What is Margaret Chin thinking? Save the garden!

BY DONNA SCHAPER | It pains me to write this op-ed. The stakes are too high not to. We could lose the Elizabeth St. Garden unless Councilwoman Margaret Chin returns to her old self, when she listened to people and fought for human needs. Instead, it seems she ignores the many people who want the garden as it is, and who also want affordable housing. Could it be that Margaret Chin wants housing only in her district, because then she gets credit for those units, instead of considering the wider picture and advocating for more affordable housing nearby — but over the border of her turf?

I just joined the committee called 21 in 21 — to elect women Council representatives to the New York City Council. Yes, 21 by 2021. The number of women on the Council is declining, and we will lose another one when Margaret is term-limited out. 

But we want more women because we think they listen better to everyone, which is why we are happy with the new majority leader of the New York State Senate.

Reverend Donna Schaper, senior minister of Judson Church, left, with birthday girl Doris Diether at Diether’s 90th birthday bash at the church last Thursday. Three days later, as Schaper writes in this column, there was an urgent discussion among concerned Judson congregants about the dire situation at the Elizabeth St. Garden in Little Italy. Photo by Tequila Minsky

But what happened to Margaret? She doesn’t meet with people. She didn’t tell Community Board 2 she was taking the garden and partnering with Habitat for Humanity’s proposal. She is not returning our calls.

We have invited her to speak at Judson Memorial Church on several occasions about the garden. She agreed to meet with us at her office, but instead she sent her aide. As the pastor of a large institution in the Village, this seems unwise. Of course, our political representatives do not have to agree with me or my constituency. But they should sometimes listen.

I have stories she should hear. I would tell her about the 10-year-old in my congregation and in Margaret’s district who caught a firefly on a movie night at the garden. Or the 80-year-old constituent whose only outdoor time is in the garden. Or all the people at Judson this past Sunday, the 13th, wondering about the garden and praying for a little peace to our south. The councilwoman was invited — neither she nor anyone from her office showed up.

Unfortunately, many people have given up on Margaret. I have not.

So, I am sending this op-ed over to her before I submit it to the newspapers. The reasons are obvious. We want to keep the garden and we hope her political imagination will show us how. We want more housing, as well, but we have heard that she is not interested in the bigger “alternative site” — at Hudson and Clarkson Sts. — because it is not in her Council district.

She talks only about a “compromise” within the tiny green space, in a neighborhood starved for gardens. A better win-win would be to fight for affordable housing on Hudson St. — we found the site, we need an advocate.

We are glad that Chin and Mayor de Blasio seek low-cost housing. But scrapping a community garden and gathering place when there are better sites available is impossible to understand. People need housing AND air, sun, trees and each other. To kill that for tiny housing units makes no sense.

A delegation from Judson visited with Habit for Humanity to express our concerns.  We were well received and hope to remain friends with people whose organization many congregations, including ours, have supported for decades. Yet I worry about Habitat’s brand. They look selfish to destroy a garden in order to get a good low rent.

As I said, writing this piece is painful. Yet, given my mission, I must speak out loud and plainly. I can’t ignore representatives who ignore my people. I can’t let a garden go easily. Once gone, it won’t come back.

Schaper is senior minister, Judson Memorial Church

17 Responses to What is Margaret Chin thinking? Save the garden!

  1. I would ask the author to think more broadly with potential compromises. The Elizabeth Street site was earmarked for affordable housing in 1983(!) and was only opened to the public in 2013 after it became clear that the city was finally going through with its housing plans. It is regrettable that some in the neighborhood have since put so much time and energy into beautifying the space, but the need for affordable senior housing has only risen. Right now, there are over 200,000 seniors on the affordable housing waitlist, and there would be need for this housing even if the alternative site can be developed––which can't be right now, as I understand it, because it contains critical water infrastructure.

    So, as far as I'm concerned, I believe that the best compromise would be developing the housing, but also beautifying Sarah D. Roosevelt Park, the 7-acre park two blocks away. I'm sure the community would still have stories to tell after using that park––and of course, after meeting their new neighbors too.

    • You want compromise? I have one.
      Why doesn’t Chin compromise and build affordable housing in huge Columbus Park in Chinatown between
      Worth and Hester Streets, where so many of her voters play and relax?
      Oh, I forgot. These Chinese people voted for her overwhelmingly, that’s why.

  2. Benjamin Shepard

    Brava Donna Schaper! Great editorial. Yes, we need housing. And gardens. Its not a zero sum game. The creatures in the garden need a home. The people in the neighborhood need open space. There are countless alternative sites to build more affordable housing ! In the era of rising tides, flood waters and climate chaos, gardens create solutions, offering space for storm water drainage and social cohesion not available elsewhere in the commmunity .https://benjaminheimshepard.blogspot.com/2019/01/pull-my-daisy-save-gardens-extinction.html

  3. Tell it, Rev' D! I too have never been more disappointed in an elected leader… for not leading. Clearly, Ms. Chin knows that she can't run for re-election, so she has no need to respond to her voters (term limits have consequences). This park should have never been part of SPURA, but once Chin managed that swindle the dye was cast.

