Community gardens in the alphabet jungle
What began as a quick visit to the Dorothy Strelsin community garden turned into a breadcrumb trail through Manhattan’s lower east side. New York Restoration Project collaborated with the BBC show 'Ground Force' in 2002 to create this tiny garden between two condominium buildings over the course of 4 days (1). I remember seeing the show when I was 10 years old. Today the garden is managed by local volunteers.
Vegetable patches in the Dorothy Strelsin community garden (1)
I was surprised to find that the garden was empty – strange for a warm Sunday afternoon. A local resident passing by told me to walk north through the alphabet jungle to see other community gardens in lower east side. He explained:
"The area used to be referred to as the alphabet jungle. They ran out of street names so started using letters. Real estate developers used to say that Avenue A was ‘all right,’ Avenue B was ‘bad,’ Avenue C was ‘crazy’ and Avenue D was ‘DEAD.’ But it's not like that any more - it's quite a safe neighbourhood now. There are lots of community gardens in the area."
He was right; there were many. The next garden I came across was closed due to a rat infestation (2). The one after had been filled with sculptures, but was also locked (3). In the fourth, I had more luck. Here I met Efrien, whose family has looked after the Los Amigos community garden for 29 years (4).
Efrien described how the existence of the community gardens is a constant uncertainty. The city slated his community garden for redevelopment 16 years ago, but a friendship between his sister and Nydia Velázquez, the congresswoman for 12th district at the time, saved the garden days before it was due for bulldozing. Efrien’s sister lives in Florida now, and he considers the community garden to be at risk of redevelopment once again. His only consolation is that there are several significantly larger community gardens nearby that would be more desirable for new condos.
“I’d say most of the time when the city have some project in mind, it’s very hard to change their plans. It is possible, but we gotta fight. We gotta fight in the right way. It’s very hard to fight the system, because you don’t got no power, the city got the power. But it is possible.”
Efrien, in Los Amigos community garden (4)
Spurred on by this information I continued from Avenue B to C, and found Parque De Tranquilidad (7) being tended to by a volunteer. Across the street, a group of Cubans were playing backgammon under a rudimentary hut in an unmarked garden (8) full of vegetable patches, flowers, grass, ponds, and makeshift seating – and marked, as if conquered, with a Cuban flag. This was surely one of the gardens that Efrien described as vulnerable, covering nearly an acre of land.
Unofficial community garden established by Cuban enclave (8)
The next garden had a botanical focus (9) and came complete with two guitarists – one black, one white – wafting music over a handful of idle readers lounging on mismatched furniture along the paths. Circling back to Avenue B brought me to the 6&B community garden (10), where a members meeting was occurring. I spoke with one of the volunteers who had been particularly vocal during the meeting – Barbara – about the establishment of the garden. In order to get permission from the city to create the community garden, the small team of local advocates formed a 501(c)(3) with the help of two New York organisations: Green Thumb (a division of the parks department) and 596 Acres, who help residents with the administrative hurdles. Barbara also had some advice for my research on the Kenwood embankments:
“You gotta get to know the storekeepers, you gotta do something there, like put up a sign and say, ‘we’re doing yoga’ or ‘we’re having a drum jam.’ Start by getting people from the community involved.”
Barbara addressing fellow members of 6&B community garden (10)
The day’s exploits raised a number of questions. Firstly, why are some gardens popular whilst others are deserted? Could this simply be that the neighbourhood is saturated with green space and so there are more gardens than there are volunteers willing to open them? Or perhaps the reasons are more specific to the characteristics of each individual plot? One lesson that I can take away from this walk is that visual informality – an impression left by the haphazard nature of the 6&B community garden – does not indicate a lack of formal organisational structure. It is also clear that to some individuals, these gardens are very important.
“Nobody wants this area of the city to be developed. The gardens are beautiful and it's nice to know there's any kind of community in New York."