffed out, making aggressive gestures with his hands, and shouting inches from Gaston’s face.
“You ain’t doing shit for us, and don’t come down here like you’re doing something,” Gaston says in the video.
“I am!” Mayor Palmieri insisted.
“You come down here and clean up once in a blue moon,” Gaston shoots back in frustration, “and when you clean up, you [expletive deleted] want the TV there. You always want the TV there…do you know what integrity is?… Integrity is when you do something because you know it’s right, and you do it when nobody is looking.”
The confrontation ends with Mayor Palmieri offering Gaston a job on-camera and inviting him to a press conference.
According to Gaston, the “job” was part-time seasonal employment through a temp agency (that ended soon after the viral video lost the hold of the Internet’s attention). There was no press conference or full-time regular employment. Gaston says the mayor had no contact with him after that day.
I asked Gaston in a phone interview if the mayor had made good on any of his promises in the video.
“That was a bunch of crap,” Gaston said. “Press conference? Nobody wants to hear what the community has to say. It’s all politics and BS. He never gets feedback from the community because he’s never in the community. [He’s] not hiring people like us. He didn’t even talk to me after that day.”
I asked Gaston what he thought might be at the root of the city (and county) government’s lack of support for the inner city. He thinks it is partially a vendetta against Cassandra Harris Lockwood (CEO of For the Good, Inc., and the owner and publisher of Utica Phoenix Media). His answer echoed what others told me over the past few months that I have been investigating this issue.
“If she was a caucasian woman, she would have doors open,” Gaston said. “The Phoenix Radio is a landmark for Black people. Our punk-ass mayor ain’t putting money into that station.”
Gaston believes that his interaction with the mayor is symptomatic of a government indifferent to the concerns of the people of the inner city. His sentiments were echoed by Natalie Williams, whom I spoke to at the party in the imperiled Cornhill Community Garden.
“Her life’s work has been supporting the community,” Williams said of Harris Lockwood.” She is the “shero” of the community. I believe that certain Powers That Be decided to trip her up [by] restricting the funding to [her] black-run organizations. They prefer their own Black sellouts over people truly advocating for the Black community. I think that’s why under cover of COVID, suddenly, a Russian is the quote-unquote owner of this garden that was bequeathed to the organization 15 years ago. Which indicates to me: corruption.”
It is hard to prove if corruption, indifference, or animosity towards Cassandra Harris Lockwood cost the community their garden or if it is a combination of all three. The county is Republican-controlled, and Democrats run the city. Neither has taken action to save the Cornhill Community Garden, and many parties involved, most notably Mayor Robert Palmieri, Venice Irvin (who represents the neighborhood on the Utica Common Council), and Evon M. Ervin (who represents the neighborhood on the Oneida County Board of Legislators), declined repeated requests for comment.
The history of the Cornhill Community Garden traces back almost twenty years. A memorandum dated April 26, 2022, from Jack Hornickel, Staff Attorney for the Food and Beverage Law Clinic at Pace University, and student intern Juliana Palmieri, sent to For The Good, traces the ownership of the garden properties over the past twenty years.
The “paper trail” begins in 2003, when the Utica Municipal Housing Authority (now called “People First” was awarded $11.5 million from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Hope VI grant program. This funding was to spur economic development and promote affordable housing in Utica. At that time, People First (then UMHA) used the HUD funding to spin off a subsidiary agency called Rebuild Mohawk Valley (RMV).
At that time, the Utica Urban Renewal Agency (UURA) owned the garden
properties, then known as “Linwood Gardens.” In 2005, the UURA transferred ownership of the lots to RMV. This was done on condition that RMV comply with a “Land Disposition Agreement” requiring RMV to fulfill the obligations of the HOPE VI grant.
Three years after the garden properties were transferred to Rebuild Mohawk Valley, the federal government began to audit RMV over the use of the HOPE VI funding. That year, 2006, Taras Herbowy became the agency’s Executive Director (RMV) and was tasked with managing the audit. Until then, Herbowy was also an executive director of Utica Municipal Housing Authority (UMHA). One of the audit’s recommendations was to sever the relationship between RMV and UMHA.
