Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dialectical Forces, CHARAS, and Homage to Children’s Magical Garden

Dialectical forces churn through history, our city, its story and poetry. Increase, reduce. I am you and you are me. Creating neighborhoods and their public spaces, helping them thrive, consuming them, watching some survive, and others fenced off, bulldozed, demolished.  Abandoned buildings are squatted, occupied by the poor, retaken by police and developers, sold off, abandoned and hopefully reclaimed.  Gardens are build from rubble heaps, opened up; bricks cleaned up, taken away, replaced with dirt.  Kids play, until the owners come, retaking the land, setting up their new fences.


Leaving us to bemoan our losses and ride through the streets, zigging and zagging, dancing, finding new friends, new places to play, dance, and open new spaces.


Such are the stories of a week of watching a beloved garden taken by a developer, the same day we fought to reclaim an old space, CHARAS, long taken over by a developer.  Yet, the very dream of retaking - it brings everyone together.  I loved Children’s Magical Garden. My kids played there for years.  Times Up! organized there, held garden parades meetings and departing from there.  We loved the chickens and the space for children to play, to dig in the dirt over long summer afternoons. We had heard rumors the developer wanted the space back. We had heard these before but we still gardened there, as we have in the countless gardens left unprotected over the years.


Then Wednesday, I got an email at work. 


Cutting crew there now, developers putting up fence and destroying part of garden - please go there, document this, show up in numbers.  Thanks – JK


Alarm bells sounded as they had before with Esperanza and Cabo Rojo.  Friends and community mobilized.  Bloggers and media arrived at the garden.


By lunchtime, new fences had gone up. It was retaken, divided Wednesday,


Watching the bulldozing, I recalled the days of Times Up! garden cleanups, roving garden parades we helped organize, the stories which filled books, videos, and memories of my kids cleaning up and planting in CMG.

Thanks Kate Temple-West and Alfredo and all the other supporters for all your support through the years.  There was nothing like a Sunday afternoon in Children’s Magical Garden.  I hope the city supports it.  Its division reminds us that no garden is completely safe, especially those Green Thumb have not been able to include.  But why are some included and some excluded in this big concrete jungle?


None of the politicians who arrived at the New York City Community Garden forum and expressed their love for the gardens – none of them were there to help stop the developers.  The retaking of the garden reminds us that we need an active mobilized garden movement there to protect and preserve all community gardens, to create new ones, and fight for open spaces where there is little.  Open space equity is a  social justice issue after all. Much of CMG remains.  It is up to us to save it.


Riding over in the same afternoon, police surrounded the garden, blocking bike lanes, surrounding the space.

Cops in the bike lane across from the garden.
Photo by Peter Shapiro

I talked with friends and we rode up to Tompkins Square, up to East 9th Street where we fought to get back our community center, CHARAS.  Meeting friends, marching and hoping.  The whole neighborhood converging.  As the facebook invite noted:


Join us for a march and rally to return old P.S. 64, formerly CHARAS/El Bohio Community & Cultural Center, to our community! Meet at the former site of CHARAS/El Bohio for the march at 5:00 and Cooper Union for the rally at 6:00. Later in the month, on Thursday, May 23, The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space will have a special pop-up CHARAS exhibit opening in support of the movement.

With speakers: CHARAS co-founder Chino Garcia, Council member Rosie Mendez, Assembly member Brian Kavanagh, Senator Brad, Students For a Free Cooper Union, & music by members of Rude Mechanical Orchestra, Tiny Band and others.

Developer Gregg Singer, who purchased old P.S. 64, formerly CHARAS / El Bohio Community & Cultural Center at 605 East 9th Street, at public auction in 1999, has once again filed plans to convert our former school and community center into a 500 bed dormitory & youth hostel. In plans filed recently with the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings, Singer claims to have a signed lease with Cooper Union for 200 of the proposed 500 bed facility, though no lease has been submitted. In addition, Singer must submit proof that all beds have been leased by an educational institution for a ten year period.

This is one of many schemes that Singer has tried over the past 15 years in order to convert the building to a dorm & hostel, though he has never secured any tenants, educational nexus or funding.


It was joyous to see friends and celebrate the retail politics CHARAS affords us. Michael and I talked about why we were there.   Fly sold me a new zine about peops and friends who are there.  But it was sad to wonder why the city insists on keeping everyone away from their public commons. 

