street fights

It’s Time to Let the Elizabeth Street Garden Go

The Elizabeth Street Garden has been on a month-to-month lease since 1991. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Last week, the city issued an eviction notice to the Elizabeth Street Garden. Its caretakers, who for years have been fighting against an affordable-housing development for low-income seniors that would occupy the site, have been ordered to vacate by October 31. As soon as the news broke, they rose up once again to save the Little Italy institution, which has been around since 1991, when an antiques dealer with a neighboring shop started renting the overgrown lot from the city to use as an outdoor showroom, filling it with architectural relics and adding landscaping. News of the eviction coincided with a climate-change rally being held in the garden over the weekend, and celebrities showed up among the supporters, with Patti Smith giving what Bowery Boogie described as “an uplifting performance” of “People Have The Power.” The next day Norman Siegel, the attorney representing the garden and the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, echoed Smith, using the phrase “power to the people.” But which people have the power? And the power to do what, exactly? To stop the city from building affordable housing on land that it owns?

The stand-off dates to 2012, when the city first moved to end its month-to-month lease with Allan Reiver, the antiques dealer. Reiver, who died this May, was known as a “cantankerous guardsman of the park,” according to the New York Times, “deciding who gained access through his adjoining shop, Elizabeth Street Gallery.” (His son, Joseph Reiver, the executive director of the non-profit overseeing the garden, is carrying on the fight.) After Councilwoman Margaret Chin pushed the city to build affordable housing on the site, Reiver formed a nonprofit to represent the garden and opened it for more public events, like poetry readings, concerts,  and yoga classes. But as Chin pointed out to Curbed in 2019, the garden was rarely open to the public until it was threatened with eviction: “Members of Community Board 2 came to my office, sat down with me, and gave me the history from their perspective. One of them told me, ‘Margaret, yeah, it was always locked. But if you go to the gallery, and if the gallery owner liked you, he would let you go to the garden through the back of his building.’ ”

The garden’s supporters have long argued that the choice between green space and affordable housing is a false one, and that of course they support affordable housing for seniors — it’s just that they’d like it somewhere else. (A favored site is 388 Hudson Street, owned by the Department of Environmental Protection, about a mile away.) More recently, Reiver has posited that conversions of office buildings would be a better way to add housing. But the choice is a real one: the city owns a large lot in a very expensive, fully gentrified area of the city, where there are some 5,000 seniors on waitlists for affordable housing (citywide that number is nearly 200,000). Much of the existing affordable housing in SoHo and Little Italy is in older walk-up buildings, where seniors with mobility issues are either forced to either move out or become shut-ins relying on others to visit and bring food. The city has already done all the legwork for the new building — a request for proposals was put out back in 2016. Haven Green, the project planned for the site, was approved in 2019, and would add 123 studio apartments of deeply affordable senior housing (for people earning from $18,774 to $37,548 a year). Chin has argued that 388 Hudson shouldn’t be an alternative site—it should be an additional one. “If we can build affordable housing on that site, we should build it, because there’s such tremendous need. It’s not one or the other.” The neighborhood is already slated to get several new public parks, including one adjoining the building at 388 Hudson. There are also a number of other community gardens nearby, including M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden and the Liz Christy Bowery Houston garden.

The loss of a lovely greensward to build that housing is a shame, of course.

But the community-garden movement is really a product of another time in New York’s history, when the city and its needs were very different. Gardens sprung up as a fresh solution to the vacant, trash-strewn lots of a blighted, depopulated 1970s-era New York. Many but not all on city-owned lots (there’s a patchwork of arrangements and structures), and most sit on sites where housing once stood and should, arguably, stand again. (The Elizabeth Street Garden’s site is part of a long-gone public school’s footprint; most of that lot was redeveloped in the 1980s, and what’s left was approximately the schoolyard.) Which is what the city always intended. As a Times article from 2016 put it: “Community gardens on city-owned land were never assured permanence. From the beginning, they were mostly meant as placeholders: Gardeners generally contract with the city as stewards, not owners, of the blighted lots, an arrangement codified in the late ’70s.” Elizabeth Street is a relative latecomer to the movement.

It’s unclear whether the city will actually be able to evict the Elizabeth Street Garden at the end of the month — its defenders filed a lawsuit in 2019, which is still working its way through the courts. Before he died, Reiver told the Times that “a building will never be torn down for a garden. But if you tear down a garden, it’s gone forever.” If the garden prevails in court and is preserved indefinitely, it will mean that the city’s ability to build housing on the land is also gone, and so are the people who would have lived there.

It’s Time to Let the Elizabeth Street Garden Go