Two years later (2008), For the Good, Inc. took over management responsibilities of the garden properties and began developing the land for agricultural use. During the next five years, Rebuild Mohawk Valley was mired in difficulties that culminated in its dissolution leaving behind an unpaid tax bill of $54.41 on the garden properties. This meager amount led to the foreclosure of the properties by Oneida County.
Between 2017 and 2019, the City of Utica also sought to foreclose on the properties and was issued a judgment taking ownership on February 27, 2019. While all this was taking place, For the Good was under the impression that Utica Municipal Housing still owned the property and, as they are an agency of city government, that there was no property tax owed on the lots.
However, that exemption requires the owner’s application and approval by a local assessor. This seems to have been neglected during the dissolution of Rebuild Mohawk Valley and the transfer of properties back to Utica Municipal Housing, but they (UMH) were aware that taxes were due.
In an August 16, 2017 email, Utica Municipal Housing’s John Furman refers to them as “properties owned by Rebuild Mohawk Valley” and inquires about the amount owed in back taxes, “the process for paying the amounts owed and the necessary deadlines for avoiding foreclosure.” The email was sent to Betsy Ann Damas, Chief Tax Clerk, who replied with the amount and said that Utica Municipal Housing would receive “one more delinquent statement.”
On September 23, 2019, Damas sent a “Notice Before Auction” to Rebuild Mohawk Valley listing the Cornhill Garden Properties among nine others that were scheduled “Final Foreclosure and Sale.”
In a letter dated January 16, 2020, Anthony Carvelli, Oneida County’s Commissioner of Finance, provided Mayor Robert Palmieri with a list of properties scheduled for public auction. This included the three lots on Linwood Place, where the Community Garden is located. The letter asks, “if you know someone on this list who could be unaware that taxes are due, please advise me as soon as possible.”
None of the documents obtained for this article indicate that Cassandra Harris Lockwood and For the Good were informed of the change in ownership and the delinquent taxes or given a chance to pay the back taxes and legally acquire the property-which the organization would have done. But since neither Harris Lockwood or For the Good technically owned the lots, they weren’t legally entitled to a “heads up” from any of the parties involved.
In February 2020, the lots were sold to Alexander Drozdov, a property developer based in Herkimer County. Drozdov paid $3500 for the properties according to a deed signed off on by Gerald Fiorini, the Republican chairman of the Oneida County Board of Legislators. Cornhill residents and gardeners I spoke to all agree that Drozdov has no connection to and has expressed no interest in the community or the people who rely on the food raised in the garden.
In a letter dated June 3, 2020, Drozdov’s attorney, Todd D. Bennett, referred to the Cornhill residents who rely on the garden for fresh produce as “squatters.” Further driving a wedge between Drozdov and the community’s people, Bennett characterized the garden as “supposedly for a good cause.”
Although the sale happened at a time when the COVID crisis was beginning to preoccupy people in every aspect of society and government, it is remarkable, and at least faintly damning, that at no time between 2013, when Rebuild Mohawk Valley, and 2020, when the garden was sold out from under the gardeners, was Cassandra Harris Lockwood informed of the danger the garden faced.
“There seems to be a communication issue between Utica Municipal Housing and For the Good,” Kevin Revere noted. Revere is the Chief of Staff for Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente.
“No one was targeted,” Revere told me. “It was rote and routine.”
For legal purposes, the property was considered three empty lots. Although the community garden was located on those three lots, the property had no houses or permanent buildings. The County Finance Department did its due diligence by informing the property owner, Utica Municipal Housing, of the tax debt and the situation’s urgency. They did nothing above or beyond their due diligence, but they don’t appear to be wrong when they say they followed the letter of the law.
“Somebody at MHA [Municipal Housing Authority] was asleep at the switch,” Revere concluded.
