Sunday, May 18, 2014

Children’s Magical Garden and City: the Struggle for a Green Public Commons

I was digging through some of my old blogs and stumbled upon the entry I wrote last year after the fences went up over half the lot in our beloved Children’s Magical Garden last May.  Looking at the old pictures, I was lamenting the dialectcal nature of these spaces.  Born of vacant lots and ruble of old buildings, the neighborhood turned the lot into a garden, transforming it into a space of tremendous use value as the Children's Magical Garden.  Over time, generations of kids played in it, the neighborhood changed, and the exchange value came to overtake the use value of the space, possibly transforming the space again, into a space where the gardens will be no more, if a building goes up.  But neighborhood members are not about to give up on the space without a fight.   The countervailing power of the neighborhoods has long kept the bulldozers back.

Finishing the post, I started to look at my email and found the following message:

Meet at garden 6:30 pm today--

We are there now so come any time before then to keep watch. Have your cameras ready with time stamps set.

Rain location 79 Clinton St #17 bet Rivington and delancey--  (at 6:30) we will stay at garden if no rain.

Developer acting fast before we are able to go to court!

Email following with more details.

So, I got on my bike and road to the garden, where Aresh and Kate, the main organizers for the space, were standing conferring.  They explained the  garden goes to court next week in its fight.  So developers are hoping to build something before the court rules.

“Sounds familiar,” I noted to Aresh.
“Like Esperanza,” he chimed in. 

We both laughed recalling that battle of February 2000, when the city went in to bulldoze a beloved garden just hours before its day in court. And the fight transformed the history of the garden movement.

Part of that what made that campaign so vital was so many people joined the struggle, dropping by in the mornings and after work for a hot co co at the fire as we conferred about ways to save the garden, building social capital every inch of the way.

The same thing has to happen now with Children's Magical Garden.  People need to come to the garden, hang out there, stay in touch. 

Kate and Aresh and I talked about keeping the garden whole, all of Children’s Magical Garden, no fenes. 

We talked about Pete Seeger, who used to help gardeners defend these spaces, singing in them, drawing attention to the magic of these spaces.  He always reminded us that there are no guarantees in history.  There's no way to be sure about anything so we'd be best suited to fight back on our own terms.

We surveyed some of our favorite trees, the apple tree which nourishes the space, and the conversations we share with them.

Hopefully, the developers do not come.  But if they do we will be ready.

This is a space where my kids have literally grown up.  Number two played in there when she was a year old.  And she played in there just last month, hanging out all afternoon, digging in the mud, and hanging with Aresh. This is a unique and wonderful space, the community is more than ready to fight for, just like we have always fought.

Scenes from the kids growing up in children's magical garden over the last decade.
Photos of number two and this blogger by Jefferson Siegel during a children's magical garden cleanup 2007.
Bottom number two in prospect park in 2014 and top number two children's magical in 2014, just weeks ago. 

As for now, the world needs to drop by and hang out in the garden, connecting with neighborhoods as we defend this space. Come by before work, after work, spend an hour, chat, and connect with the world at this little corner on Stanton Street. 

Children’s Magical released a press release later that night. 

What: The developers are attempting to begin construction without any notice or warning to the community or waiting for the legal system to look at this case.  Somehow the work stop order supported by our Coucilmember Chin was lifted today! Very recently orange construction markings surround the Children's Magical Garden.

Little do they know that the children and residents of the lower East Side are ready to defend their precious little forest!

Our Councilmember Chin wants the Department of Buildings to reinstitute the stop work order until State Supreme Court Justice Debra Thomas makes a ruling on this ongoing case.


Thirty years ago the Children’s Magical Garden was founded by community activists in response to the crime that was plaguing the Lower East Side.  Outraged by the piles of garbage, used needles, and other discarded waste piled up on an abandoned corner lot across the street from P.S. 20 elementary school, these residents decided to take action.  On a vacant corner lot, now known as 157 Norfolk Street, the Garden’s members cleared the debris and build a garden where members host programs for neighborhood children to safely play and learn about nature.  This urban oasis has steadily grown, through cultivation and improvement, into a cultural force that has given mentorship and inspired a connection to nature for generations of LES children.

