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The Importance of Urban Green Space – Save Elizabeth Street Garden
Article written by John Seroff

For Elizabeth Street Garden Executive Director Joseph Reiver, a sliver of green in Little Italy is his family’s treasure. “My father Allen Reiver built the Garden as an extension of his Elizabeth Street Gallery,” Joseph tells me. “I grew up split between Little Italy and Brooklyn at a time when both neighborhoods were vastly different from what they’ve become. The Garden always held a sense of playfulness and mystery that I’ve grown to see as magical.” Contemporary visitors will discover the Garden of today as a unique and charming oddity: nearly a quarter of a New York City block packed with mismatched sculptural groupings and surrounded by rococo urns and gewgaws. The space teems with flowering trees and verdant patches of grass, all encircled by chain-link fence and populated by a grateful mix of locals and tourists.

The Elizabeth Street Garden first opened in 1991 when the elder Reiver rented the adjacent empty lot to his gallery as a private showroom, then opted to maintain public visiting hours. Over time, the local community came to see the Garden as a sort of public park, an “only in New York” situation where a private renter’s largesse enabled a unique gathering space.  That delicate balance of commerce and leisure was maintained for over 25 years until the NYC Council recently passed a plan to revoke the Garden’s lease, take over the land, and build an affordable housing project on the grounds. The City’s response to those who were offended by the razing of the Garden was presented in simple terms: eliminating the Garden cleared the way for a sizeable block of affordable housing for seniors. Obstruction to that plan, they argued, was wrongheaded NIMBYism and a prioritization of green space over human life. Reiver’s recent  WNYC interview refuted those points one-by-one and suggested that the politics inherent in the decision to not only start but to continue the fight to preserve the Garden were much more complex than they appeared to be. 

I spoke at length with Reiver about his reasoning to continue battling the construction of Haven Green, the history of the Garden as public space, and his proposed plan to move the development a few blocks west. 

“We’re a bit of an anomaly in our mixed-use status. This is a community garden where people can grow fruits and vegetables, but it’s also a park where you can lay in the grass, explore an outdoor art museum, and utilize a community space with hundreds of free programs and activities for the old and the young. The romanticized ‘old New York’ that people like to rhapsodize about is a memory of a less developer-driven time when there were more places like the Elizabeth Street Garden, established by both eccentric individuals and communities with a unique vision and perspective. We like to think that the Garden is a unique work of art in its own right and worth fighting to keep open to everyone.”

“Though it was initially privately managed by my father, the Garden has evolved into a space that the community takes ownership of. That initial period of sole proprietorship allowed the Garden to cultivate its own energy, but today, ESG, our volunteer-based non-profit group, exclusively manages and advocates for it. Though we do still work through Allan as the creator and current leaseholder, ESG’s volunteers are made up of members of the community who visit, live, and work in the neighborhood. Many of our neighbors facilitate our programs and contribute to the space; if someone has an idea for a new program or event, we do our best to provide the tools to make it happen. The community has a say, which has made the garden a personal passion and second home to many.”

“We knew from the start that standing in opposition to Habitat for Humanity made for problematic optics, but our shared goals really aren’t that far apart. We absolutely agree that NYC desperately needs low-income housing and we can also acknowledge that there are certainly cases of privileged neglect of this need, but the case of the Elizabeth Street Garden just doesn’t fit the bill.”

“Pitting community green space against affordable housing is a false dichotomy, one that this project’s developers, along with our Councilperson Margaret Chin and the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), have all worked hard to promote in response to our unwillingness to allow the Garden to be demolished. This divide-and-conquer approach weaponizes the concepts of NIMBYism and elitism in the name of development and paints the Garden as a playground for spoiled, wealthy children. That’s just not true. Anyone who spends a day in the Garden will see that it is for anyone and everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity or background. There is affordable housing directly adjacent to the Garden and many of that development’s residents volunteer and utilize the space regularly. Neither Councilperson Chin nor Mayor De Blasio have visited the Garden; perhaps if they did, they would know why so many people are fighting so hard to keep it open. Destroying a community garden used by over 100,000 people every year simply because it is expedient to political and economic power ignores the community’s right to determine for itself what best serves its own needs.” 

“Better solutions are available. Our community board has identified a city-owned gravel lot at 388 Hudson that could provide up to five times the amount of new housing to our district without displacing anyone or destroying the Garden. The city’s response to that proposal has been that they already have that location ‘under consideration,’ effectively writing it off as a TBD project and not viable as an alternative to the current construction. Given the city’s lack of demonstrable plans for 388 Hudson, it’s hard to take their suggestion of future use seriously. I think it’s important to note that the land where the Elizabeth Street Garden currently resides would be sold outright to developers for one dollar. Let me repeat that purchase price: one dollar. That might be justifiable if this was in service of an entirely not-for-profit project but the proposed development includes ground floor luxury retail and over eleven thousand square feet of office space for Habitat NYC. As far as the proposed affordable housing is concerned, the plan is for 123 units but, problematically, the ‘affordable housing’ component is not permanently attached to those apartments. With all that in mind, it is difficult to put faith in the city’s narrative as entirely altruistic here when you have cases like the Extell Tower and other luxury developments in Chinatown, the LES and citywide where the promise of affordable housing gives big developers permission to do whatever they want.”

“We filed papers in March to halt the currently approved construction and our court date is in November. A legal solution is our last chance to save the Garden but we’re very confident in our argument.  In terms of how we think we can save the garden, we’ve explored our options and have settled on three: as mapped parkland in partnership with NYC Parks Department, as a Green Thumb community garden, or as a Conservation Land Trust. This last option would perhaps best preserve and build upon all of the unique aspects of the garden. Our nonprofit would collectively own the land, making both the Garden and the organization entirely self-sustainable; we wouldn’t require any city funding at all. The majority of our raised income, through rentals and fundraising, goes towards our efforts to save the garden, but we’re ultimately looking forward to constructing a greenhouse and a composting station.”

“For the moment, and until we resolver our lawsuit, the Elizabeth Street Garden continues to stay open from noon to six on weekdays; ten to six on the weekend.  We’d strongly encourage anyone reading to visit the Garden and decide for themselves if they think it’s worth saving. We offer opportunities for donation, volunteering, sponsoring programs, petitioning the city, or writing directly to Habitat for Humanity on our website, ElizabethStreetGarden.com.”