Posted Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009 at 3:38 pm
So I’ve been doing a tour of community gardens here in New York.
Pardon my interruption for this breaking news alert: it’s winter. For all my fellow Angelenos that means it’s cold.
The wickedness of the icy wind is hard to fathom for someone used to the sunny climes. So I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve only been to a few gardens, since I can’t stay out long before hurrying back to the apartment and cozying up next to the radiator. Ah…New York.
Though I love all the arts and the people watching and the energy of the city, the New York landscape has never particularly enchanted me. Every square inch, it seems, is crammed with buildings in its dense grid of grimy traffic-jammed streets.
So on this trip, I was curious to investigate where buildings weren’t. The negative space. The in-between places where nature, however improbably, might present itself.
Setting out from the West Village, my husband and I braced ourselves for the 30 degree temperature and walked the half-mile to the Lower East Side. The gritty streets in this part of town are a cultural smorgasboard New York is famous for. 100 year old bakeries are next to hipster thrift stores are next to mosques, bodegas and social services buildings.
Shockingly, according to the map I downloaded, there was also a huge cluster of community gardens here as well. In fact, there are no less then 57 community gardens within this 1 square mile!
The biggest and most impressive one we saw was El Sol Brilliante on East 12th Street. Taking up four vacant lots, this huge garden is surrounded by an incredible black steel fence created by the artist Julie Dermansky featuring a cutout of a giant whimsical jungle. In existence for thirty years, the garden is filled with benches, stone sculptures, murals, tons of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, you name it. It’s obvious that this was a much loved and cared for piece of land.
Flabbergasted by the number of gardens I was seeing, I did a bit of research to discover why.
The Lower East Side, A.K.A ‘alphabet city’, was for years a neighborhood synonymous with drugs, prostitution and garbage-strewn streets. Arson of tenement buildings abandoned by their owners was common and these burned out vacant lots festered with crime. Anyone who walked past them was in danger.
In 1973, plants, as they often do, came in to save the day. Artist (and my new hero) Liz Christy founded Green Guerillas, a group that went around throwing “seed bombs” into these hell zones, intending to transform the landscape . She got some friends together and started clearing out a vacant lot on Bowery and Houston and established the first community garden in NYC. Though under constant threat by developers the garden still remains, growing strong.
After five years of Christy’s non-stop organizing, the city soon realized that it was to their benefit to let these volunteers cultivate the space. When community gardens went in, crime went down, not to mention the increased property values. In 1978, NYC established the Green Thumbs program to step in and manage the process.
Today, there are over 800 community gardens in the city.
So it was that when people gave up on a neighborhood, gardens came in to save it. And it wouldn’t be long before the people would have to save the gardens in return.
In the 1990s, Mayor Guiliani decided he wanted to turn the gardens back into housing and gave the deeds over to the Housing Department rather then the Green Thumbs program. Well, New Yorkers weren’t havin’ that. They swung into action and joined with larger groups, like Bette Middler’s New York Restoration Project, creating a media blitz and a groundswell of protest.
Luckily they were able to buy a lot of the land back from the city, and stop much of the impending destruction. Even so these gardens are always under threat. Especially now that the Lower East Side has been yuppified, complete with its own Whole Foods.
Right now of course the gardens are all locked and dormant for the winter. However, the raised beds, sculptures, and murals are all signs that they are much loved.
I can’t wait to come back in June, in the full swing of summer, and see what’s growin’.
More pics HERE