The desktop image on my computer screen is a photograph of a garden, sunny and lush with stands of foxgloves, rhododendron and daisies; a path leads away from the viewer toward the green shade of an arbor. The name of the garden is El Jardin de las Esperanza—the garden of hope. I put the picture up a couple of years ago as a reminder of a wonderful late October afternoon Isabell and I spent together. It was 1999 and Isabell was living in New York; I was in the city on business. I stayed in Isabell’s tiny basement apartment in the South Bronx. She had taken a year off from college and many of her friends were older than she was, squatting buildings, hopping freight trains, working in community gardens. Isabell was entering into a whole, complete alternate universe that I was only beginning to understand.
One afternoon Isabell and I took the train into Manhattan and spent a couple of hours in Esperanza. It was autumn so there wasn’t much blooming, but the garden was still lovely, crisscrossed, though it wasn’t large, with paths and benches and arbors. As we walked deeper into the garden the ambient noise of New York traffic faded away; somewhere nearby children were laughing. We knelt side-by-side on the woodchip path, digging up clumps of weeds and Isabell gave me some background on the garden. It had been founded by a neighborhood grandmother named Alecia Torres who began by clearing rubble and trash from a narrow vacant lot on 7th Street near Avenue C. This was during New York’s financial crisis when thousands of buildings were simply abandoned. Arson was common—many people believed that owners were torching their buildings for the insurance money–and the burnt out lots left behind frequently became neighborhood trouble-spots. By 1977 when Alecia Torres began her garden New York had 25,000 abandoned lots. All over the city people began to take the initiative with neglected open spaces, and gardens with wonderful names—the All People’s Garden, the Garden of Eden, the Children’s Garden of Love—sprang up. In stressed and under-served neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, which had close to 80 gardens by 1990, community gardens were true oases, providing not just green space but a place for people to meet and work on community problems.
In the meantime, New York City pulled out of its fiscal crisis and property values began once again to climb. Developers started nosing around once-untouchable neighborhoods, repackaging them as hip and trendy “scenes”. In 1994 newly-elected mayor Rudy Giuliani instructed the New York Department of Housing Preservation & Development to identify lots to sell at auction, and a relentless assault on community gardens began. Although the city owned 11,000 unbuilt-on lots, the city’s community gardens were first in line for auction. The common argument was that the gardens needed to make way for affordable housing, though very little affordable housing seemed to come out of the garden sales. The fact that they had already been cleared made the gardens more salable, as did the fact that they were in neighborhoods that were increasingly appealing to developers—never mind that it was often the gardens themselves that had helped to stabilize those neighborhoods. As the Giuliani administration went into its second term, it also became clear that many of the gardens were de facto incubators for community activism—another fact that hurried them to the auction block.
The day Isabell and I weeded in Esperanza a gentle man named Aresh was working on a 13-foot high 8-foot wide wire mesh and canvas frog whose wide black, yellow and red snout hung out over the chain link near the entrance to the garden. Nearby some children were gathered around a battered wooden table painting papier-mache frog masks. The frog, Aresh explained, was a coqui; in Puerto Rican tradition the little coqui often takes on much bigger adversaries and frightens them away. The children were going to be part of a parade that weekend, one of many events being mounted around that time to try to save the garden from development. After a couple of hours the shadows lengthened and Isabell and I dusted off our knees, washed our hands, put the trowels and clippers away in the garden shed, and walked to the subway. The next day I flew home.
I didn’t think much more about Esperanza. A couple of years ago, however, I was researching something on line that reminded me about that pleasant afternoon in the garden. Out of curiosity I Googled “esperanza garden new york”. I found a picture of the garden, the same one I now use as the image on my desktop. Under the picture in bold red letters was written “Status: BULLDOZED February 15, 2000.”
“I didn’t know they’d torn Esperanza down!” I said to Isabell the next time I saw her.
“What did you think, Mom?” she said. “We talked about what was happening when we were there.”
“I know,” I said, “but I didn’t think they’d really do it.”
“Of course they were going to do it,” Isabell said. “They were always planning to do it. It was just a matter of when.”
Isabell filled me in on what had happened in the months between October and February. By the time I visited it the garden had already been sold at auction to a developer who had bulldozed four other gardens on the Lower East Side and had put up “80/20” housing—80 percent of the units could be sold at market value and 20 percent were set aside as affordable housing. After ten years that 20 percent could also be sold at market prices. Early in November the garden group was sent a five-day eviction notice. Commumity gardens had found an advocate in the New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who sought an injuction from the State Supreme Court against demolition plans, arguing that the gardens, should have the legal status of parks.
But while the legal arguments were being prepared and the wait began for the February 15 hearing, the gardeners and their supporters mounted their own inventive defenses. It turned out, for instance, that the coqui I had admired that day had been designed to double as a look-out tower, with windows for eyes and room to sleep three; inside were hidden the tools of non-violent civil disobedience—locks, chains, and cement-filled blocks to which people could lock themselves; a cheerful 20-foot tall steel sunflower at the back of the garden had another lock box hidden high in its petals. Neighbors and other activists began camping in the garden around the clock in the winter cold in case the bulldozers came without warning.
The court appearance in Brooklyn was scheduled for February 15. By the evening of February 14 it was clear that the bulldozers were coming; the next morning the police had to forcibly remove more than a hundred garden defenders, cutting some of them loose from their lock boxes and dragging them away. Bringing down the coqui with metal-cutting chain saws. In the end 31 people were arrested. That afternoon the judge in Brooklyn issued a temporary restraining order, but it came forty minutes too late. The garden with its medicinal plants, its playful coqui, its paths and benches and 22-year-old rose bush, had been bulldozed into the ground. The developer lost no time putting up a seven-story brick apartment building with health club, lounge and high speed internet; a two-bedroom apartment rents for $3,500 a month. With a sense of irony that is almost breathtaking, he named the new building Eastville Gardens.
The day after the garden came down then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani was quoted in The New York Times as saying “If you live in an unrealistic world then you can say everything should be a community garden.” His version of the realistic world came to light a couple of months later in another article in The Times: the mayor had received $46,800 in campaign contributions from the developer, and the developer had been given exclusive rights to the garden site without the normal competitive bid process. By then, of course, it was too late. The garden was gone.
The Sierra Club sponsored a documentary on New York’s community gardens with Esperanza–its life and its death–as the centerpiece. It’s 28 minutes long, but well worth watching.