At former Esperanza, garden activists hold out hope


By Jefferson Siegel

On the unofficial end of summer last weekend, the smell of sizzling veggie dogs wafted through the afternoon air as the environmental advocacy group Time’s Up! stoked the grill in El Jardin del Paraiso Community Garden on E. Fourth St.

However, this group of garden activists had more than just eating on their mind as they spent Saturday holding a “Save Our Gardens” potluck barbecue and bike ride. 

In a little more than a week, an eight-year-old agreement preserving hundreds of the city’s green spaces will expire. Although new rules have been put forth that might seem to offer hope for preserving the gardens, they aren’t yet law and are subject to revision. 

“Mayor Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe deny the permanent status granted to hundreds of gardens under the 2002 preservation agreement that is set to expire on Sept. 17, even though the city’s 2002 press release clearly states that hundreds of gardens are permanently protected,” said Ben Shepard, one of the organizers. 

So, after spending several hours in the idyllic East Village garden that boasts frogs in a small pond and a real treehouse, several dozen people, led by a faux bulldozer made from a shopping cart, wended their way up Avenue C, turning onto Seventh St. Their destination was Eastville Gardens, a residential building on the site once occupied by El Jardin de la Esperanza (“The Garden of Hope”).

Chanting “Viva Esperanza!” several people gently rammed the mock bulldozer against the building’s facade in an imitation of a real bulldozer that, in the same spot 10 years earlier, had plowed the garden under. 

El Jardin de la Esperanza was a labor of love for Alicia Torres, who lived in the building next door. She cultivated a deserted lot into a mini-paradise. Family and neighbors maintained it for 22 years. When the developers set their sights on the E. Seventh St. space, attempts were made to stall the lot’s destruction.

Then-state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer crafted a court challenge that would eventually preserve the status of gardens citywide. But developer BFC Partners wasn’t waiting. In February 2000, police evicted protesters who had taken up positions in the garden, many chained to fence posts and a large sculpture of a coqui (a small Puerto Rican frog). Thirty-one protesters were arrested. Bulldozers plowed the garden, and the site was boarded up.

It would later be revealed that BFC Partners and its principals had made sizeable contributions to then-Mayor Giuliani — $46,800 over the preceding three years.

As last Saturday’s action was ending, a building resident in a Superman shirt emerged, looking surprised. Stepping around the shopping-cart bulldozer, Jared Van Zweeden said he has lived in the building for a year and was unaware of the former garden.  

“I think that’s terrible,” he said when told the sad tale of Esperanza. “I love the community gardens,” he added before one protester gave him a hug and others cheered. 

“Esperaza Community Garden is the most visible of gardens to be bulldozed in recent years, including Harmony Community Garden and Cabo Rojo,” Shepard explained. “We organized the action to protest the proposed new rules that, if passed, would allow gardens to be illegally transferred to development, placing hundreds of gardens at risk of being bulldozed.”  

With the Sept. 17 expiration date looming, garden lovers have their green thumbs crossed that the original preservation agreement will be made permanent.

Holding out some hope, on Tuesday, the Daily News reported that the city will announce greater protections for community gardens this week. However, according to a source, the new rules will still stop short of guaranteeing the gardens’ existence.

The News quoted an administration source saying, “Legally, nothing is permanent, but we need to make protections stronger.” The rules reportedly would require the city to give the community additional notice if a garden might be threatened, and would give extra protections to gardens that are in good condition and where gardeners follow city rules.