My first exposure to the Elizabeth Street Garden came shortly after I first arrived in Manhattan several years ago. While waiting for a friend downtown, I discovered the walled-in idyll just off Spring Street. The garden presented itself as a unique and charming oddity; nearly a quarter of a city block of mismatched sculptural groupings surrounded by rococo urns and gewgaws, teeming with flowering trees and verdant patches of grass, and populated by a grateful mix of locals and tourists, all of whom looked like they were sharing a rare secret.
Later, I learned that the garden was born when a local business devoted to selling garden statuary for estates had rented the adjacent empty lot 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 enables a unique gathering space.
The romance of the garden was maintained for more than 25 years until the NYC Council forwarded a plan to revoke the garden’s lease, take over the land, and build an affordable housing project on the grounds. My exposure to the news of the proposed (and now approved) construction came via a pair of New York Times op-eds that presented the work in fairly simple terms: by eliminating the garden, the city would clear the way for a sizable block of affordable housing for seniors. As far as the Times was concerned, obstruction to that plan was wrongheaded NIMBYism and a prioritization of green space over human life. Its argument was convincing and my knee-jerk reaction was to write off the garden as a sad but necessary loss.
Then I heard a WNYC interview with the Elizabeth Street Garden’s executive director, Joseph Reiver. Reiver, the son of the garden’s creator, refuted the op-eds’ 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 was much more complex than it initially appeared to be. I reached out to Reiver to learn more about the history of the garden as a public space and his fight to preserve it.
What Should We Do: Your father, Allan Reiver, built the garden as an extension of the Elizabeth Street Gallery in the early ’90s. What are your memories of the space from when you were younger?
Joseph Reiver: I grew up split between Little Italy and Brooklyn at a time when both neighborhoods were quite different from what they are now. The garden held a sense of playfulness and mystery for me and my friends that I’ve now grown to see as truly magical.
Pitting community green space against affordable housing is a false dichotomy.
WSWD: The Elizabeth Street Garden’s statuary is wildly eclectic; how was the layout determined?
Reiver: When my father first built the garden, he designed its foundation on his own: Lawn areas were laid down, trees and other greenery were planted, and the statuary and architectural aspects were carefully placed to actively respond with their surroundings. Part of his legacy is the creative combination of these elements to spark the feeling of mystery which surrounds the garden. When you walk in, you get the sense that you’ve discovered something hidden and feel like you’ve been transported far away from the heart of New York City. As community volunteers started to get more involved through gardening and school programs, we saw more and more people share that experience and develop their own personal connections to the space. The garden became an oasis that fostered local community.
WSWD: The garden brings to mind something of the sprawling artistic grandeur of old New York. In its current form, what are the purposes that you think the garden serves for this neighborhood?
Reiver: 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; a community space with hundreds of free programs and activities for the old and the young; plus an outdoor art museum. That romanticized “old New York” that you’re referring to 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. I agree that the garden is absolutely a unique work of art in its own right, and we think it is worth fighting to keep it open to everyone.
WSWD: The garden is privately managed. How does that affect its role as a public space in the community?
Reiver: Though it was initially privately managed by Allan, I wouldn’t exactly say that it is anymore. That initial period of sole proprietorship allowed the Garden to cultivate its own energy. Today, our volunteer-based non-profit group exclusively manages and advocates for the Garden. Though we do still work with 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.
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.
WSWD: How do you respond to those who say that, in fighting for the garden, you are ignoring the need for affordable housing?
Reiver: 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 Chin nor Mayor de Blasio has visited the garden; perhaps if they did, they would know why so many people are fighting so hard to keep it open.
Look, 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. Destroying a community garden used by more than 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.
WSWD: What’s the alternative that you’re proposing?
Reiver: 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 it already has 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 its suggestion of future use seriously.
It’s also 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 space and more than 11,000 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.
WSWD: So you think the developers ultimate motivation here is profit-driven?
Reiver: It’s 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 Lower East Side, and citywide, where the promise of affordable housing gives big developers permission to do whatever they want.
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 ultimately we look forward to constructing a greenhouse and a composting station.
WSWD: What is the current state of your lawsuits seeking to halt the approved construction?
Reiver: We filed papers in March 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.
WSWD: And until November, the Elizabeth Street Garden stays open?
Reiver: Noon to 6 p.m. on weekdays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekend. We’d strongly encourage your readers to join us. And if they’d like to help, we offer opportunities for donation, volunteering, sponsoring programs, petitioning the city, or writing directly to Habitat for Humanity on our website.