Gardens cultivate our livability and community

garden, flowers
Flowers and herbs in the rooftop garden. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Reading through our current issue of The Villager, you’ll quickly get a sense of how critically important gardens, parks and open space are to this community.

On Page 1, there is a photo of Barry Benepe, 87, who pioneered the Greenmarkets, who was honored earlier this month, along with his son, Adrian Benepe, the city’s former Parks commissioner, by the Jefferson Market Garden. That garden has brought tranquility and nature to a spot once home to sorrow and anguish, the infamous Women’s House of Detention.

On Page 2, in Scoopy’s Notebook, you can find out about the upcoming memorial at La Plaza Cultural for Adam Purple, the environmental icon whose Garden of Eden was one of the wonders of the Lower East Side, until it was plowed under for an affordable housing project. Readers’ response to our article last week that broke the news of the sustainability pioneer’s death at age 84 was overwhelming. Nearly 30,000 people read the article in a single day alone, and it has garnered more than 16,000 “likes.” Clearly, Purple and what he stood for resonate deeply — and not just here, but around the world. Thanks to Google Analytics, we can see exactly where readers are when they read our articles online. And they were reading about Purple everywhere: from New York to New Delhi, from Seattle and San Francisco to Sydney, from Copenhagen to Khulna, from Wellington to Wailea-Makena.

And then there is the Elizabeth St. Garden, our lead Page 1 story this week. More than 200 supporters of this magical garden turned out at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s hearing last Thursday to protest the Department of Housing and Preservation’s application for a $6 million grant to help build senior affordable housing on the site. To our knowledge, there has never been this kind of massive opposition to an L.M.D.C. funding application.

L.M.D.C. is tasked with revitalizing Lower Manhattan by supporting projects where there is significant community support — this is written into the agency’s own regulations. Yes, there were also 50 supporters of the senior housing project there. But, let’s be clear: The garden advocates are the community in this case. They are the people that live right around the garden, and they are the ones that have claimed it, maintain it, use it and keep it open to the public. The garden has a mailing list in the thousands. The space’s regular free events attract children and seniors alike, many of the latter from the affordable housing that already exists right on this same block, the 130-plus LIRA apartments.

LIRA was built after a public school on the site was torn down. That school had open space, a large playground — so there is precedent on this block for open space.

This garden has transformed this neighborhood into a real community. For it now to be destroyed by a housing project would be a crime.

And let’s not forget: This was a stealth project from the very beginning. It was quietly hashed out by Councilmember Margaret Chin and the Bloomberg administration. Community Board 2, not to mention other local politicians, were never notified till after the fact. This site was basically an “add-on” to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area project, which is not even in the same community board. Yet, while SPURA underwent intensive community review over years, ending in a hard-won consensus among stakeholders, this Elizabeth St. site was slipped into the mix — with zero public review. That is a blatant violation of the public process that is owed to each and every community in this city, for each and every project.

Mayor de Blasio, when discussing the N.Y.U. 2031 project, pledged that, from now on, the city would be taking a “bottom up” approach on development projects, involving the community at every stage. That pledge has been egregiously flouted here.

C.B. 2 has identified an even better alternative site for affordable housing, a city-owned property at Hudson and Clarkson Sts. Five times as many units could be built there, and Councilmember Corey Johnson has stated he supports the idea.

Returning to La Plaza, in the past there were repeated attempts to build senior affordable housing there, too. But each time, they were defeated and the garden was saved. Eventually, the senior housing was built — but somewhere else in the district.

As Allan Reiver, who created the Elizabeth St. Garden in the formerly blighted space, testified at last week’s hearing: If you put a building on a garden, that building will never be removed to create a garden again.

Alternative sites can — are and will be — found for affordable housing. But a magical garden that has created a sense of community and livability where none existed before is irreplaceable.

What would Jane Jacobs do?