Oneida County Anthony Picente’s office was the most forthcoming of the entities involved in this story. This is especially curious since there seems to be no evidence that the City of Utica did anything legally wrong in failing to inform Cassandra Harris Lockwood or For the Good about the situation. In the face of the city’s stonewalling, people naturally suspect a conspiracy and fill in the blanks-even when what seems to be true isn’t necessarily the whole truth.
A miasma of dark rumors swirls about why a property developer from Ilion would be interested in acquiring these lots in the middle of Cornhill and evicting the members of the community who rely upon them for food. This has led to conspiracy theories rooted in the lack of transparency spurred on by certain curiosities about the situation.
For one thing, the deed signed by Chairman Fiorini transferring ownership of the Cornhill property to Drozdov, “describes” the land as “Rebuild Mohawk Valley, Inc.” This is surprising considering that as of 2013, RMV was “effectively defunct,” according to the letter from the Pace University attorney.
Also, if the gardeners are “squatters,” as Drozdov’s attorney claimed in writing, they have rights under “adverse possession,” a legal doctrine that recognizes the rights of citizens who, in good faith, make continued use of land believing they have a right to do so. Section 511, Chapter 81, article 5 of New York State Real Property Law recognizes these rights where “there has been a continued occupation and possession of the premises…for ten years.” Persons such as the Cornhill Gardners, or For the Good, Inc., the non-profit organization that coordinated the continuous “use the property as an owner would and effectively maintain[ed] and/or ma[d]e improvements to the land,” should have grounds not only to fight their eviction but to assert legal ownership of the land themselves.
In a 2018 case, a New York State Appellate Court ruled in favor of a non-profit organization called Children’s Magical Garden, Inc., when they made an adverse possession claim against a developer who, after purchasing the property (according to the plaintiff’s attorney), sent “‘men [who] trampled, destroyed, and dug up plants, shrubs, trees’ and erected a metal fence inside the Garden.” Children’s Magical Garden, Inc., started its community garden in 1985, at which time they, “cleared garbage and debris, pulled weeds…planted fruit, vegetables, plants, bushes, and trees,” they also secured the property so that the gardens were only accessible by members or their guests. That distinction is crucial because for an adverse possession claimant to have a reasonable shot at asserting their rights, their continued occupancy must be “actual,” meaning they exercised control over the property, and “exclusive,” meaning the property must be in the possession of the claimants alone.
The precedent set by the case of Children’s Magical Garden, Inc. v. Norfolk Street Development LLC. [and other holders of the deeded property], would seem to apply to For the Good, Inc., and the Cornhill Community Gardeners if they were to seek justice against Alexander Drozdov, Oneida County, the City of Utica, and People First/Utica Municipal Housing. The Cornhill gardeners have continuously used the property for well in excess of 10 years, and it is reasonable to argue that they have acted as responsible owners by fencing in the property and allowing access only to gardeners and their guests. A sign right in front of the garden says, “‘Building Community As We Grow Food’ Linwood Pl. Community Garden, Services Provided By For The Good Inc. 1113 Linwood Pl., Call 797-2417 For Membership, Sponsored by Mayor David Roefaro, City of Utica.” Roefaro left office in 2012, so the sign has been there for at least 10 years.
Additionally, For the Good, Inc. and the Cornhill Community Gardeners have greatly “improved the land,” by importing several tons of topsoil, installing an irrigation system, building a shed, and planting several fruit trees, berry bushes, and several perennial plants. In every way, the situation and history of the Cornhill Community Garden are analogous to the Children’s Magical Garden in Manhattan. While the city, county, housing authority, and developer may anticipate an easy path to plowing under the gardens, the state of New York recognizes the larger societal importance of green spaces and the rights of the people to use and assume common law ownership of abandoned and vacant spaces that have been turned into community gardens.
