Deep Roots: Residents Protect a Lower East Side Oasis

By Douglas A. Hinnant
Photographs by Marcos Avila

The sun filters through turning leaves, casting patches of yellow off garden plots still overflowing with sage, lavender and basil. The picnic table beside the barbecue pit is packed with children and their families carving pumpkins. Across a half-dozen vegetable plots and around the koi pond, a mother helps her 5-year-old daughter stuff hay into the shirt of a scarecrow.

The gazebo built in 1987 for the movie “Batteries Not Included” remains at the garden.

Pumpkin Carving Day is one of the seasonal events at the Green Oasis and Gilbert’s Sculpture Garden, deep in the East Village. A place of both tranquil respite and family hustle and bustle, this community garden is in many ways the heart of a neighborhood that still takes pride in its families and relatively quiet streets. But the smiles and celebratory mood on a sunny afternoon last October belie the lingering anxiety that the garden’s days may be numbered.The Spitzer Agreement, the contract that guarantees the existence of community gardens in New York City, is set to expire in 2010, and there are no definite plans to renew it. And while this stretch of East Eighth Street between Avenues C and D is still a quiet tree-lined block dominated by tenement houses, gentrification looms as surely as the new glass, concrete and steel condo on Seventh Street, directly behind the garden.As the city faces deep budget cuts and the need to increase revenue, some residents fear the community gardens, which occupy land owned by the city, could be sold. A rule set to go into effect this spring doubles the number of hours that the gardens must be open to the public between May and October to 20, and residents worry that noncompliance will be used as an excuse to close down the garden.The garden provides an oasis in a neighborhood once littered with abandoned lots, boarded-up houses and “Saturday night specials,” the term given to buildings that landlords burned down for insurance money on nights when few people were thought to be home. The lot where the garden flourishes once was home to a shooting gallery, a wooden shack where heroin addicts got their fix.But in 1981, the scene on East Eighth Street began to change. Local residents Normand Valle and Reynaldo Arenas grew tired of the rubble-strewn lot next door to their building, and they began to clear it, one handful at a time.On the adjacent lot, John Gilbert Ingram Sr. was working on his sculpture garden. The superintendent of the building across from Valle and Arenas, he saw the lot as an ideal spot to fulfill his lifelong hobby of sculpting. And the so-called sister gardens were born.From the beginning, the mission of these three men was to provide a refuge in a rough neighborhood. Valle and Arenas organized concerts, poetry readings and children’s plays. For years, the Rites of Spring Parade, originally intended to celebrate and draw attention to the area’s community gardens, wandered through dozens of gardens in the East Village, and always made its last stop the Green Oasis and Gilbert’s Sculpture Garden, where participants released butterflies. The parade was last held in 2006, as the neighborhood saw an influx of new faces, and interest waned.The process of cleaning the lot and creating a haven was a slow one. For years, the centerpiece remained a dilapidated Mercedes-Benz. Any time the gardeners asked the owner to remove it, he swore he would fix it up, but never did. No one quite remembers what happened to the car or its owner, but neither is around anymore. The shooting gallery is long gone as well, torn down to make room for flowers and vegetables.

Photo by Marcos Avila
A place in the East Village for tranquil respite and family fun.

In 2004, the fence separating the two gardens was removed. Today, much of the garden is divided into plots, ranging from four by four feet to about four by eight feet. Trees bearing figs, apples, pears and cherries bloom. The koi pond, where a colorful assortment of Japanese fish float just under the surface, takes up a horseshoe shaped chunk of the eastern end. Ingram’s rough-hewn sculptures dot the landscape on the western side. Pathways mostly of dirt and woodchips wind through the flora, with plaster mushrooms bejeweled with craft beads marking the intersections.Wandering around the garden, which is more than half the size of a football field, it’s easy to miss the apiary, where bees are kept.The current centerpiece of the garden is a gazebo, originally built for the 1987 movie Batteries Not Included, the lighthearted sci-fi fantasy starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, which was filmed on the block. The production crew packed and left, but the gazebo remains. The garden has since appeared on Sesame Street, in a scene where children plant flowers and dance.”This is our summer home; this is our Bridgehampton,” says Dena Santoro, an East Village resident for 20 years and garden member since 2000. Garden membership costs $20 a year, or $35 with a plot. Members are required to attend meetings, help with open hours and participate in workdays. Members must also volunteer eight hours a month during the open season.Gardening ability is not required. Maryanne Byington, who has lived in her sixth-floor apartment overlooking the garden since 1982, is one of several members who lack botanical talent, and so she serves as the “self-appointed litter picker-upper.”Santoro notes that a number of children grew up to become members themselves. Cookouts and birthday parties are common events, she says, and schoolchildren come on field trips and get their hands dirty in nature workshops. “You can’t go to a park and plant things,” she adds.Lesa Westerman, a schoolteacher and garden member for 14 years, is just as passionate about the garden. Raised in a rural town, her family farmed; now the garden helps her maintain a connection to the earth. Unlike most plots, which are dominated by herbs and vegetables, hers consists mostly of marigolds, pansies and coreopsis. “I just go for having a pretty plot,” she says. All her daughter’s birthday parties have been held here.The sister gardens have outlived all three founders, and now a new generation keeps what has effectively become one garden alive. Tim Murphy is the president of sorts, although the garden’s leadership has no formal structure. In keeping with the founders’ original ideals, many current endeavors center on getting kids involved.The Pumpkin Carving Day, held each year on the Sunday before Halloween, is no exception. As in years past, families of many cultures-Chinese, black, Hispanic and white-converged on the garden last fall for the annual event. Murphy arrived with several pizza pies, which were sliced and devoured as quickly as the lids could be flipped open. A bale of hay laid beside each of the 10 scarecrows, and children stuffed the sagging shirts full of life. The garden has hosted family events in the past but, noted Santoro, this was the best turnout she had ever seen.Garden members are fully aware of the importance of these events. They want to make sure their garden appears relevant and active to Green Thumb officials, who occasionally visit gardens, clipboard in hand. Green Thumb is the division of the New York City Parks Department that oversees community gardens.

