A golden garden nurtured by community’s love

Joseph Reiver, executive director of Elizabeth St. Garden, and volunteer Alina in the Little Italy horticultural hot spot. Photos by Bob Krasner

BY JOSEPH REIVER | Our community has been fighting for more than five years to save the Elizabeth St. Garden. This convoluted struggle, full of blurred lines where communities and values have been set against one another, is the carefully orchestrated outcome of Mayor Bill de Blasio, Councilmember Margaret Chin and the leaders of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s narrow-minded agenda. But beyond the city’s smoke and mirrors of false narratives and misleading marketing, there lies a simple solution to this distorted issue.

That simple solution is to use the alternative site — a gravel-filled lot at 388 Hudson St. — to build five times more affordable housing with green space and to save Elizabeth St. Garden in its entirety for the community. While the community and many elected offcials have continued to propose this solution, it has only been brushed aside time and time again.

Instead, the city is planning to sell the Elizabeth St. Garden’s land to the development team comprised of Pennrose, Habitat for Humanity NYC and RiseBoro. The developers plan to cut down the trees, dig up the lawn, level the flower and herb garden beds and destroy a community garden used by hundreds of people daily — all in order to build 123 nonpermanently affordable 300-to-400-square-foot apartments, along with luxury retail, plus 11,200 square feet of office space for Habitat NYC.

Ella Barnes, creative director of the Elizabeth St. Garden.

In their efforts to make this plan as digestible as possible while sidestepping the housing-versus-green space issue plaguing New York City, the developers propose to build a small, privately owned open space on the site’s Mott St. side, sitting in the shadow of their seven-story building. This 8,600 square feet of “open space” includes 2,000 square feet of paved tunnel, lined by luxury retail.

As for the alternative lot at 388 Hudson St., the city simply says it is considering building housing there, as well.

If this response feels like being shortchanged, that’s because it’s careless and unjustly ignores the thousands of community residents who have been fighting for years to save the garden.

The city’s project slated for the garden is the type of short-term planning that pits communities — as well as the basic needs of affordable housing and public green space — against one another. This development leads to toxic community board hearings (the ones where everyone needs a drink afterward), and false, hate-filled propaganda, such as the nonsensical claim that garden supporters are against affordable housing and the homeless.

It’s no Sphinx-like riddle who created and founded the Elizabeth St. Garden. It was Allan Reiver, left, posing with Renee Green, chairperson of the Elizabeth St. Garden nonprofit organization that runs the space. Reiver created the garden 27 years ago because he was sick and tired of looking at the blighted vacant lot that used to be there. Local residents were enthusiastic about his idea, feeling that a garden with statues and monuments, for one thing, was “quieter” than a parking lot.

Our community-led, by-the-people solution does not force us to choose either senior affordable housing or a public green space but instead allows us both to preserve Elizabeth St. Garden and put a vacant gravel lot to good use. Our solution simultaneously achieves more affordable housing — ideally, permanently affordable — and more public green space. Our solution provides H.P.D., Chin and the de Blasio administration with the opportunity to listen to and work for the people they claim to represent — even if it takes more than five years of advocacy and thousands of people speaking out.

Since the selection of the development team, Chin and de Blasio have slipped quietly out of the spotlight, to let organizations with cleaner reputations take their place at the helm. But to our community’s disappointment, the leaders of these organizations have continued to offer similarly hollow and dismissive responses to our community’s outcry to save the garden.

As partners of this development project, Habitat NYC and RiseBoro each have a leading voice — and a choice to make.

They can choose to continue supporting an outcome that devastates a community, claiming that they are “just responding to the R.F.P. [request for proposals from developers] put out by H.P.D.” (Karen Hycox, C.E.O. of Habitat NYC) and that “this is the best development [we’re] going to get” (Scott Short, C.E.O. of RiseBoro).

Or they can choose to stand with the affected people of this community and work with us to achieve a true win-win solution.

The lush green oasis in the heart of Downtown is a treasured spot to relax and recharge. You can listen to music on your phone, play music on an instrument or enjoy live music whenever it’s featured at the garden, which sports an impressive array of popular free public events.

By moving forward with their plans, Habitat NYC and RiseBoro are threatening a habitat for humanity that already exists — one for people of all ages and backgrounds and one for the dwindling, forgotten and voiceless existence of nature. With all that would be lost, how could Habitat NYC and Riseboro support such a strongly opposed project with such a spiteful and insensitive name as “Haven Green”?

