Strolling through the steamy streets of the East Village — it’s been a scorching couple of weeks here in New York — we occasionally stumble across a lush sanctuary, a luxuriant community garden offering refuge from the heat. These are New York’s secret gardens.
Sometimes the community gardens come as a wonderful surprise — we feel a welcoming breeze and turn in the direction of its source to discover a tangle of vines dripping over a fence and a verdant garden tucked between two tenement buildings. Finding one at this time of year is like discovering an oasis in the desert.
At other times, the gardens are not so secret. One of our favourites, the 6th and B Garden, is the life of the block, always buzzing with activity and people taking advantage of this piece of paradise in the concrete jungle.
Aside from gardening, there’s always something going on — belly-dancing classes, yoga, storytelling, poetry nights, film screenings, jazz concerts — along with the occasional tourist who can’t believe their luck, taking photos or simply enjoying a breather and the chance to rest their weary feet.
With each new garden we encounter, we notice the differences between them. Each boasts its own very distinctive personality, and the more we get to know these gardens, the more intrigued we become about them.
There are charmingly-cluttered ‘casita’ gardens, with a Latin flavour, with chickens running about the place, where groups of Puerto Rican friends sit around tables in the evenings playing cards as they down cold beers.
There are wild, English cottage gardens with beds of vibrant flowers and shady trellises, where people read books, sunbathe, picnic, or simply appreciate their idyllic surroundings.
Some gardens have a more arty bent that’s very East Village, with whacky paraphernalia decorating their fences, and kooky sculptures scattered about the place.
Others are like community farms, crammed with individual plots of healthy vegetables, fragrant herbs, and pagodas shaded with grape vines.
Who needs to trek down to Central Park when there are these wonderful spots in our neighbourhood?
We wondered how New York’s secret gardens came into being, who tends them, and, as visitors to the East Village, whether we could use them. We decided to do a little digging…
New York’s Secret Gardens — Urban Oases in the East Village
Liz Christy Garden — the First Community Garden
As we wander along the meandering path running through this little bit of heaven at the busy intersection of the Bowery and Houston Street, Donald points out fish ponds, a turtle crossing a path, thriving tomatoes, apricots and grapes, woodpeckers and hummingbirds, the tallest redwood in New York City, and a community BBQ.
Donald tells us how in 1973 Christy gathered her friends and neighbours together to clean up an abandoned, derelict lot and plant a garden.
In doing so, she set up the Green Guerillas, an organisation responsible for the ‘greening’ of what was a blighted urban wasteland by turning unused blocks, most devastated by arson, into lush community gardens.
We love their motto: “It’s your city, dig it!”
Green Guerillas’ volunteers continue to provide inspiration, encouragement, training, technical assistance, and support to volunteer gardeners across the city.
We ask Donald if there is anything that visitors to the city can do to help New York’s secret gardens.
“This is how to do it!” Donald assures us. “Get in touch, visit a garden, chat to the locals, join us for a barbecue. Everybody’s welcome!”
Alphabet City Gardens — A Flowering of Resistance
Our guides on a walking tour around our neighbourhood gardens in Alphabet City are Elissa Sampson and Howard Brandstein.
Elissa has written ‘A Flowering of Resistance’, a history of the community gardens and created self-directed walking tours, maps, garden highlight slideshows.
Howard is one of the original community gardeners and director of the 6th Street Community Centre, from where a healthy gardening movement sprouted.
He was also one of the original East Village ‘homesteaders’, squatters who were sold the devastated buildings they had lived in, repaired and renovated so that they met building codes, and then went and helped others do the same.
“Many of these plots began life as neglected, vacant, burnt-out lots that were renovated by volunteers who rescued this neighbourhood,” Elissa reveals.
“They are now green havens, tended on a volunteer basis by local residents. The gardens are located mostly in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and many are now funded by NYC’s Green Thumb program.”
“Politicians and developers see the gardens as a luxury, but they’re not,” Elissa says firmly. “They are a necessity in neighbourhoods such as these, where a large percentage of the population is poor — the median income here is half that of the median income of Manhattan!”
“These are the only green spaces these people have access to,” she explains. “They unite the community. They provide places to bring people together — people who otherwise might not mix.”
New York’s Community Gardens Under Threat
Sadly, since we met Donald, Elissa and Howard, the situation has changed.
Despite a court order preventing demolition of the gardens (after Mayor Guiliani refused to renew the Green Thumb leases in the 1990s and sent bulldozers in with the goal of auctioning off the land to developers) and a 2002 agreement aimed at protecting community gardens from private developers, new rules have overturned those assurances.
The gardens are once again under threat of demolition and redevelopment.
If you prefer to see the East Village dotted with gardens rather than luxury condominiums and you’re in New York and see a petition, sign it.
You could also send a letter of protest or if you’re in New York attend a public meeting on 10 August, 2010.
See www.treehugger.com for more details.