Future PEOPs @ CHARAS by Fly Orr


We marched to Cooper Union, where they now charge tuition, talked more and more.

BS and Jack by Stacy Lanyon, who should win a Pulitzer for her work documenting the Occupy Movement.

Later that night Caroline and I went to the Tenth Street Baths, an authentic East Village Space with mold as old as the Tsars for a schvitz. 


Later that week, we rode bikes through the streets looking for something of our city, for some lost heart, finding a pulse once more in the cobble stones, public plazas, music and colliding stories, of the dialectic of public and private spaces and forces shaping our city.   


Each walk to the gardens, bike ride over a bridge, rally for a community center, and dance ride through the streets - these are all small gestures of hope.  Small gestures in an ever expanding street ethnography of an alternate people’s map of New York City.  Here, we trace our own derive, born of the surrealists and Situationists, to help us reimagine what our city could be.  As Derek Sayer reminds us in Prague: Capital of the 20th Century  a Surrealist History, each ride or “meandering stroll through the highways and byways of the city that is necessarily directionless because it is driven by the hope of chancing upon the marvels hidden in the mundane.  “To construct the city typography- tenfold and a hundredfold – from out of its arcades and gateways, its cemeteries and bordellos, its railroad stations,” [Walter] Benjamin muses in what  reads like one of the many methodological notes to self, “and the more secret, more deeply embedded figures of the city: murderers and rebellions, the bloody knots in the network of the streets, lairs of love, and conflagrations.”  This is an exploration that could begin anywhere and has not terminus – not out of intellectual sloppiness, but on principle,” (p. p.5-6).  Today, I sit writing about it Lower Manhattan, tomorrow it will be Prague, the next year the streets of Bogota, Copenhagen, and Beijing. 


But for today, we remember Children’s Magical Garden and the stories and experiences we had there.  The following is an excerpt from the Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York’s Public Spaces discussing Children’s Magical Garden, community gardens, and the quest for open public space in New York. 

Lower East Side activists converge in Children's Magical Garden Spring of 2006.  Members of Times Up, RMO, More Gardens, and Lower East Side Collective were there.   

Today, there are some five hundred gardens in New York City, and fifty in the East Village. In 2002, after years or direct action and civil disobedience, Mayor Bloomberg helped cut a deal with then Attorney General Elliot Spitzer (2002). And a portion of these spaces made permanent as park space.

            The irony of the garden agreement was that many believed that all the gardens had been made permanent. Yet, in the ensuing years, support for the agreement began to erode as individual gardens continued to face a threat.  In response to the ongoing threat, garden advocates organized a “roving garden party” to call attention to New York’s fifty endangered community gardens in June of 2007: “A ROVING GARDEN PARTY CALLS ATTENTION TO NYC’S FIFTY ENDANGERED COMMUNITY GARDENS,” garden activists declared. “Coalition of Activists, Gardeners And Performers will Loudly Celebrate NYC Gardens in a Traveling Party which Concludes at a Rally for the Endangered Children’s Magical Garden,” press materials declared before the June 16th action. The event was organized by TIME’S UP!, a direct action environmental group, as well as former members of the More Gardens Coalition and the Lower East Side Collective. The parade included performances by the radical marching band Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, loud supporters in the call to attention to the need to protect all green open spaces, including community gardens.

            The Roving Garden Party encourages everyone to loudly support and celebrate their community gardens by gathering together to dress up, play music, dance and march,” declared the press release. “We call on everyone to make some noise for the gardens and to remember that our fight to preserve them is not over!”  It concluded: “Lets do what we have always done when faced with a threat: dress up, play music, dance, and make some noise as we call for support from the garden creatures!”

            “The 2nd annual Roving Garden Party kicked off at around 2:30 yesterday in Tompkins Square Park,” Ellen, a TIME’S UP! garden supporter wrote in a report back. “The Rude Mechanical Orchestra and the Roving Garden Party was announced from the stage of a salsa music concert which took a break to allow us to loudly march out of the park.” Those attending included nearly a hundred garden supporters, as well as, “kids dressed like fairies, flower-people, a few bugs (including a fantastic ladybug), pedicabs, cargo bikes, a bulldozer, garden bikes, decorated bikes and dogs, etc.,” Ellen recalled. Others wore green banners with the words, ‘Go Grow!!!” spray-painted in pink on the back. After a playful ritual in which members of the crowd exhorted the bulldozer to “STOP!?” “PLANT!” and “GROW” as if they were plants themselves, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra led the dancing crowd out of the park. “As we exited the park, we were greeted only with happy faces from the community,” Ellen recalled. The NYPD notably skipped the Saturday afternoon action. “Our numbers swelled to over one hundred as the parade went on and the vibe went from fantastic to ecstatic.”

