Sunday, February 10, 2013

Between snow ball fights and fashion shows, legacies, aesthetics and unfinished business of the community garden movement

"Lets all stop being fashionistas sneering at the pages of Vogue and instead join in on the forging of something radically beautiful," Marc Herbst, one of the editors of Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, wrote in this blog in the initial weeks of the Occupy Movement. Over and over again the random acts, gestures, and images of beauty which social movements bring us transform the way we see the city.  This is certainly the story of the community garden movement in New York City
Flyer for direct action fashion show hanging on Ave B. 
Times UP! Valentines Party This Thursday!

The previous weeks we had all been thinking about the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space Direct Action Fashion Show. 
"Celebrate how activists use costumes, puppets, and props to draw awareness to various environmental, social, and political issues and create positive, sustainable change," declared promotional materials for the event from last night.  "At the same time that parts of our city will be taken over by Fashion Week’s bold images intended to grease the wheels of extreme consumption, we plan to explore the ways in which spectacle can be used for the greater good, rather than corporate gain."
Yes Men at Fashion Week. 
Earth Celebrations. 

Previous weeks had been filled with events around the Museum.  Just last week's blog featured a narrative on a tour of the East Village community gardens and squats.  The tour featured images of some of the silly costumes made famous by those in Times Up!, More Gardens!, and the Lower East Side Collective  over the years to defend the community gardens. Yet, we were warmed by the gardens.  
Scenes from the More Gardens! scrapbook.
Reclaim the Streets and Build a Community Garden  action with  Lower East Side Collective, RTS, and More Gardens!
Scenes from the More Gardens! scrapbook. and the  garden auction demos of 2000. 

The temperature for the tour was in the low twenties.  And it only stayed that cold all week.  Friday would include a snowstorm.  And finally, snow would stick in the ground, the first time all winter.

Urbanites, we all hope for a quiet respite from the concrete when snow fills the streets, the sidewalks and street, our community gardens and parks, for some of that silence, even on MacDougal Street.
Friday, we the snow was pouring.

Saturday morning, the day of the show, it seemed like the whole world was snow,
 like the whole city had made its way to Prospect Park for sledding.

Romping through the snow, I pulled the kids on the sled, we careened down the hills of the bucolic park, and ran into friends from around the city, everyone smiling to be enjoying the moment in the snow, sun, and bright blue skies.  

Between the day and the dinner, I was late making it to the event.  But that was ok.  Everyone at MORUS had done such a lovely job. 

Laurie and I had corresponded about the event in the weeks before.  January 10th, she asked that I jot down some notes about why the event was important.  

As I wrote her at the time: 

Why did Elliot Spitzer say he fought to save the community gardens?
Because a giant tomato told him to do so.
This tomato was, of course, a garden activist.
Costumes help us assume roles, communicate messages to multiple audiences, and shift
perceptions of social reality.
Garden activists have long realized that these costumes help
us play with power, rather than confront it head on.
In an era when clashes with police lead to arrest, garden activists have come to
see there are other ways of engaging power, other ways of asserting what
the world could be, that another world is possible.

I had hoped there could also be an outdoor march like the old Earth Celebrations winter and spring pageants. I first hung out with Brad Will at the Spring 1999 Earth Celebrations, continuing to see friends at the subsequent events, street actions, zaps through the last Earth Celebration for the Gardens in 2004 which I brought my daughter to.  When the event ended, Times Up! held two roving garden parades in hopes to keep the movement going. 
Roving Garden Party Flyer above, Brad Will below.

These events were a lot of fun, but also a lot stress.  As everyone involved can attest, they involved  battles over land use, real estate and the very real world of politics in New York City.  The struggles birthed the direct action campaigns  to help preserve the gardens.    Costumes were part of shifting power dynamics between the developer supported city council and the gardeners who had helped organize to create and support the gardens over the years. But so was smart organizing. 
Garden Defense at Esperanza Garden 2000. 
Scenes from the Times Up! archive.
Reclaim the Street and start a community garden 1999. 

