Monday, May 2, 2016

Gardens Are Community, Community Spaces in Jeopardy #GardensAreCommunity #ESGSaveOurGarden

Saturday was a majestic day for a bike ride.  So a few of us from Public Space Party and 596 Acres met for a ride to Elizabeth Street Garden for our annual bike ride to endangered gardens, Gardens are Community, Community Spaces in Jeopardy Ride!  After all, here we are in New York, where community gardens and nursing  nursing homes are displaced to make way for housing which few can afford.  Block by block, parts and parcels of our collective memory are destroyed as the development wrecking ball churns forward. The ride started in Little Italy and headed through the Lower East Side, West, out into Brooklyn and back to the city, visiting countless gardens along the way. 

Manhattan Route.

Jeannine Kiely,  the President of Elizabeth Street Garden, was at the garden to greet organizers from Public Space Party and 596 Acres when we arrived for the tour. She introduced us to a few of the organizers at the majestic garden, filled with statues in the middle and lush grass of Little Italy.   More than any space I've been in New York, this space reminds me of the gardens of Rome.   Organizers were passing out flyers, asking members to support the garden.   

"Please help save the Garden by writing a letter today," noted Kielly, "Takes just a minute at…"

She described the campaign to save the garden. This city owned land has long been a space that offered solace for the community. The Community Board Two has endorsed four letters of support for the garden, lined between buildings and trees in the heart of Little Italy. The community has identified other spaces where the city could build housing. Last fall the city received 1500 letters of support for the garden. Despite this, they still released and RFP calling for the housing project on the site to move forward.  Still, many argue not every lot in the city needs to be a housing unit. Several organizers at the garden had just left the Gardens Rising Tour of the Lower East Side Gardens, highlighting the ways gardens help support neighborhood cohesion and resilience; after Sandy, they offered space for water to be exhorbed into the ground.  Little Italy has only 3 feet of open space person; there should be 100 per user.

The Elizabeth Street Garden
website describes it history:

  • Portion of former site of P.S. 106, later renamed P.S. 21 and originally designed by master school architect C.B.J. Snyder in 1903 with public outdoor space that functioned as a neighborhood social and civic center. The school was torn down in the 1970s.

  • In 1981, Little Italy Restoration Apartments (LIRA) were built on the south side of the school lot, consisting of 152 units of affordable housing. Remaining empty northern portion lay blighted through the 1980s.
  • In 1990, Manhattan Community Board 2’s Parks Committee passed a resolution in favor of leasing it to Elizabeth Street Gallery on a month-to-month basis.
  • Since 1991, when the lease began, the Gallery has surpassed CB 2’s requirement to clean up the lot and has created and cared for the Garden.
What can we do to help:
To help save the Garden, please 
write the mayor and ask your friends and family to do the same.  And please forward this information to other ride participants. 
  1.  Go to and personalize a letter about why the Garden is important to you or click here.
  1. Share on social media: Express your opposition to the City’s plan, share photos of your favorite moments in the Garden and tag with #elizabethstreetgarden and #ESGSaveOurGarden.

Finishing the tour of Elizabeth Street Garden, we visited the alternative site for the development, a vacant lot on Hudson and Clarkson street.

A vacant lot, which Community Board 2 proposes for affordable housing instead of sacrificing Elizabeth St. Garden, at 395 Hudson St, New York, NY 10014, USA photos by Jeannine Kiely and Owen Crowley‎.

Our co host Jamie Jenson learned to defend public space when he was part of the defense of People's Park in Berkeley California.  It wasn't a stretch from the park to the gardens of the Lower East Side.  He took us on a tour of some other gardens in danger of disappearing, including the LaGuardia Corner Garden, at the corner of Bleecker Street, New York, NY, United States.  Today, the garden is designated to be bulldozed by New York University, a real estate developer known to occasionally hold classes around the West Village of New York. 

Its website notes: "The garden was created in 1981 by volunteers on a strip of barren land.  It is maintained and supported by volunteer members.  LCG is registered with NYC’s GreenThumb and is a designated Backyard Wildlife Habitat and Monarch Way Station.  The garden has trees, shrubs, and perennials that attract birds, butterflies, and bees."   The garden lost its court case last year.  But the community is not done with this battle.