Recently, however, a group of developers has emerged and attempted seize this land for themselves.  In May 2013, the developers forced their way onto the Premises, where they trampled through the community garden, and build a fence around the portion where the developers would like to build.

On March 10, 2014, the Children’s Magical Garden filed an action in New York Supreme Court, asking the Court for judgment declaring once and for all that the Children’s Magical Garden is the rightful owner to 157 Norfolk Street.  Since then, the holdout developers have continuously sought delays and extensions, at one point going so far as to file papers demanding a second extension from the Court, insisting they needed more time for “intensive factual review” and had “no choice but to ask.”

When they finally responded, rather than answer the Garden’s complaint, the developers moved to dismiss, which the Garden has strongly opposed, citing documents from a 1999 court case where the developer, Serge Hoyda, “continually demanded” that the gardeners be removed from the land and, finding his efforts unsuccessful, ultimately agreed to waive a provision that would have allowed Hoyda to take the land “vacant and free of any occupancy and any claim of right of occupancy.”

Now, confronted with the weaknesses in their case, the developers have few options.  A stop work order that protected the Garden recently lifted, and unidentified construction crews have begun encircling the Garden, placing ominous neon markings.  With no notice to the Garden, their lawyers, or the Court, the developers appear to be making a last desperate attempt to obstruct this important garden sanctuary.

The Children’s Magical Garden and its members are asking the Department of Buildings to reinstate the stop work order, so that ownership of the land can be fairly decided by the Court. 

Sunday, Aresh left the following message. 

Dear friends, love to see you all,

There is also a 24 hour Watch and Kate & I are there most of the day and all night ready to lock down if needed - please come by and say hello or stay over for as long as you want! Weekday mornings are the most critical times!

I dropped by the garden after a weekend of romping about with the kids.

After a weekend of skateboarding to and from, zipping to garrison and back, I joined Aresh, who was working getting the garden ready for whatever might come, kids or bulldozers.  We hung out, talked about death, gardens, and rebirth, fixing the old swing area, digging up bricks from an old building, and reusing then, as a base for a swing for kids to hang out and swing.  Its just a small part of this magical garden, which helps the city feels vibrant and real, if only for a moment in a time, as dialectical forces crash between us. 

Scenes from a garden. 

Dear Children's Magical Garden Supporters,

We are not usually back in your inbox so soon.  Wishing you a wonderful weekend.

Gardeners are on 24 hour watch right now.  Stop by to say hi anytime from dawn to dusk. Afterwards we're keeping watchful eyes out too.  Add yours.  If you see anything that looks like people coming onto the fenced portion of the garden with machinery, call 311 and 917-518-9987 to alert us all.  Take pictures and add time stamps.  You can download a timestamp app to your iphone here: or otherwise record the time, too.

Today and Monday, 

Please call Margaret Chin's office and thank her for sending a letter to the D.O.B. and ask her to keep up the pressure to have the hold placed on the work on our community garden within block 354, lot 19.

Then call Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito's office and ask her to support a hold with the D.O.B. so that we can go to court vs having a developer act peremptorily.

Here's all the numbers and a template for writing to the Speaker:

Call and thank Margaret Chin and tell them to keep the pressure up:
Legistlative Office Phone 
Legistlative Office Fax 
Margaret Chin 

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito

We cordially request your office to follow the lead of our Councilmember Chin and please ask DOB to reinstate their Stop Order on the developer threatening to destroy Children's Magical Garden's Block 354, Lot 19 until the matter is seen through by Supreme Court Justice Thomas.

Legislative Office Phone 
Legislative Office Fax 
Melissa Mark-Viverito (

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