I finally closed on my new apartment, so I’ll be heading uptown later this week and moving in. One thing I’ll miss in the East Village is the plethora of community gardens. I thought it would be fun to sing a farewell love song to Alphabet City, an ode to the gorgeous oases that dot its streets. (If you don’t know where this area is, here’s a little help.)
I drew a map of the neighborhood’s community gardens. Look at them all. Amazing! Each is named. Some are over 35 years old.
When I first started wandering around the hood on my morning walks, I was surprised by the number of gardens. I’d never seen so many gardens in one area before, a number of them mature and substantial. After all, NYC real estate is valuable, and I wondered how these patches of community-supported soil had managed to stave off man’s irrepressible impulse to claim and build, not to mention the city’s ability to use “eminent domain” to seize any patch of earth it chooses.
The story of the development of these gardens is long and rich. In the 1960s and 70s, this part of the city was deeply neglected, falling prey to crime and slumlords. A number of buildings were destroyed by arsonists. The city razed these buildings, leaving open land, and since the neighborhood was dangerous and destitute, there was no interest in rebuilding.
In 1973, Liz Christy, an artist and activist, founded an environmental group called the Green Guerillas. They began by throwing “seed bombs” over the fences surrounding the lots, packed with seeds, fertilizer and water. She caught the attention of the city’s Parks Department, who leased her an empty lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston Streets for $1 a month. This became the Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden, the first community garden in the city. It eventually contained 60 vegetable beds and inspired a horticultural revolution.
In 1978, the GreenThumb program was born, which encouraged neighborhood groups to lease land parcels for sometimes as little as a dollar a year. This program was intended to encourage grassroots neighborhood revitalization and was wildly successful. The catch? The gardens created were considered temporary and the city still retained rights over the land. This concept hummed along nicely until the 1990s, when the city decided it wanted to sell some of the gardens to developers to shore up the budget. By this point, the gardens had become such an integral part of their neighborhoods that the prospect of losing them was unthinkable. This being New York, all hell broke loose.
The Attorney General had to step in to broker a deal. One of the key players in that deal was Bette Midler, who, appalled at the lack of community green space in the city, had founded the New York Restoration Project a few years earlier. Her group bought 52 of the gardens outright. Of the 520 gardens in the city at that time, 400 were saved, many becoming permanent as part of the Parks Department.
Today, NYC has about 640 community gardens scattered among the five boroughs, with about 60 clustered in the East Village and Lower East Side. The gardens boast 20,000 members; the gardens themselves make up about 32 acres. Wow! is all I can say. Each garden hosts events and workshops and all are open to the public.
The garden below is a tiny sliver of land, yet it explodes with greenery.
Each garden has its own sign.
A bonus of the gardens is that lucky apartment dwellers can look out their windows and instead of seeing other buildings, they see trees.
Mural and garden and comfy bench! Does it get any better?
Some gardens contain sculptures, decorative nicknacks, or someone’s latest creative installation.
These lots once represented the detritus of a neighborhood under siege. It’s amazing to see how the concentrated work of determined visionaries was able to utterly turn around this devastation and from it, create not just a sense of community, but a vital part of the local culture that brings people together with a sense of purpose and joy.
Today, it’s thrilling to walk in Alphabet City and stumble on these lush pockets of green, welcoming anyone to sit down and take a deep breath. I’ll miss them on my morning walks, but I’ll be back often to wander among them again.