Photo by Owen Crowley‎ of a fan at Laguardia Corner Garden. NYU please don't build here.

The next stop on our tour was Liz Christy Garden at the corner of Bowery and Houston where it all began.  This garden, famous for its Green Guerrillas who used to throw seed bombs in vacant lots, was the first garden community garden in New York City. Standing there, we ran into Charles and Aziz from the New York City Community Garden Coalition at the site, just hanging out chatting. 

As Owen Crowley‎ puts it, glad its still here. 

Riding over to the last garden we would visit in Manhattan, we passed Forsyth and Eldridge Street where Adam Purple's Garden of Eden used to preside, before it was bulldozed to make way for affordable housing. 
Some people are trying to put a garden there again, noted Jamie.

Our next stop was the Children's Magical Garden at 129 Stanton St in the Lower East Side. 
The Children’s Magical Garden is over 30 years old, founded by local activists and community members including housing advocate Carmen Rubio.  The community garden's primary mission continues to be to create a safe space for city children to connect to nature.The culture of the community garden is a celebration of the diversity of the Lower East Side, where they host a wide variety of groups and cultural events, as well as active play in nature for children and children at heart age 0-101. You can plant flowers and swing on the swing under the apple tree.
CMG celebrates art-in-nature with our on-going community mural project and egg-shaped chicken coop in the works, as well as the many kinds of art that children create whenever they visit.
Unfortunately, in May 2013, developers forced their way into the Garden, where they trampled and destroyed many plantings and improvements. Attempting to take a portion of the Garden for themselves, 

developers built a construction fence surrounding one of the three lots that make up the Garden. As a result, on March 10, 2014, the Garden was forced to file a lawsuit against the developers in New York State Supreme Court seeking a resolution that the Children’s Magical Garden is the rightful owner of the land, to permanently enjoin the developers from trespassing on the premises, and to recover damages caused by the developers’ interference with the Garden’s rights. Both developers filed motions to dismiss the Garden’s claims, arguing, among other things, that the Garden had failed to state a claim and that it lacked capacity to sue. The Court heard oral argument and, on November 23, 2015, the Court denied the developers’ motions in their entirety and upheld all claims brought by Garden. Since then, one of the developer defendants has brought cross-claims against the other developers, alleging that those other developers are responsible for the damages to the Garden. The parties are presently in the discovery stage of the proceedings and the Garden continues to press forward with its court case seeking the return of its land and a declaration once and for all that the Children’s Magical Garden is the rightful owner. 

On May 15th, the gardeners are holding their Spring Masquerade at Children's Magical Garden. 
Kids immediately dropped by to play when we arrived.

Leaving the garden where my kids played from their earliest years, we rode over the Williams-burg Bridge, chatting about cycling and the culture of the city, zooming south past the Eastern Parkway. 
The Shepard kids in the garden, bottom photo by Jefferson Seigel.

The next stop in the tour was to Maple Street Community Garden at 237 Maple St in Prospect-Lefferts.
Maple Street garden was formed in 2012 by the Maple 3 Block Association and community members who transformed a trash-strewn vacant lot into a multipurpose garden and community space. The lot had been vacant and collecting trash for over a decade since its most recent resident and owner passed away and her home burned down. 

Arriving at the garden, the activist photographer Diane Greene Lent was there to greet us with Tom LaFarge and some of the other gardeners.  LaFarge offered us donuts and cider, telling us the story of the garden, now being threatened with demolition by Housing Urban Development LLC, a private development corporation with a history of subprime lending and irregular title transfers. The garden has been under threat since developers with a faulty deed showed up claiming they own the property.  Yet, members of the garden have fought back, working with 596 Acres to locate a legitimate heir to the property on which the garden stands.  And the city seems simpathetic to their argument to save the garden. 

