Saturday, February 14, 2015

Remember Esperanza, #Don't be Rudy!

The last day of the century at Esperanza garden with Rev billy, aresh, brad, luis, mario and this writer. 

It was fifteen years ago this weekend that Rudy Giuliani bulldozed our beloved Esperanza community garden. 
With word that the city plans to sell of 17 gardens, we remember Esperanza and tweet:
@deBlasioNYC Don't destroy the Electric Ladybug, Tranquility & other‪#‎CommunityGardens‬ ‪#‎DontBeRudy‬ @596Acres.  
On Tuesday at City Hall, we screamed: "Don't be Rudy!"  Mayor de Blasio, find another way.  Gardens are not getting in the way of affordable housing.  They support them.  Gardens are homes we declared last week.

 Esperanza was our home.  And so are the gardens under threat today. Save the gardens and make them permanent. 

The campaign to save Esperanza and the other gardens was one of the most exciting and heartfelt of my life.   On the fifteenth anniversary of its destruction, its worth remembering. A long chapter in my book Play, Creativity, and Social Movements covers those months between late 1999 and February 2000 when the campaign heated up. 

Throughout this period, a festive spirit of defiance combined a range of tactics,  both with serious as well as ludic dispositions.  While Brad Will lead the tripod crew for the Times Square RTS action, he was also one of the activists who participated in the multiple days of jail solidarity in Seattle the following week.  The mixture of bits and pieces of direct action helped a create a rich mixture of activists dispositions within an upsurge of activism.  The Times Square action was held in solidarity with the following week’s WTO uprising in Seattle; indeed, many RTS activists left jail for flights to the West Coast the following day. What had started as a movement about the quality of life in one town had become part of an international resistance effort. As everyone sat around telling stories waiting for activists to get out jail the day before, Aresh stood to tell the story of a garden which had not been saved the previous spring.  The name of the garden was Esperanza.
The Struggle for Esperanza
      In the fall of 1999, JKtheCat received a phone call:

So, we, like many people, were under the impression that the gardens were saved when the auction was canceled in 1999. My friend calls me and tells me about a small little garden on 7th Street that was going to be bulldozed. I said I don’t know what’s going on. I thought this issue was resolved. I went for a walk. I saw Aresh. And he asked me to draw him a coqui. And so I did and it pulled me in.

JK was not the only person pulled into that campaign by Aresh or More Gardens!.
The coqui, a Puerto Rican tree frog, was the organizing symbol for the campaign. Few campaigns brought the divergent activists communities together like the campaign to save La Esperanza Garden on East 7th street in the Lower East Side.
The middle of a campaign with a lot of heart. 
Times up photo outside of Esperanza with Colin.
            On my way home from the holidays on December 25th, a friend passed out a flyer to me as I was about to enter my apartment on Stanton Street.  The flyer declared, “Esperanza Community Garden and El Coqui need your immediately support!”  The next day I walked to the garden a few blocks away and was welcomed by a group of activists in the snowy space.  It would be one of the most memorable experiences I had had in activism.  I was not alone.
Aresh recalled:
That was a case where we really were able to work with the community that was being threatened by gentrification in 2000. It has the dynamic of this huge corporate developer, Donald Capoccia, buying the administration and coming after community-minded groups of people of Puerto Rican origins who had built a community, a block group, co-op housing, and green spaces around them that they were sharing with the community.

Throughout the campaign, La Esperanza¾the 22-year old garden named for hope¾had come to symbolize the tensions between privatization frenzy of corporate globalization and the civic need for public spaces open to all. Despite its history as a community center, in August 1999 the city sold La Esperanza to developer Donald Capoccia¾a man who had just happened to donate some $50,000 to the mayor's electoral campaigns and acquired the garden site from the city outside of a competitive bidding process. Giuliani claimed that Capoccia planned to construct "low-income housing" on the site, and that garden supporters were "not living in the real world.” In reality, the 79 apartments Capoccia slated to build were "80/20 housing"¾80% market-rate, luxury apartments, with a token 20% set aside for low-income tenants.
In the months after the garden settlement of May 1999, the city changed tactics.  It began selling off individual gardens, perhaps one or a small group at a time, but not enough to draw city-wide attention along the lines of the May auction. All the while, the general public believed all the city gardens had been saved. Yet the city continued to put more Lower East Side community gardens up for auction. In December 1999, developers ripped the wall off the back of the Esperanza garden, preparing to bulldoze. The scene was a vivid reminder of how Capoccia had bulldozed the Chico Menendez Garden on Christmas back in 1998. Activists, community members, and friends of Esperanza were determined to prevent the same thing from happening again.
            Garden advocates sought an injunction to save Esperanza after its sale. Little came of it. Alicia Torres was the original gardener who had planted the seeds of Esperanza back in 1977. “It was open to the children of the neighborhood. They grew up there, and their own children would play and chase each other and fight and do homework and blow out birthday candles there, and eat hot dogs,” JK remembered.  Adults would celebrate every holiday major or minor.  “There was a gorgeous jungle rooster who lived in the garden and would hide from all the people. He is brown, red, yellow, and black, and lovely beyond description. Esperanza was always being used.”
In 1999, Torres received a letter from Capoccia stating that construction would begin on the land in a week. Having traversed every legal and policy channel they knew of, activists sought alternate solutions. As Aresh explained:
Garden activists created a magical creature – the coqui, which meant so much to their own community and the larger Puerto Rican community in the world. And then to allow the gardeners, the local residents, the artists, and activists, as well as thousands of people from all over the world, being able to connect and to share to understand this magic and to come and sleep and stay inside this giant frog – it was just so fantastic.

