Elizabeth St. garden is a rare slice of green paradise in the city

A Sunday free yoga class, as usual, drew a big crowd at the Elizabeth St. Garden.    Photo by Erum Hasnain
A Sunday free yoga class, as usual, drew a big crowd at the Elizabeth St. Garden. Photo by Erum Hasnain

BY ROSA KIM and LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Nestled amid surrounding buildings, the Elizabeth St. Garden is an unexpected green oasis in the middle of a bustling neighborhood. With its overhanging trees, gravel paths and antique sculptures, the garden stands out enough to make many passersby pause and peer through the steel fence to see what it’s all about.

Once the site of a public school, the through lot extending between Elizabeth and Mott Sts., between Prince and Spring Sts., serves the community in a different way these days.

Since last summer, the space has become a neighborhood backyard. A group of residents, after discovering that the space was city-owned land, worked together to create what they say is the only open, green space in the neighborhood — which some call Nolita, but longtimers will never call anything other than Little Italy. 

Emily Hellstrom, one of the garden’s first volunteers, said the space fills a longstanding void in the community.

“Not everybody has a second home to go to or the ability to get out of town on a hot weekend,” Hellstrom said. “This is a shady, cool place to be in and meet up with your neighbors. It’s become a real social center.”

Jeannine Kiely, who has been involved with the garden since the beginning, said the space is “a bridge” that brings together all members of the community.

“It’s multi-age, multi-ethnicity,” she said. “It crosses all different demographics, family types and income levels. You recognize people and you say hello. And the common thread is no longer a gym membership. It’s a re-creation of what was there a hundred years ago — a public auditorium with an open playground in the middle,” Kiely said. “This is a 20th-century version of that in a very green way.”

The garden, which is privately leased by the city on a month-to-month basis to the adjacent Elizabeth Street Gallery, is entirely run by volunteers. According to Kiely, there are more than 100 volunteers who help keep the garden open and running, and their number is growing. 

And there’s a lot to do, including maintaining more than 1,200 plants, like herbs, tomatoes, roses and sunflowers and 2,200 daffodils planted by neighborhood children last fall. The beauty of it, according to John Benscoter, a garden volunteer who has lived in the neighborhood for 23 years, is that the plant beds belong to everyone.

There’s an extensive slate of free and popular programs at the garden. Current offerings include yoga, gardening workshops, movie nights, concerts, children’s story time, painting classes and poetry readings in partnership with McNally Jackson Books. The garden also hosts classes in meridian tapping (a holistic healing method, not a dance style) and tai chi with the Chinatown YMCA.

Long holiday weekends, when one would expect everyone to be out of town, surprisingly have been when the garden has seen some of its highest usage, Kiely said.

Earlier this year, a Harvest Festival there attracted 1,500 people.

A ladybug release, as well as a worm release, in the Elizabeth St. Garden have been a huge hit with local kids.  Photo by john benscoter
A ladybug release, as well as a worm release, in the Elizabeth St. Garden have been a huge hit with local kids. Photo by john benscoter

In a part of the city where greenery is scarce, Benscoter said the garden is an escape.

“I think it’s a respite,” he said. “You can walk out of the grid. You can take a moment, sit and recharge. You can read a book, you can talk with friends, you can have a picnic, do gardening.”

Muj Shah has lived in the neighborhood five years and likes to retreat to the garden for some peace and quiet.

“We don’t have a park or garden like this in the neighborhood close by,” he noted. “Just the fact that you can get a little bit of nature is such a blessing. Apartments in the neighborhood are quite small, so you’re kind of hazed up. There are a lot of tourists and a lot of hustle and bustle. This is very peaceful,” he said appreciatively of the green oasis.

Kiely said her vision for the garden includes creating more ways to bring nature to the community. 

“As green as it is now, there’s so much we can do with it,” she said. “Twenty-thousand square feet — you can do a lot with that.”

One idea is C.S.A., or Community Supported Agriculture, in which people sign up to buy produce from local farms, which they could then pick up at the garden.

For Aaron Booher, another volunteer, one of the biggest rewards of keeping the garden alive is seeing local city kids develop a relationship with the soil, plants, worms, ladybugs and other forms of nature. 

“It was an eye-opener that we have to step back to think what is the quality of life in the neighborhood,” he reflected. “These children should have that within their reach. This is something that is valuable for the next generation as the neighborhood grows.”

Yet, there is also anxiety amid this rare slice of urban paradise. Despite an overwhelming vote earlier this year by Community Board 2 against the plan, Councilmember Margaret Chin is continuing to advocate for a city plan to develop affordable housing here.

In February, as 150 passionate, pro-garden, green-T-shirt-wearing adults and kids packed the meeting auditorium, C.B. 2 voted 30 to 2 to recommend that the garden be preserved as permanent, public, open green space.

However, six months later, Chin and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development are still eyeing the 20,000-square-foot site for up to 130 affordable units.

In a move supported by Chin, the garden had been pegged as a site for more affordable housing in connection with the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) project, located at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.

The community board’s resolution noted that, in 1981, part of the vacant site where the school once stood was sold to LIRA Apartments Co. for the construction of 21 Spring St., which includes 152 units of Section 8 affordable housing. Under an agreement, LIRA was to develop and maintain a public “recreation area” on the site’s remaining portion — but this never occurred.

The C.B. 2 resolution also committed the community board to “an ongoing effort to expand and preserve affordable housing in the district” — though not at the garden, rather in areas like Hudson Square, whose new zoning has an incentive to create affordable housing.

After the board’s vote, Chin responded, “I fully support Community Board’s 2 commitment to develop more affordable housing in our neighborhood. … The site on Elizabeth St. is an ideal place to start; it is one of the largest publicly owned, undeveloped sites in Community Board 2, and also offers the potential for a significant open-space component that everyone can enjoy.”

However, C.B. 2 Chairperson David Gruber said at the time, “We need to do more for affordable housing, but our district is at the extreme bottom of community boards in terms of parks and open space.”

More recently, in a July 31, op-ed, Chin reiterated her call for housing at the Elizabeth St. Garden. It’s critical, she said, “to target underused city-owned lots” to help achieve the Mayor’s affordable housing plan. 

Chin also recently asked the city to consider a Ludlow St. municipal parking lot as a spot for 90 units of affordable housing.

“There’s almost always going to be some argument against giving up one of these city-owned lots,” the councilmember wrote. “Some people might say, ‘Don’t take away my parking!’ Others might say, ‘Don’t take away my green space!’ 

“We simply can’t spend years trying to find those different places for housing that can please everyone,” Chin stressed. “The sites are there, and we have to take advantage of them as swiftly as possible.”

This Wednesday, in a statement to The Villager, Chin said, “As we strive to accomplish Mayor de Blasio’s 10-year plan to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, we must work together to provide these new units for hardworking low- and middle-income New Yorkers. I’m grateful that the city has already committed to building affordable housing on this Elizabeth St. site, which lies within an area that so desperately needs more affordable units. As this process moves forward, I’ll be working with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the community board to determine the best way to implement this new affordable housing plan on Elizabeth St. This is about making sure low- and middle-income families always have a place in our Lower Manhattan community, and I’ll always be proud to stand by that.” 

For its part, H.P.D. says the lot was never intended for use as a public space or garden — this, despite the 1981 LIRA agreement. 

H.P.D. says it is in “the very early phases” of this process. First, it plans to gain control of the site from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Then, the agency would work closely with local officials and community boards “to better understand the community’s needs prior to developing the parameters of this project.”

Meanwhile, the Elizabeth St. volunteers continue to try to get the lot designated as permanent parkland under the Parks Department, and also to set up a 501c3 nonprofit to help maintain it.