The outcome at the Elizabeth St. Garden will set the precedent for how the city deals with the need for both public green spaces and affordable housing. If such an injustice can happen to Elizabeth St. Garden — with all of our local, city and worldwide support, hundreds of volunteers, the backing of the majority of our local politicians and of Community Board 2, and an alternative-site solution — then it can happen anywhere and to anyone.

The Elizabeth St. Garden is a spot this Monarch butterfly wouldn’t want to miss on its journey. With butterflies and birds singing amid the leafy greenery, the garden provides a welcome natural respite amid the cemented-over cityscape.

The city does not prioritize public green spaces as much as it prioritizes affordable housing; yet the two are unequivocally symbiotic in affecting the livability of our city, and therefore must be preserved and expanded as such, and not separately.

Community-led, organic initiatives that sit outside the confines of standard city processes are the spices that sustain New York City’s many celebrated flavors. But while the city preaches community involvement and community-based decisions, it does little to actually support such organic initiatives.

When such initiatives do spring up between the concrete slabs of city process, those involved with the effort must jump over hurdle after hurdle in order to exist and work toward change. Take a moment and imagine how much Elizabeth St. Garden would have grown by now if Margaret Chin had at first recognized the value the garden brings to the community… .

Instead, Chin has been trying to nip the garden in the bud because it doesn’t fit in her (behind closed-doors) agenda. Here, the fate of Elizabeth St. Garden will set another precedent for how city councilmembers abuse their power. Most Council District 1 residents are familiar with Chin’s relationship with developers and the many large-scale construction projects popping up all over on her “watch.”

Edwin Morris, author of “The Gardens of China,” is a Lower East Side resident who volunteers at the garden. He is responsible for bringing to the garden some of its more exotic plants, such as the Nymphaea (native to India) and the Chinese lotus.

Although a two-time Democratic incumbent, Chin nearly lost the November 2017 primary election due, in part, to her stance on Elizabeth St. Garden. This issue is personal for her. Chin slipped a lie — dubbing the garden a “vacant lot” — into a last-minute amendment for a huge development in another community board district (C.B. 3) with no public review from C.B. 2 or the affected community. She then ignored the thousands of people crying out for years to save the garden. She did this by hijacking the good-intention theme of affordable housing and disregarding better alternative sites. It all begs the question: To what end can a councilperson abuse her power and sell out her district?

When a councilperson and a mayor ignore the people to serve their own agenda, they’ve rendered themselves incapable of both looking beyond the end of their terms in office and planning for the city’s future — for our futures, and those of the generations to come.

Adding to the garden’s uniqueness, it is filled with beautiful monuments collected — and installed with a forklift — by Allan Reiver. The local gallerist has leased the formerly rubble-strewn lot from the city on a monthly basis for nearly three decades.

New York City’s soul is slipping away. If you’re from here or have lived here long enough, you’ve felt this loss to one degree or another — that sense that nothing gold can stay. The city is losing its unique places one by one, the places that give the streets their character. The places that make us so damn proud to be New Yorkers born and raised, and that attract people from all over the world to come and experience the city for themselves. The soul, the essence, the big apple on the tree of the world.

Elizabeth St. Garden is more than just a public green space. It’s a sanctuary for art and sculpture. It’s a center for the community. It’s the heart of our neighborhood. It’s a symbol for what can organically grow in an abandoned lot, if the right old kook plants a seed, and we come out of our boxes into the sunlight and tend to the green. We find our own personal story between the flowers, grow with the trees, and discover a cycle of giving to the giver who always gives back.

Sustainability, for the people by the people.

As a conservation land trust, the garden would be owned by the community nonprofit Elizabeth St. Garden (ESG). It would be entirely self-sustainable, unique, organic and for all — and the city wouldn’t have to spend a penny.

This is a future that protects and preserves a vital magic, a future that allows the garden to grow, and a future that we will continue to fight for. Because our community need not sink to grief if we allow nature to hold its golden hue.

Reiver is executive director, Elizabeth Street Garden

Correction: The original version of this article said the city’s plan is for HabitatNYC to get 1,120 square feet of office space in the Haven Green project, when in fact, under the scheme, the organization would get 11,200 square feet of office space.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *