This garden grows in a rectangular parcel of land – 11, 285 square feet – stretching a full city block in the Bowery section of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, NY.
On one of the long sides are mid-rise residential buildings.
On the other long side, E. Houston Street.
On one of the short sides, the Bowery.
On the other, 2nd Avenue with a subway entrance hanging at this time of year with the dense fragrance of green and roses.
A piece of land – ceded to the city in lieu of the payment of tax – which in the early 1970s was covered in three and four foot of trash and totally abandoned. This in the midst of the breakdown of the urban fabric of large parts of New York (and other eastern cities) which followed the emigration of manufacturing jobs abroad, urban economic decline and ‘white flight’ to the suburbs.
In the middle 1970’s, Liz Christy, a founder of the Green Guerillas (horticulturalists, landscape gardners, botanists, architects and others), invited her friends and residents of the area to create a garden in this abandoned rectangle:
a year of removing trash; adding soil; installing fencing; planting crops and flowers and trees. This was after a media-savvy campaign which Liz Christy ran to persuade the city to permit this activity.
In 1974, the city finally agreed to lease this group the land for $1 a month. The Green Guerillas named this garden the ‘Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden’: the first such sanctioned by the city.
Liz Christy with a boy at the first sign for the community garden, 1974. Photo from the net.
Here residents began to plant fruit and vegetables and flowers and run workshops.
The garden is named now for Liz Christy who died of cancer in 1985 at the age of 39.
The status of this and other community gardens have come under repeated land-development pressure.
a section of the Bowery
The status of the Liz Christy garden was stabilized by agreement with the local business development organization in 1990. They committed to preserve the garden as a garden in perpetuity. This was codified into law by the NY Attorney General in 2002.
The Green Guerrillas exist still.
In 30 years they have fought for the right to exist of 850 gardens of which 54 have been transferred to the city’s Parks Department as permanent oases of urban green. As has this garden.
Today there are some 500 community gardens in the city. They make up over 100 acres of open space.
A quintessential NYC Don’t Even Think About It notice at the Liz Christy Community Garden
The E. Houston Street railing of the Liz Christy Community Garden
Beauty and fertile green against the mayhem.
It was 10 o’clock on a weekday morning last week and I was holding onto two bars, resting my forehead between them. The garden was closed. (It is open from 6pm to dusk on weekdays between May and September).
A woman seeing me asked if I wanted to enter. One of the volunteer gardeners.
She let me in for a few minutes while she waited for Water Department employees to correct the low water pressure which was preventing the watering of the garden.
She told me that she had been volunteering here since 1998.
There are 23 others, she said: residents, as she is, who are still resident because they live in rent-stabilized apartments;
residents who have recently moved to the area because they can afford it, want to garden and have the resources to do it;
and former gardeners now living in the outer boroughs because of the consequences of the gentrification of the Lower East Side.
plump columbine seed pods among yellow iris
All activity in the garden is funded and undertaken by volunteer gardeners who have succeeded each other since 1974.
There are ‘individual’ plots in the garden but where one begins and one ends is not necessarily obvious.
Since 1974, the gardeners have laid down organic material: compost, peat moss, loam, wood ash.
They continue this practice to maintain the productivity of the soil.
There is a roomy shed built against a wall.
In this garden grow weeping beeches, a dawn redwood tree, birch and fruit trees, perennial bushes, many perennial flowers, some annual flowers, herbs and berries.
There is said to be one pond with turtles and fish which I did not see.
Care is taken to avoid disturbance or violence when it is obvious that there is an interloper in the garden: someone who has scaled the barriers – triple barriers at the exit of the metro station – to spend the night in this oasis.
Graffiti ‘artists’ also leave their mark.
Liz Christy in the garden, 1970’s. Photo from the net.
Fifty years of the communal practice of beauty against the mayhem.
After a short while, I left to turn right onto the Bowery. On my way to the New Museum of Contemporary Art.
An intersection of E. Houston Street and the Bowery
Joseph Beuys was looking out from his position on the wall of an an elegant, minimalist gallery.
A man was collecting empty aluminium cans while the Gorgeous Young Ones paraded their toned and bronzed bodies up and down and all around.
Three men lifted an industrial-size food mixer off a truck to a restaurant equipment supply business.
Opposite, the stack of seemingly mismatched boxes which make up the New Museum of Contemporary Art (established by the independent curator, Marcia Tucker in 1977; and moved to this location in 2007).
The building appears to be without windows.
However there are narrow skylights along the outer edges of the galleries on each floor, each floor having a different position from the one below and above.
These apertures with their diffuse light are insufficient to remove the sensation in each gallery that you have been incarcerated.
The architectural style of the museum has been called ‘brutalist’. Brutal also the description above its entrance (presumably) of its current exhibition.
I put on my hardy Covid mask and went into the museum.
The scent of late Spring dense green safeguarded me against this contrived and pristine brutality.