Photo by Marcos Avila
The gardens have outlived their three founders. Now a new generation of neighbors keeps the garden alive.

In 1998, 114 community gardens were put up for auction by the city. Spitzer, then running for state Attorney General, joined in a lawsuit to fight the sale. The gardens were all bought by the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project, two nonprofit organizations that continue to maintain the lots as gardens on behalf of the city, and the lawsuit was dropped. But in the following few years, the city slated other gardens to be developed into low-income housing developments. Once again, Spitzer and others filed a lawsuit to stop the plans, and in the end, about 100 gardens were developed or are still marked for development. The resulting Spitzer Agreement protects the several hundred community gardens that remain.Edie Stone, director of Green Thumb, feels that the expiration of the Spitzer Agreement is not a big concern. According to her, a lawsuit will likely be filed to renew the contract in plenty of time. Even if the contract expires, she says, any reclaiming of garden land by the city will still require an act of legislation.Green Thumb’s requirements for community gardens focus mostly on establishing rules for their upkeep and maintenance. The day-to-day operations and decisions are left to the gardeners, but residents are concerned that the new rules requiring longer hours will pose a problem in July and August when many members take vacations. They’re considering getting college interns to help with the hours, and possibly increase membership.Again, Stone plays down concerns. The change in hours, she says, simply reflects the priority of the Parks Department that the gardens serve as a public amenity. She says she doesn’t not know what, if any, punitive measures will be imposed for noncompliance. She also says Green Thumb will work with gardens that have trouble meeting the new requirements, and only gardens that actively resist this change are in any danger.Last Halloween, Santoro stood in her “casual French” costume, which is just her facetious way of saying she felt like wearing jeans and a beret. Westerman wore a witch hat, and her daughter Hannah took out her phone and shared the photo of the jack-o’-lantern she created on Pumpkin Carving Day with the impressive image of a dachshund.Paper bags filled with goodies awaited trick-or-treaters, but unlike Pumpkin Carving Day, children were scarce on this part of the block. At first, a tacit suspicion arose that gentrification was taking its toll, and young families no longer made up as much of the neighborhood as they used to. It then dawned on the gardeners that unlike the previous year, the leaves were still on the trees, blocking beams from the streetlights, and they were standing in the dark, almost invisible from any distance.Westerman started calling to any children within earshot, “Are you trick or treating?” Pack by pack, masked children started to meander over. Over the course of the next half-hour or so, Westerman recognized a number of her students from her years of teaching.The flow of children slowed when two fire trucks arrived in response to a report of a toaster fire, but no flames could be seen and only the faintest hint of smoke wafted in the evening air. One truck parked directly across from the garden entrance. Firefighters, who appeared too bored to speak even with each other, lazed in the back of the cab.Undeterred, Westerman brought bags of treats over to the men and struck up a conversation. With warm smiles, they accepted their gifts.The season at the sister gardens officially ended with the Lantern Festival on Nov. 9. The final meeting of the year, in December, was canceled because of bad weather.Although formal hours are not required in the winter, the garden is open whenever members are doing garden chores or families are building snow people inside. Spring will bring planting and summer the Solstice Celebration, with live music and a barbecue.But no matter how many flowers they plant, or how many pumpkins they carve, members of the Green Oasis Community Garden and Gilbert’s Sculpture Garden cannot control the seasons of change brought on by bureaucracy and gentrification. Only time will tell if they reap the harvest of continuing relevance in the neighborhood.