    I live around the block from ESG, and yet have never been inside of it. But for over 20 years, it has been an indispensable pleasure to my walks down this block. Such park space is so rare in this area that to enjoy it, one doesn't need to go inside. Our eyes have it — just being able to look at this park, and through it, is vital to our mental health. Passive visual space makes tall, dense buildings tolerable. Our senses need to stretch, to smell, to gaze beyond, and this park is a rare place where we can see farther than just across the street. Our eyes need to detect texture, color, and depth to stay healthy, and to fill up this garden with more bricks & mortar would be a crying shame.

    Please continue to reach out to our council member, and get her to change course here while there's still time. Ms. Chin should know that forcing seniors to live out a Gift of the Magi would be a real loss for both sides of this issue. A room without light and air nearby would not be giving them a place to Live, but more like giving combs to someone without hair. The unfortunate result would be stacking them up in a neighborhood that most will not be able to afford.

    What a loss it was to have Ms. Chin look the other way when DeBlasio sold off Rivington House. Imagine how many seniors could have lived there, and we could have kept our Garden. Ms. Chin has not represented anyone well in most development issues for a long time. She could have been a champion that we all championed, but now she'll just be another politician who put money and real estate before her voters. But I will pray for her, and hope you will as well.

    • I too will pray for Ms. Chin–may she reap all the karmic recompense that she has sown!

    • The reason she's stonewalling us is because these "affordable" units won't be affordable in perpetuity, and the site can be redeveloped into luxury units; this is apparently what Ms. Chin wants as her legacy.

      The Hudson Street site may also be developed eventually, and Margaret will probably take credit for that as well.

  4. You’re saying the quiet part loud, dude. You gotta stick with stuff like “we need to protect *our community*.” The other NIMBYs will get what you mean without actually having to bring up race.

  5. Elizabeth Street Garden is not only a community garden, it's the center for our neighborhood.
    Margaret Chin has ignored this community for over 5 years. Instead she's worked with Habitat NYC to divide the community and pit the garden against equally important affordable housing.

    With that alternative site we can achieve more of both. THAT is the solution. There is no NIMBYism here, this is yet another divisive tactic being used by groups that are not from the community but have been lobbied by Habitat NYC to get involved and spread fake news and misleading information.

    The garden was open to the public in 2005, and expanded the accessibility in 2013 when the community came together to protect the space. There is affordable housing just next to the garden and residents there use and love the garden.

    This development is a land grab by a private development. Habitat NYC and RiseBoro can only find a limited amount of flimsy excuses for ignoring the alternative site that can give us MORE OF BOTH HOUSING AND GREEN SPACE.

    • If you attended any of the ESG/CB2 meetings where City officials spoke, you'd know that the De Blasio admin' does not see the other location as an "alternative". They've made it clear that they want to build on BOTH sites. That's the fatal flaw in advocating for any win-win.

      • Susan Wittenberg

        To be 100% clear, the Hudson St site is designated as parkland.
        CB2 is only willing to do a swap to save ESG
        otherwise it will be preserved as park.

        • That may be true, but the woman who spoke at the town hall on behalf of the City/DeBlasio made it very clear that they intend to build in that site in the future. It's not an option for any trade-off. Only advisory, CB2 could do no more to stop that than they can with ESG.

  6. The voice of the community to preserve Elizabeth Street Garden remains loud and clear!

    Do not divide the community pitting needs of open space and community gardens against low income housing – there are alternative sites for housing – the community deserves both for a thriving sustainable city life.

    The Elizabeth Street Garden is an irreplaceable asset free of cost to the city that should remain in perpetuity serving the local community and public.

    The garden is recognized around the world as a treasured landmark and promoted as one of the must see sites in Soho/Nolita.

    The magnificent garden and open space once developed will never be reclaimed and the housing has other site options.

    The proposed low income senior housing is capped at 40 years and then could go market rate thus serving these needs and a small group of seniors for one generation. The garden preservation would serve the community and public forever.

    GARDENS ARE URBAN CLIMATE SOLUTIONS

    “It makes no sense to destroy Elizabeth Street Garden that is providing essential green open space in a neighborhood of Nolita /Soho area of New York City that has no other green park spaces. Elizabeth Street Garden serves these essential needs for this community providing a place for adults, seniors and children to connect with nature and cultivate a magnificent garden, while also providing educational and cultural programming free of cost to the community. At this moment in time when the impacts of climate change are affecting our lives, we need to develop solutions to counter carbon in our atmosphere, reduce pollution run-off into our rivers and mitigate impact from extreme weather events, such as flooding from hurricanes — the community gardens are an essential climate solution within the city.