Ali Jacobs, 31, an active member who lives on Sterling Street stated, “Our neighborhood is beautiful, but very short on public land.  Our garden has no gate nor lock, it is accessible by the entire neighborhood, and is used heavily by children and adults as a common outdoor space.”

"Prospect-Lefferts is a ground zero to developers," notes Diane Greene Lent.  "There are 25 sites within three blocks of our house that are under development."  Many of these projects are priced beyond the reach of most members of the community, making way for luxury housing which will displace local residents. 

Still the gardeners are working to building community and green space in this rapidly transforming global borough.

Photos by Diane Greene Lent 

Our next and final stop was 87 Schenectady Ave. One of the best things about these rides is learning about the geography of the city and its rich history. 
"We just passed the Terminal Moraine, the site of the old glacier," noted John, as we rode. "Without the terminal moraine, most of Long Island, including Queens and Brooklyn, would lie beneath the Atlantic Ocean," explains the NY Parks Department. The parks and cemeteries of Brooklyn are largely built on this.

Salome Perry and several other gardeners there greeted us as we arrived. They walked us through the garden, showing us the chicken coup and the majestic 80-year-old weeping willow in the middle of garden. 
"This is like an oasis in here," noted Solome.  "The community loves it and needs it." 

 The tree looms large over the space, looking down from above, seemingly lending a hand to the community. In the 1980's, the church owned all three lots of the garden, but not all the deeds were signed. And the middle lot, holding the weeping willow, was recently sold under a referee sale for $300,00.00 dollars, unadvertised to the unknowing public.

"It gets to the very heart of New York, these tax lein sales," noted Greg, a volunteer with the garden, who plans to build a passive house, adjacent to the garden. "Once the sale is done, there is nothing you can do."

But not all the news is grim for the garden.  The lot on the corner is now being supported by the city as green space.  "In 2011, this was just weeds.  But we  started cleaning it up.  It was one of the 17 gardens under threat in 2015.  But now it has been saved," noted Greg.  But knowing what he knows, he does not plan to put away the signs noting the garden is under threat.  Not till the paperwork is signed. 

Standing in the back lot, we saw a group of kids ran up and hugged one of the gardeners.  "Look, theres a cat back there," smiled one. Solome offered everyone chocolate mint and thyme from the garden as we were leaving.  "Please come back" she smiled. Riding away, my friend John noted, he worried that in ten years this space will be nothing like it is now.  

But for now, remnants of the Brooklyn of old continues to mix with the Brooklyn of the new. We continue to find ourselves within this dance between cars and bikes, gardens and condos. But the city keeps changing. "Its getting easier to ride here," noted Charlie McCorkell, the founder of Bike Habitat, as I dropped off my bike for repairs in Manhattan. "People used to sneer at me as I rode. Now there are more of us out here.  Makes it easier to ride."

Sunday, I rode through the city, riding through the city shifting and evolving. I dropped by the alternate site for the housing proposed for Elizabeth Street Garden.  The open space on Hudson is by a school., full of murals.  Certainly, there are detractors who want to bulldoze the garden to make way for senior housing at Elizabeth Street.  But there have to be alternatives to destroying vital public spaces for more buildings walled off from the community.  Gardens support resilience, opening badly needed spaces for people to connect.

Riding home, i stopped by the May Day Party at Le Petit Versailles Community Garden, full of radical faeries, artists and queer kids hanging out making a Mayday Pole.  Everyone was sitting, chattingthe fire, relaxing."

I love this garden," I smiled.  "She loves you back," one of the Faeries smiled. 

 Thats the point.  Gardens are spaces for us to find a place and a home in a big mean city.  These are spaces worth protecting and supporting. Save the gardens, save the city, we declared in our banners carried during our ride.  Thats really it.  The New York with a little soul needs these spaces. We all need them, amidst the mural and the asphalt. Thank you to all the gardens and gardeners, who supported our ride and the efforts to make this a smart, more sustainable city.  Its not a question of housing or gardens, its a question of housing and gardens. Smart cities need both.

Save the gardens, save the city.

Images of a city in transition, its vacant spaces, lots, and gardens that keep its stories flowing.

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