In Puerto Rican folklore, the coqui has long been known to successfully vanquish larger adversaries. Esperanza could use the same sort of mythology. JK explained how activists mobilized around this story:
The story of the coqui is that there was a horrific monster in the woods. And all the other animals were terrified. And they were shivering and running away and the coqui encounters the lightning bug and the dragon fly and the mouse and they said, ‘What’s going on? Don’t you hear this roaring sound coming out of the forest? Its terrible.’ And the coqui said, ‘All right everybody calm down. I’ll take care of it.’ The little tiny frog hopped into the darkness. And the roaring continued. But suddenly you heard an enormous frog sound. It sounded like it was coming from an animal about ten feet high. And the monster, who could not see in the dark, figured he must be even larger than he was and he left. And the little tiny coqui hopped right out. And he told all these trembling animals that they could go back to bed. It was safe. So the coqui makes an enormous noise but is very small. More Gardens made an enormous noise but we were very small.  

Garden activists built a giant steel and canvas version of the coqui for the garden. “And the kids on the block helped make it, put the wire mesh under it,” explained JK. “Eric cut out the two eye balls, and put in these big plexiglass globes which were the eyes. And they were the windows.” The ten foot tall frog faced the street, drawing crowds of sympathizers to the cause of the garden, as art and activism overlapped.  “The day that we inaugurated it, we had all these kids come in and they made puppets together.  They enacted the story I just told you,” recalled JK. “They had the big pea costume. There were all these creatures running around and making noises. The adults would come over. In the morning we had breakfasts donated… We would have the most amazing gourmet food – croissants, espresso.”
            People from all over the city came to see the coqui and help support the garden. “With the big frog, I went down there and checked that out,” Tim Becker recalled. The practical applications of the space were infinite. “The frog,” as Becker described it, helped garden activists build on the lessons of their past losses:
They were fortifying Esperanza and that was on the hit list. What happened was the bulldozers and the police slipped into Chico Mendez before anyone could be in the garden. So the idea was to not let that happen again. So Aresh, the mad scientist that he is, said we’ll build this big home there. And we’ll live there before anything can happen. So, they made the papier-mâché frog, or coqui, and people started living in there and having a good time.

Activists could spend the night inside the structure, equipped with telephone lines, a heater, and materials to lock themselves down to the coqui if bulldozers were to roll in early in the morning. “[I]t was so beautiful. The coqui was just so magnificent ,” recalled Michael Shenker.  “People’s involvement and the winter and the fire pit over there and the solidarity with the Torres family, their willingness just to say ‘do it.’”
            Between late December and February, a spirit of play pulsed through the garden and those who both enjoyed and defended the space.  Many in the More Gardens! maintained a distinct philosophy of ‘deep ecology.’ Here, a close relationship between gardeners and their community translated into a joyous feeling of connection. “This deep ecology is a way of being in the world with an understanding that we are a part of the web of life,” explained JK.  “We can realize that the planet is a living, breathing being, who is incredibly wise, ancient, and conscious.”  And while ideologies, such as deep ecology and Marxist humanism tend to conflict, most involved with the campaign maintained a sense of ideological flexibility, with an emphasis on direct action.  Many shared a non-church spiritual love of the gardens which derived just as much inspiration from the pagans and Radical Faeries, as anything else. Few were very doctrinaire about politics; what they cared about was saving the garden.
            It was also a space which cultivated liberatory play. “I teach a lot of kids,” Aresh explained “And knowing they can put their hands in dirt, play with worms, and be themselves. And you must play this game, wear this lipstick and these clothes. You are not worrying about clothes.”  This is a space where they grow via their free flowing play (also see Brown, 2009; Linn, 2008; Wenner, 2009).
            People from all over the city supported the garden. For JK and many others, social Eros and play became an intrinsic part of the campaign:
It turned into quite a scene. It was a dating scheme. People would take their lovers into the coqui. They were actually booking the coqui weeks in advance. There was lots of blankets. There was room for two people. There was a phone. A heater. It was quite comfortable accommodations.

Tim Becker concurred when I asked him about what happened in the coqui at night. “Don’t come a knocking when the van’s rocking. That’s what I heard.” At one of the coqui slumber parties, JK was interrupted:
One night I slept in the coqui and I was drifting off and I heard this scrambling noise outside. I looked around and it was Aresh scrambling like the skin on the coqui. And so he pops in and makes his bed next to me and the two of us. And we hear this noise outside and it’s this drunk guy. And he says, ‘Hey frog. How’re you doing?’ And we say, ‘Fine.’ And he says, ‘What you got a woman in there.’ And so it was like that. (Laughs).

            The space created room for a lot of community building. “They had a lot of fire circles too,” Becker remembered. At the time, one of the garden organizers said the warmest place in New York City that winter was the outside fire in Esperanza Garden. The space functioned as a sort of public commons. “Every night there was a fire,” JK remembered.  “People would come from every walk of life, every philosophy, every economic strata, and different countries. And they’d come and they’d pontificate and they’d philosophize. It was very playful, very fun.”  Tim Becker reveled in the fact that, “they were having cookouts there and people were getting to know each other.”   
[Insert – brad will and company howling,  billy at esperanza last day of 1999, #35, #36]  I  remember on December 31, 1999 being in Esperanza with the tomato. Some guys were doing a play. And everyone was dressed as garden vegetables.  Bill DiPaulo from TIMES UP! said to Reverend Billy, “I am a tomato! I am a tomato!” “You’re a crazy fuck,” Billy responded, in just.  Yet, at the time, DiPaulo seemed to believe it.  This was also a moment of looking at the world from other perspectives for just a minute, of seeing luminal openings for new social meanings and transformations (Turner, 1982).  Organizing overlapped with poetry, within a Whitmanesque view of what democracy could be. “We’re forever altered whenever anything changes on the planet,” JK mused. “When a garden is sucked off the earth, we feel it.” Many felt it the day Esperanza was bulldozed (see Chivers, 2000).
            On the day of the eviction – February 15, 2000 - New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer was filing papers calling for an injunction barring the destruction of all gardens that morning. No injunction could go into effect until 2 p.m. that afternoon at the earliest, but if activists could stall the police and bulldozers all morning, there was a chance the garden could be saved. Some activists locked themselves to the surrounding fence with bicycle locks around their necks, while another group locked themselves to a 45-foot high steel tower of a sunflower and tripods. Five activists locked themselves inside the coqui.  And I stood chanting with activists locked inside the fence.
            Police swarmed the front of the garden while a bulldozer loomed in the distance at the back. The activists were locked inside. The police moved in, tearing down the fence in front of the garden, sawing off the chain of an activist who had locked herself to it. While protestors were being arrested, Giuliani restated the usual debate that the city has to decide between housing or gardens, as if it is a zero sum game. Garden activist spokespeople retorted that with thousands of vacant lots and dilapidated buildings to rebuild in the five boroughs, there is room for both gardens and housing. While More Gardens! had successfully constructed a multicultural coalition, mobilizing activists from all over the city, this was not enough to match the deep pockets of New York’s real estate industry and their influence on the city’s political culture. Aresh explained:
In terms of Esperanza, we regrettably lost the space and the coqui was destroyed. A lot of people said, ‘Get the frog out of there. You can save it. The garden is gone.’ And I was like, ‘This is not about a little art piece. It’s about the bigger picture. The coqui is the garden. The garden is that. And the people who are there who are going to be hurt are part of this frog. And no matter what, this is inseparable.’ Its semi-permeable. It’s an art that has the life and heart of the seeds that surround it. So what became of that destruction was, to me, like, as the frog was destroyed, there were seeds that were exploding and flying all over the city. And we have little froglets that, as JK so wonderfully puts it, have grown by hearing it, who said, ‘I was not part of it but I want to make sure that does not happen again. I want to make sure that there is something of this creativity and greenery and there is something coming from it.’