    New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order that reaffirmed the city’s commitment to upholding the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. It directs city agencies to work with the mayor’s Office of Sustainability to create a plan to further reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. Mayor de Blasio and city representatives should recognize that the community gardens are a boon to this initiative and should play a central and pivotal role benefiting this commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement and goals of leading as a model ecologically sustainable city.

    The gardens contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases with trees that absorb carbon dioxide and filter our air. They are mitigating impact of climate change as increasing storms and floods occur by absorbing water and preventing pollution runoff. They are also functioning as critical environmental education and community centers throughout the city connecting residents and children to ecological sustainability and climate issues through a visceral connection to the natural world, our water, air, earth, planet’s atmosphere and an direct experience and understanding of how our local ecosystem and the gardens within the neighborhood connect to the city and global climate challenges..”—- Felicia Young, Founder/Director- Earth Celebrations-Ecological and Social Change through the Arts

  7. Excellent Op-ed> you got all the issues exactly spot on. It is so counterintuitive for Chin to not even consider any alternative sites (there are others). She wears the mantle of the City's foremost advocate of affordable housing for seniors (she heads the Aging Committee at the City Council. Please, Margaret, take off the mantle you don't deserve to wear it any longer.

    You are just another politician with a personal agenda rather than a true representative of your consitenuts. Unfortunately, you kept your seat in the last election by a hair winning the primary by only 212 votes over a unknown newcomer out of thousands of votes cast. Everyone acknowledges it was the over your ESG postion>> pity that.its just our bad luck

  8. Reverend Schaper, I live around the corner from this site, for decades, and like many I want this affordable housing with shared open space.
    This neighborhood has gentrified almost beyond recognition. The small businesses that used to house practical goods and services, run by people of color, (shoe repair, copy shop, grocery store, bodegas) and many of their customers have been priced out.
    The statistics in CB2 are stark. We are 74% white. Median rent: $3500, Median household income: $120,341. 2014
    As to Green spaces: Residential units within ¼ mile of a park: 99.2% (2014). We are getting two more open space sites. When my child was young we gathered in the “Spring Street” playground – not this garden- it didn’t exist for the public (in reality) until 2013.
    CB2 life expectancy is 85.8 years, that’s 4.6 years longer than NYC overall. People get poorer, especially women, as they age. It is our responsibility to plan to house them.
    Half of these units will go to CB2 seniors in need of accessible and affordable housing.
    Half of these units will allow us to welcome new neighbors including 30% formerly homeless seniors.
    We will have an eldercare organization dedicated to the welfare of those who are LGBTQ. Even if not one apartment ends up going to someone of that identity, we will be grateful to have SAGE here as an anchor in this neighborhood.
    We will have Habitat for Humanity to partner with our local efforts to maintain affordable housing stock in lower Manhattan.
    As to wishing “Councilwoman Chin returns to her old self, when she listened to people and fought for human needs”? I think she is listening to constituents and doing what a leader needs to do: lead. As to what cause best addresses "human needs", perhaps she disagrees with your definition of “human needs” or thinks this compromise addresses that best? But the woman who started AAFE was always about affordable housing – this is precisely her ‘old self’.
    “That she ignores the many people who want the garden as it is”. Well, that is closer to true, I believe the “as is” is quite true. Because we don’t live in a time when people who are struggling can afford the rest of us not to share when we have so much.
    Margaret has spoken for her constituents who may not be tech savvy, be in robust health ,have a lobbyist, funding, and/or English proficiency. She speaks for the people who will live here – all 123 of them.
    It is disingenuous to keep offering the Hudson site – it MUST be built on (as anyone who studies or cares about this issue knows) if we are to house 60,000 homeless people including children. Advocate with that Council Member for that site? But that is different from wanting people to live HERE. HERE. Fair Housing Law?
    I looked at your website and noticed that you rightly and proudly post “We seek out opportunities to create community, to join with others similarly committed, and to address the needs of those often left out in our neighborhood…” You speak of advocacy for the homeless and for LGBTQ rights.
    Who exactly is more ‘left out in this neighborhood’ than the people who will live here? Who is in greater 'human need' of your advocacy than the homeless, the LGBTQ and/or the low-income senior?

    • if you're so convinced that the ESG must go, then I'm sure you'll want to help them relocate to Sara Roosevelt Park above Delancey St., yes?
      If you're gonna be that long-winded, then offer an alternative. We all know the problem, but you have no answers. Whatever the answer is, it's definitely not: some people lose their park, but others get to keep theirs, because theirs is a run-down, rat-infested mess.
      You could be a real hero here, if you'll share and share alike.

  9. Brava Donna Schaper! Great editorial. Yes, we need housing. And gardens. Its not a zero sum game. The creatures in the garden need a home. The people in the neighborhood need open space.

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