OPINION: Elizabeth St. Garden roots us in real New York

Elizabeth St. Garden   8/21/2018
Elizabeth St. Garden 8/21/2018

BY BARBARA CAPORALE | In the late 1800s to early 1900s my great-grandparents had a dry-goods store on Elizabeth and Prince Sts., which they lived above.

The Elizabeth St. Garden would have been such an amenity for my grandfather to play in as a youth, and families to picnic in.

I’m certain much playing was done in the streets since they were safer then, and children could be watched from the windows. I do not know what green space existed then other than the St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral yard cemetery. The old public school on the Elizabeth St. Garden site allegedly provided some community space.

One of the signature lion sculptures in the Elizabeth St. Garden. (File photo by Bob Krasner)

The statues and monuments that exist in the Elizabeth St. Garden bring us back to rooted history, when buildings were designed artistically, with sculptural detail — things that I crave to cling to for perspective and connectivity.

Everything that’s built nowadays is box-like, too much glass, or just plain ugly.

My grandfather became one of the first homegrown Italian architects to graduate from Pratt. He went on to build homes in Brooklyn and other parts of the city and, I’m sure, lots of the older brickwork buildings in Lower Manhattan with more personality. The homes that I know of that he built in Brooklyn all supplied green space, probably since his youth was greatly lacking in that and he realized what families need.

When I look at the statues in the Elizabeth St. Garden, I am transported back in time. I see my relatives, long skirts, straw hats, knickers, and I hear “While Strolling Through the Park One Day” in my head, and Italian mandolins an accordions.

Maybe some of the proponents of the Elizabeth St. Garden are new gentrifiers. However, they join those of us who have struggled to remain in our neighborhoods. They understand what is of value to families, and the needs for humans to interact or just reflect in urban spaces with nature, near their mostly tiny apartments in tenement buildings.

We have learned from the recent history of new development in the neighborhood, that you never get the community benefit that was promised — and it takes so long for any green to be re-established.

Yes, we need housing. But the Haven Green affordable housing project should be switched to the West Side site, approved by Community Board 2, that is much more developable and would provide more units — more units that would be low income and ultra-low income, truly affordable.

And thank you — not! — Rudeness Giuliani for selling off most of the city-owned land, making creating new affordable housing development more difficult.

I actually recently went and found the storefront where my great-grandparents had their dry-goods store that they and their family lived above. I went inside and looked at the old brick high ceilings and wood beams and touched everything. LOL. And then I also went down Mulberry St. to find where they had a store in the 1890s.

I’m sure my Italian forebears would have supported saving the beautiful Elizabeth St. Garden. I know they would be deeply saddened to hear that Mayor de Blasio now wants to destroy it.

Caporale is a longtime activist in Downtown Manhattan.