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What is Margaret Chin thinking? Save the garden!

BY DONNA SCHAPER | It pains me to write this op-ed. The stakes are too high not to. We could lose the Elizabeth St. Garden unless Councilwoman Margaret Chin returns to her old self, when she listened to people and fought for human needs. Instead, it seems she ignores the many people who want the garden as it is, and who also want affordable housing. Could it be that Margaret Chin wants housing only in her district, because then she gets credit for those units, instead of considering the wider picture and advocating for more affordable housing nearby — but over the border of her turf?

I just joined the committee called 21 in 21 — to elect women Council representatives to the New York City Council. Yes, 21 by 2021. The number of women on the Council is declining, and we will lose another one when Margaret is term-limited out. 

But we want more women because we think they listen better to everyone, which is why we are happy with the new majority leader of the New York State Senate.

Reverend Donna Schaper, senior minister of Judson Church, left, with birthday girl Doris Diether at Diether’s 90th birthday bash at the church last Thursday. Three days later, as Schaper writes in this column, there was an urgent discussion among concerned Judson congregants about the dire situation at the Elizabeth St. Garden in Little Italy. Photo by Tequila Minsky

But what happened to Margaret? She doesn’t meet with people. She didn’t tell Community Board 2 she was taking the garden and partnering with Habitat for Humanity’s proposal. She is not returning our calls.

We have invited her to speak at Judson Memorial Church on several occasions about the garden. She agreed to meet with us at her office, but instead she sent her aide. As the pastor of a large institution in the Village, this seems unwise. Of course, our political representatives do not have to agree with me or my constituency. But they should sometimes listen.

I have stories she should hear. I would tell her about the 10-year-old in my congregation and in Margaret’s district who caught a firefly on a movie night at the garden. Or the 80-year-old constituent whose only outdoor time is in the garden. Or all the people at Judson this past Sunday, the 13th, wondering about the garden and praying for a little peace to our south. The councilwoman was invited — neither she nor anyone from her office showed up.

Unfortunately, many people have given up on Margaret. I have not.

So, I am sending this op-ed over to her before I submit it to the newspapers. The reasons are obvious. We want to keep the garden and we hope her political imagination will show us how. We want more housing, as well, but we have heard that she is not interested in the bigger “alternative site” — at Hudson and Clarkson Sts. — because it is not in her Council district.

She talks only about a “compromise” within the tiny green space, in a neighborhood starved for gardens. A better win-win would be to fight for affordable housing on Hudson St. — we found the site, we need an advocate.

We are glad that Chin and Mayor de Blasio seek low-cost housing. But scrapping a community garden and gathering place when there are better sites available is impossible to understand. People need housing AND air, sun, trees and each other. To kill that for tiny housing units makes no sense.

A delegation from Judson visited with Habit for Humanity to express our concerns.  We were well received and hope to remain friends with people whose organization many congregations, including ours, have supported for decades. Yet I worry about Habitat’s brand. They look selfish to destroy a garden in order to get a good low rent.

As I said, writing this piece is painful. Yet, given my mission, I must speak out loud and plainly. I can’t ignore representatives who ignore my people. I can’t let a garden go easily. Once gone, it won’t come back.

Schaper is senior minister, Judson Memorial Church

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