            After visiting several Lower East Side gardens and remembering community gardens and activists recently lost, the culmination of the Roving Garden Party included a rally to support the endangered Children’s Magical Garden de Carmen Rubio on the corner of Norfolk and Stanton Streets. The after-party included a picnic, a few final songs by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, and fire spinning and a little rain.    

            Speakers declared their support for the garden still facing the threat of bulldozers.

“The Children’s Magical Garden de Carmen Rubio is in Danger,” speaker after speaker lamented.

            “So far this year, five New York City gardens have been damaged by developers; many others are endangered—this could happen to any garden in light of unchecked development city-wide,” says TIME’S UP! volunteer and Children’s Magical Garden member Christine Halvorson. “This garden is one of over fifty gardens that are now in danger of destruction.”

            “I am here because community gardens are important to the environment, the quality of life, and the future of New York City,” another supporter declared. “They should be included within Bloomberg’s plan to make New York a sustainable city.”

            “Most people in New York are not aware that the gardens have not been saved,” another speaker explained. “The Attorney General agreement of 2002 was only temporary. Already developers have been attacking even protected gardens. We have to save our green spaces in light of unchecked development and rising asthma rates,” he continued. “When we lose our gardens, we lose all that makes the city unique, colorful—its vibrant city’s character. Our communities, the public commons—this is what makes New York City unique.”

            The central concern of many of the garden supporters during the garden parade was the fate of Children’s Magical Garden. In 1980, longtime Lower East Side resident Carmen Rubio and art student Alfredo Feliciano had transformed the space from a vacant lot full of junk and debris into garden for the neighborhood’s youth. Yet, since 1982 the land comprising the space has been owned both by the City of New York and by developer Serge Hoyda. Over the years, Lower East Side garden support groups including the More Gardens Coalition and TIME’S UP! have worked to stack community board meetings to call for support for the garden. The Council Member from the district, Allan Gersen, has even called for the garden to be preserved.

Most of the support for the garden stems from its long history as a safe place for children to hang out, chat, share an after school snack, learn to garden, and play. Located between two schools, the space has long functioned as a convergence space for a wide cross section of neighborhood youth, who have benefited from Rubio and Feliciano’s work to make the garden a safe space for the neighborhood. The garden is loved by two generations of kids and adults, who love the mulberries, applies, peaches, tomatoes, pumpkins and sunflowers, and the low-key communal spirit that grow in the space. Ground rules for the space are minimal: no cursing, fighting, or disrespecting anyone. “I have met kids of kids who grew up in the garden,” Feliciano told me during one of the garden working days in October 2007. “From the very beginning, it was children—so they could learn how to garden, how to plant.” Feliciano recalled in a 2006 interview (Siegel, 2006). “I really love the fact that it’s for kids,” Kate Temple-West, the garden’s co-director, recalled in the same interview. “I can’t imagine being a kid and not being able to run and play,” she elaborated. Today, Temple-West helps coordinate and organize events and teach-ins at the garden. Themes include topics such as planting and composting. Temple-West suggests young people thrive when exposed to the natural environment. “[M]akes for sane, happy adults if they have a chance to play in green spaces as children,” Temple-West explains (quoted in Siegel, 2006).

For the last two Octobers, TIME’S UP! has provided volunteers and support during the garden work days. On October 6th, 2007 Children’s Magical held a work day and pizza-making party. I (Shepard) brought my one-year-old daughter, Scarlett to play with the younger kids. She and a group of children, from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities, danced to Santana rock-and-roll tapes on the stage, played with dolls, swung on swings, and helped spread a pile of compost and mulch throughout the garden, with the help of Feliciano and other volunteers. I wheeled Scarlett, who sat perched on a pile of compost, to and from the compost pile to the bushes. In between stops she dug in the compost and romped around with the other kids. “Scarlett, come play with me,” some of the children screamed as we zigged and zagged back and forth throughout the garden. “Que pasa,” one of the other volunteers greeted Scarlett as she zigged and zagged throughout the space, her face and clothes covered in dirt. It is hard to not feel welcome in such an environment. The experience of playing in the dirt in the garden is a stark contrast to the rough-and-tumble concrete jungle’s rough edges and its asphalt playing fields where children regularly experience scraped knees and occasionally, bruised egos.