 I hoped the fashion show could reflect some of that.  "I think that it would be wonderful to start at paraiso and march," I wrote Laurie a month prior.  As the planning continued, the march not really take shape.  Something felt amiss.

For her that was the beginning of the end of her activism.  While I'm glad garden activism is getting attention, the attention it deserves, I also hope it does not become a captive of a museum instead of as a piece of activism, fetishized to a point where it loses it meaning or its power.  So I was ambivalent.
After all, I wrote Laurie: "The gardens are not saved. There is much work still to be done, as you know."
The people's puppets of Occupy Wall Street. 
RMO Top by Jamie Leo
Excellent mayhem below by Maggie Wrigley

Still, event was moving forward. Rude Mechanical Orchestra would be there, kicking the event off with some raucous, radical music, just as they had with the 2006 and 7 Roving Garden Parades. Earth Celebrations, Time's Up!, People's Puppets of OWS, The MoS Collective and other organizations would also be in attendance.  There would be special appearance by Gene Pool, the "Can Man."

Gene Pool


Walking over to the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, I was glad the event was taking place.  It was great to feel the energy in the streets on the way to
155 Avenue C.  The city offers so much, lush in snow cover.

Walking the streets of the East Village, through the snow, past La Plaza, on the  way to MORUS.

Greeting friends at the event, we talked about the lessons of the event.
Scenes from a direct action fashion show.
Bottom Bill philosophizing, talking history, and hanging out. 

Art, such as this, is what helps us imagine another way outside of violence, a different kind of engagement.
Everyone has their own garden history, we all agreed.  Some say More Gardens! saved the Gardens, others the Green Guerillas or Times Up!  "It doesn't matter if its Felisha's history, or LA Kauffman or Times Up or More Gardens! or Elliot Spitzer," noted Bill, one of the Museum's founders with Laurie.  "We won and people are learning activists did that... Not the city."
Times Up! and the campaign to save the gardens and    update the Spitzer agreement 2010. 

Yet, there is so much more to do to make sure the victory is assured, to support those gardens which are struggling, or which do not enjoy Green Thumb status.  Others are slowing being transferred to Housing Preservation and Development for development.  And other gardens are being switched and swopped out for development.  The city's new garden rules fail to include language around permanence. This language could be erased with a new city administration. And so far the progressive coalition within the city council has yet to introduce legislation making the gardens permanent. As of now, the position of the gardens is very much precarious.
In 2010, Times Up! asked the city to make the gardens permanent.
It still has not happened.
A new mayor could take away all our gains and agreements. 

Today, a stroll throughout the city, includes countless images of gardens.  And the city is a richer place because of this.   
Colorful streets full of music, snowball fights, Klezmir, and kids romping from the East Village through the  park and  and SOHO. 

This is a city with more music, color, art, gardens and snow balls.
And today, others, such as 596 Acres and Times Up! are hatching plans to create even more gardens.  Times Up! is holding a planning meeting on its plans on February 18th. 
And Siempre Verde, the newest garden in the city, is holding plans for what to do at 118 Stanton Street on Feb 20th. Join us for a discussion of ways to plant seeds of a better city, planting one seed at a time.
An invite for the event:
ATTENTION L.E.S. friends -- There's a new garden in the heart of the L.E.S., that we can invent and improve from scratch as a community. Come talk about how we will use this rare nearly last bit of public land in the heart of the Lower East Side on Stanton & Attorney Streets, that has recently become "Siempre Verde Garden" (see photo for meeting details) Grow food? flowers? workshops? art and performance? There will be many ways to participate, for people of all ages and abilities. If you can't make it but are interested, just shoot an email to and we will subscribe you to our members mailing list and will hook you up for the next meeting.

And please share this to your LES friends (or anyone in any 'hood who might have an interest in joining in the future of the garden)

So today MORUS joins a long struggle to preserve the gardens.  Hopefully, we can all push the city to do more to preserve and protest the community gardens for our children's children. But it will take staying in the streets and pushing for it, as we have always done.  The city isn't going to save the gardens.  We have to. 

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