Section 31-J of the New York State Agricultural and Markets Law was updated in 2021 (a year before the properties were sold) to create a task force; part of their mission is to “develop and sustain community gardens by…assist[ing] in the identification of vacant public land for community garden purposes.” In establishing the task force, the New York State Senate found that “community gardens provide significant health, education, and social benefits to the general public.” Further, Section 31-J formally defines a “community garden” as “public or private lands upon which citizens of the state have the opportunity to garden on lands which they do not individually own.” [Italics mine]. 31-J also codifies the phrase “vacant public land” by defining it as “any land owned by the state or a public corporation, including a municipality that is not in use for a public purpose, is otherwise unoccupied, idle or not being actively utilized for a period of at least six months and it suitable for garden use.”
The task force’s most recent report recommends increased coordination between community gardens and governmental entities. Specifically, it says, “The State should encourage municipalities to protect garden lands from development by designating them critical environmental areas under state environmental review law as well as safeguarding them through zoning and other legal mechanisms.” This sort of “safeguard,” while clearly needed has not translated into actual legislation.
People First (formerly Utica Municipal Housing Authority) website states, “People First currently sponsors three community gardens-two at Adrean Terrace, and one at the box gardens at Gilmore Village development.” While this webpage first appeared online on September 25, 2021, there is an article on the Hamilton College website dated August 15, 2007, entitled, “Community Garden Seeks Volunteer Workers,” that describes the interest People First/UMHA had in creating community gardens. According to the article, that community garden was created “for and by public housing resident families at Utica’s F.X. Matt Apartments, on Tuesday, Aug. 21 .” It is unclear why this garden received the approval and continued interest of People First/UMHA and why the Cornhill Garden was allowed to be sold for taxes.
It’s been almost six months since Cassandra Harris Lockwood’s garden party, and in that time, there have been scarce few answers to my inquiries. The Cornhill Community Garden is frozen over, covered with snow, awaiting either the “promise of spring” (to circle back to Irna Phillips’ poem) or destruction by a developer’s backhoe.
Summer seems so long ago, but I remember clearly the moment at the party when we all found out that not only were the Cornhill Community gardeners abandoned by the city but that the city planned to spend millions to renovate its country club. It was, and is, the sort of thing, that, one might say, sounds worse than it is. On September 7th, it could not have sounded worse.
The mayor refused all requests for comment on the loss of the Cornhill Community Garden, or the residents’ concerns. But, speaking to reliable sources on the condition of anonymity, I learned that the Valley View Country Club is a rarity among municipal properties in that it actually turns a profit. What initially appeared to be “Let them eat cake” tone-deafness on the part of the Palmieri administration is probably a sound investment that will have a healthy return. The infuriating rumor that some or all of the $2,000,000 would go into the pockets of the private company currently running the banquet facility is also apparently unfounded. Sources say that part of the investment includes attracting a new, more enterprising, and reliable tenant to run the banquet facility.
For people, like the gardens, whose interests and concerns prioritize nutrition and community, a golf club in the hills is as abstract and remote as a mansion on a rerun of an 80s primetime soap. Who knows why the country club set needs golf simulators more than the people in Cornhill need vegetables? Even J.R. Ewing or Alexis Carrington Colby would have difficulty explaining that. Why Mayor Palmieri chose not to address and dispel those rumors is still somewhat of a mystery, but the wall of silence makes perfect sense in light of the legal grounds upon which the gardeners stand.
How did no one know that the land being sold for a pittance to an outside developer was relied upon by the neighborhood’s people as a garden? Why haven’t the continuous use and improvements to the property been part of the discussion? It strains credulity to think that County Legislator Gerald Fiorini was unaware he was signing away a community’s garden to a developer when that garden is literally within sight of the Oneida County Office Building.
Was it indifference, incompetence, or inattention that led to the debacle, or was it a fourth factor, animosity toward Cassandra Harris Lockwood, and retaliation for a lifetime of advocacy on behalf of racial, minorities-particularly those who live in Utica’s inner city? It shouldn’t go without noting that of all the parties involved in what has been described as a “land theft,” it is the minorities whose land is being taken by white men who bought and sold it out from under them.