            “Of all of the sacrifices, ones that we’ve lost, one that I thought we kind of transcended our defeat was Esperanza,” explained Michael Shenker. The Times quoted Shenker quoting Sophocles as he was arrested during that action: “Giuliani  fooliani, the furies will be following you for the rest of your days.”  As with many of the other cases in this study, even the activists are aware their struggle takes place on a tragicomic stage.  Play was even part of the jail experience, which the police did not appreciate. When Shenker, Becker, Brad Will and myself started to meditate and simultaneously “oooom” as part of our prayer, voices rose as the meditation grew louder and longer.  More activists started to chime in.  And eventually the cops barged in admonishing us: “Being in jail is not supposed to be one.”  Brad Will, Tim Doody, and Tim Becker on the guys side, Brooke Lehman, Jennifur Witburn and LA Kauffman on the women’s side – we all did our best to make it a worthwhile experience.  Still, the 36 hours in jail were exhausting.  The cell space was crowded and the hours seemed to go on and on.  I ended up calling in and missing two days of work, only to be chastised by supervisors when I returned.  The gap between work and play can become a chasm.
            Yet, the time was worth the effort.  As we were going through the system, the Attorney General issued a Temporary Restraining Order on bulldozing gardens and eventually a settlement to protect the gardens from 2002 – 2010 (Spitzer, 2002, 2002a).
            “Community gardens, they are precious to me,” JK explained as she looked back on her work on that campaign. “They are so important in the hope of the community.” 
For her and many other, Esperanza was a catalyst to act. The caring spirit of the space continued. “I think that’s what really got me. A lot of people to this day identify themselves with More Gardens! because of their emotional connection to Esperanza,” JK noted.  “I was so enchanted that I started acting locally, at least for a little while. And you can see the results of your actions when you act locally. It’s very empowering.”
            The following summer of 2001, members or More Gardens worked with those defending Charas and others spaces to push the notion of a public referendum around the garden issue. JK viewed the referenda process as part of an ongoing DiY struggle to save space. T his meant “sing or make a puppet or draw a coqui or climb a sunflower - you could do that.” But it also meant taking a step into New York City politics, in a slightly ludic fashion explained JK:
We took out all these petitions to all these concerts and the philharmonic and the gay pride parade and got our signatures. And when it came time to deliver the signatures, we had a couple of councilmen standing on the steps of City Hall. We had Norm Seigel. And we were dressed as peas and butterflies and caterpillars and tomatoes. …But it was so much fun, especially in that repressive moment to do politics in that playful way.

Part of the richness of organizing around the referendum was bringing a sense of pleasure to the dour often theatre of New York City politics. “And then there is always the big ‘you are not going to get credibility if you go on New York One [a local television] with a big bird head,’” JK explained. Yet the group persevered.
            The Attorney General’s Temporary Restraining Order prevented further bulldozing in the final two years of the Giuliani administration from February 2000 after Esperanza until after he left office in 2001.  Another 200 gardens were made permanent park space in the fall of 2002 in a settlement between the Spitzer and the new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, which was to last until 2010 (Spitzer, 2002, 2002a). Many have argued that the legal settlement that came out of the Esperanza campaign was a success. The Attorney General even noted that the reason he imposed the temporary restraining order was because “a giant tomato told me to.”
While the Spitzer/Bloomberg settlement represented real progress, some 150 other community gardens remained vulnerable (Earth Celebrations, 2004). All these actions seemed to compel neighborhood members to participate in a process of creating change. Their campaign involved a savvy use of research along with an engaging model of protest, which bridged a praxis divide between a theoretical demand for public space and a real world struggle over land use in a global city. As William Etundi recalled:

Around Esperanza, that was a campaign that was quite clearly lost; the garden was destroyed. But that really gelled a whole lot of people around a specific thing, a lot of specific connections between people. It was an emotional everything. It was challenging. It was growth. It was building connections, networks. It really catalyzed different sectors of people around one thing.

If there is one lesson from Esperanza, it is a loss to one garden is a loss to all gardens.
Mayor de Blasio.  Support housing using vacant lots, not community gardens.

1 comment:

  1. Being an activist is a 24/7 job. Running into legal troubles can happen 24/7, though, when you are protesting and - sometimes - being accused of trespassing. The best advice I can give to anyone who is passionate enough to protest is to also plan ahead. This way, if something unexpected occurs and things go wrong, someone is waiting in the wings to help out.

    Eliseo Weinstein @ JR's Bail Bonds