For those not as familiar with the neighborhoods of Manhattan, in the lower east part of the island is an area called the East Village. To me, and many others, it’s the real New York. Within the East Village is a smaller neighborhood called Alphabet City. (Its name comes from Avenues A, B, C, and D, the only avenues in Manhattan to have single-letter names.) It’s an area that I’ve chosen to get to know at a more intimate level by spending hours walking and discovering the many treasures it has to offer. A little funk, a little grunge, sometimes gritty, but real neighborhoods with diversity galore…and a plethora of beautiful small community gardens, many the oldest in New York City.
It wasn’t until the purchase of Grace Tankersely’s guide book on the Community Gardens of the East Village and my own conversations with garden members did I begin to understand the history and the meaning of these gardens.
Looking back, during the 70′s when NYC was on the verge of bankruptcy, there were budget cuts (police, sanitation, fire departments) and building owners abandoned their properties left and right. By default, these areas became city owned and because of their own financial issues they were unable to care for them. Eventually torn down, these areas attracted the homeless, drug addicts, rats, along with increased violence. But what it also brought was a sense of community with neighbors coming together to clean up these abandoned areas. A neighborhood group, the Green Guerrillas, created their own garden and began helping others who wanted to do the same.
With community gardens on the rise, gardeners worked with the city and in the late 70′s an organization was formed called Operation GreenThumb. One year leases were then drawn up for the gardens on city-owned land. Over the years the gardens brought a sense of community; a place for neighbors to meet, for children to play, for weddings, birthday parties and celebrations.
But then came the 1990′s, real estate boomed and gardens were sold. Neighborhoods exploded with public meetings, movements, lawsuits, and according to Tankersely’s book, even chaining themselves to bulldozers to preserve their gardens. In 1999, 114 community gardens all over New York City were put on the auction block. Imagine the intensity when at the very last minute the gardens were purchased by two groups, the Trust for Public Land and Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project. A few years later an agreement was reached resulting in the Department of Parks and Recreation taking ownership as long as the gardens remained active.
Of course there’s way more to this story and Tankersely does an excellent job providing the details in her book. But the bottom line to keep a garden active requires time, energy and money…all from volunteers. If you’ve been part of a volunteer group you know that brings its own set of problems. People come and go, often leaving a few to do all the work. There’s varying opinions, cultural differences, struggles to raise funds to keep the gardens going…and time needed, lots and lots of time. (If you’ve ever had a backyard or a vegetable garden you know.) I don’t have a full understanding of the leases that are held with these gardens, but I’m sure as I explore and chat with gardeners during the summer months, I’ll walk away with increased knowledge of how these treasures will (hopefully) continue to bring that sense of community for generations to come.
In future posts, I’m excited to share with you my photography and my discussions with the interesting and ever so eclectic group of garden members in this little community of Alphabet City.