I am ending this story with more questions than when I began. But, the only ones that really matter are how the Cornhill Community Garden can be saved from the developer and what mitigation efforts will happen if the garden is not saved.
Friday, October 21st, was a cool, but not cold, fall night. I conducted field research by stopping at every bodega (corner convenience store) I could find on Eagle, Jay, and South Streets. My investigation aimed to determine if produce was available within walking distance of the community gardens and, if so, to document the variety, freshness, and cost.
The results weren’t as bleak as I had imagined, but they were not especially encouraging. Over half offered tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, bananas, and one stocked fresh ginger. Certainly not a selection that people holding elected office would consider adequate for their or their family’s needs, but there were some vegetables and one or two fruits. The freshness varied, so did the cost. I bought a tomato and a navel orange in one store for $1.25, but I paid $1.65 for the same two items in another. I compared the prices of three specific products; hot house tomatoes, bagged radishes, and navel oranges at the Hannaford located on Mohawk Street with the one I shop in New Hartford. The prices were lower in Utica, and the quality seemed consistent. But, getting all the way to Mohawk Street with bags of groceries is no easy task for the great number of people in Cornhill who use public transportation to get around.
After my comparison shopping trip, I stood in line for an hour outside the Morrow Warming Center at Cornerstone Community Church on Utica’s Oneida Square for one of the free meals this vital organization provides to anyone who shows up and is hungry. I wanted to experience what it was like to have to wait out in the cold for a hot meal. I also wanted to see why so many elected officials are antagonistic toward that organization and indifferent to the plight of the people they feed.
While I was waiting, I spoke to Mark, who was sitting on the steps of the church. He lives in Cornhill and has gotten food in the past from the community garden.
“There’s not a lot of places where you can grow your own food,” Mark pointed out. “The soil is practically stone. You go into grocery stores now, and the prices are extraordinary. It’s not fair to the people that the government doesn’t want to take care of people.”
It was approaching 8:30 pm; night had fallen in Utica. I was still outside, sitting on the stone steps. Even with boots and gloves, my hands and feet started to freeze. It would be wildly unfair for me to claim I knew what it was like to be in the shoes of the people waiting with me, but I experienced a bit of it.
I started a conversation with a guy named Josh, who is originally from Syracuse.
“Utica is well-known for their foods and restaurants,” Josh said, “but in terms of healthy food options-anything that is readily available…your options are limited. If you want to purchase those things, there is a barrier.”
Those barriers, price, and availability, will arguably reach the level of a humanitarian crisis if the damage isn’t undone and the Cornhill Community Garden isn’t saved.
As the night got colder and colder, I thought about the galling lack of focus on the part of our elected officials. It’s easy to argue that the Republicans would rather engage in performative feuding over a skateboard park, or a bike lane, or new stripes being painted on Genesee Street than address the important issue of fundamental economic injustice and the devastating impact it has on minority and marginalized communities. But, to be fair, there is no indication that Democratic officials attempted to intervene on behalf of the Cornhill Community Garden either.
I thought about something Toby Gaston said to me in our interview
“The struggle is what is making us strong as Black people,” Toby Gaston says, then added succinctly, “It’s not just about racism for me. It’s about how we don’t have the right people in the right places of power.”
I looked across Oneida Square at a pizza place and suddenly appreciated the ridiculousness of the fervor with which people argue over who makes the best pizza in Utica, while so many in the city live below the poverty line and suffer from malnutrition.
“It’s a lot of junk food around here, and fried foods,” Josh observed wryly. “Around here, your best option for produce is to buy a submarine sandwich.”
Josh was right. If the city and county government do nothing to remedy the situation and save the Cornhill Community Garden from being plowed under, the only way to get reasonably fresh produce in Utica’s inner city-even during harvest season-will be to buy a sub.