Later in the afternoon, the children and volunteers made a dinner with the vegetables grown from the garden. One volunteer brought a juicer and made carrot juice for everyone. In many other spaces throughout the city, there seems an endless competition to see who is coolest. An entirely different ethos takes place at the garden. Few of us had ever made pizzas outside in a garden. The children worked collaboratively to pound pizza dough, chop tomatoes, and pick other ingredients, and grill their own pizzas. “My job is to teach Kate what I don’t yet know,” garden activist Donna Schaper (2007) writes about a similar experience of working with her daughter in their garden. “It is yet another repentance isn’t it, to raise our children better than we were raised ourselves?” (p. 16). For many garden supporters, time in the gardens opens the possibly to contemplate a few mysteries. Gardens help open up minds and points of view.

 “If they want to try to destroy this garden, it’s not going to be so easy. This garden has a long, strong history in this community as a place that kids can go and have a break and learn about community,” Bill DiPaulo, the founder and director of environmental advocacy group TIME’S UP! declared during the October 15th 2006 work day in the garden (quoted in Siegel, 2006). TIME’S UP! has a long history of garden advocacy. DiPaulo helped organize the long defense of the Chico Mendez Community Garden, which represented one of the first significant garden defense occupations in the Lower East Side in the late 1990s. The defense would serve as a model for the El Jardin Esperanza defense in 2000, which profoundly radicalized a generation of garden activists and laid the groundwork for the 2002 garden settlement (Ferguson, 2000; Shepard, in press A; Will, 2003).


            From the 1990s to the present, the garden movement has served as innovation space for activists to experiment with different tactics, strategies, and practices. L.A. Kauffman helped organize the Lower East Side Collective’s Public Space Group. She describes some of the passion propelling those to defend the gardens and the cities public spaces. “In New York City, for example, where I live, there has been a longstanding battle against private luxury development on publicly owned community gardens,” Kauffman (2000) writes. “The other night, several hundred people calling themselves the Subway Liberation Front staged a raucous outlaw party, taking over first an L and then an A train.” The “outlaw party” Kauffman refers to is a moving subway party which began downtown earlier that night. It is one of the many playful innovations in street protest party culture to tap into the simultaneous ambitions for people to meet, create a public commons, and seek something better with their world. “A large part of the crowd, juiced by its own defiance, proceeded to the recently bulldozed Esperanza Garden on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where they tore down the developer’s fence and began replanting the land,” Kauffman (2000) recalls. “This impromptu action came at a high price: With no news cameras or legal observers to provide cover for the radical gardeners, the NYPD swooped in, badly beating a number of the participants.”

            William Etundi (interview with the author, 2005) describes the feeling of inherent freedom that often accompanies these carnival-like parties:

            Another element to New York City, which is kind of specific perhaps to this town, but the feeling of even a semi-legal party in an alternative space is liberating. If it’s an explicitly illegal party on a subway or on the street, that is liberating. Just dancing in the street is a liberating moment. And we should never underestimate the power of these liberating moments. It’s really self-sustaining. I mean, even if you get arrested after it, you feel like, wow, you stood up and took something. And sometimes being arrested is the most politicizing thing that can happen to a person. And hearing people’s stories and having other people realize, ‘Oh shit, I never thought I could get arrested for dancing in the street.’ Suddenly a person’s life has changed from that, which is interesting and exciting.


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post - I really enjoyed reading it. We are have only lived 10 years in the lower east side and through our children we learn what it means to be a part of the community. I've fallen in love with this garden which I had in my single days dismissed so easily. Over the last week since the developers fence tore through the strawberries that had just been planted, I've educated myself about the struggle for these spaces thanks to the tireless accounts of those who fought to not let it die. I'm inspired by what was accomplished and what more needs to be done. Here's some new blood for the battle! Emily