New Yorkers attempt to prevent garden demolition (El Jardin de la Esperanza), 1999-2000

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Timing
Time Period:  
8 November
1999
to
22 February
2000
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
New York City
Location Description: 
Manhattan's Lower East Side
Goals: 
The prevention of the demolition of El Jardin de la Esperanza, as well as to take steps within the larger movement to save New York’s community gardens (the second goal not explicitly stated)
 

New York City is home to hundreds of community gardens spread throughout the city. Over the past 20 years, these gardens have served as green spaces in which community members can come together and share ideas, children can get to know the process of growing food and become familiar with the earth. However, in 1998, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani began allowing the demolition of community gardens around the city in favor of luxury apartment development. Community members and gardeners around the city began staging creative, high profile demonstrations, often involving plant and insect costumes, street parades, and more.

One endangered garden was El Jardin de la Esperanza (Garden of Hope) in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Alicia Torres, a woman from Puerto Rico, started the garden with the help of family and community members. They worked for months clearing out the rubble of a vacant lot to make room for sunflowers and roses. The garden evolved and became of integral part of the community, yielding medicinal plants and roses, housing chickens, and providing a space for children in the community to play.

In late June of 1999, East Village City Councilmember Margarita Lopez brokered a deal to save a mural and part of a nearby garden, allowing the developer Donald Capoccia and his firm BFC Partners to build luxury apartments on Esperanza’s land. Capoccia’s firm had already destroyed several gardens, claiming to build affordable housing. However, the vast majority of the development was in luxury apartments to be rented out at the highest rate that the market would allow. Mayor Giuliani’s political campaign was partially funded by BFC Partners, and hence allowed such development to take place.

The Esperanza gardeners filed a lawsuit in an effort to defend the garden, but on November 8, a state supreme court ruled that the gardeners did not have a right to stop the development. They then filed an appeal, but turned to direct action as their main mode of defense. Esperanza gardeners, More Gardens! Coalition (an organization dedicated to a long term movement to make all community gardens within New York City into permanent public parklands) and Time’s Up! (a direct action environmental group in New York City) banded together to form a network of resistance to the demolition efforts. Upon receiving a five day warning notice on November 16, 1999, they set up camp in the garden, making sure that at least two people were in the garden at all times.

They also made a giant sculpture in the shape of a coqui, a small frog that is the national symbol of Puerto Rico. In a popular Puerto Rican myth, a monster approaches a forest, threatening to destroy it, but the coqui steps up and scares the monster away with its call. Despite its small size, it triumphs over the monster. Activists and gardeners constructed the giant coqui out of canvass and wire mesh to look out over the garden fence. Coqui had a platform inside that could fit 5 people, equipped with a space heater, a phone, a digital clock, a paper lantern, and “lockdowns” to which people could chain themselves in the event of a bulldozer threat. The two plastic eyes also gave perfect views up and down the block so activists could see whether or not a bulldozer was coming. Students, neighbors, gardeners, and activists took turns sleeping in Coqui overnight. Torres saw those defending the garden as similar to the coqui in the Puerto Rican myth - the small defending themselves and their way of life against a monster.

Soon after Coqui was built, the wall behind the garden was torn down by a crane and bulldozer, but activists held their position within the garden. In response to this, local welders, engineers, and gardeners constructed a tower in the shape of a sunflower. Embedded within its petals 26 feet above the ground, a chair was secured in which someone could chain themselves in the event of another bulldozer threat.

From the months of November of 1999 to February 2000, activists and community members occupied the garden 24 hours a day, starting bonfires at night, hosting garden parties, and cooking food. Eventually, over 200 people got involved in defending the garden. Around February 18, protesters led members of the media and over 200 local residents on a tour of the block to show how the development agenda of the city was uprooting the community. The luxury apartment complexes in the area were not affordable, increasing the gentrification in the area, not improving the lives of those already residing there. This made many members of the media quite sympathetic to the cause.

The conflict hit its climax on February 22, 2000. The gardeners had gotten word that a bulldozer would be coming that day, so they started calling a network of people who had volunteered to risk arrest. By 6:00am, 100 people were at the garden, and 150 were there by 8:00am. The entire block was roped off by police, and a bulldozer was in place. Within the garden, there were activists from Reclaim the Streets, the Church of Stop-Shopping, Time’s Up!, the Lower East Side Collective, and the More Gardens! Coalition, many of whom had been there all night. That very morning, state Attorney General Elliot Spitzer was filing papers calling for an injunction barring the destruction of more gardens until further review. However, the injunction would not go into effect until 2:00 that day, at the earliest. so occupiers of the garden felt a strong sense of urgency. Many activists locked themselves to the fence, to Coqui, and to lockdowns at the entrance of the garden, but police moved in, tearing down the fence and sawing off the chains on the activists. 31 people were arrested, 25 of whom had locked themselves to fixtures in the garden or who had formed human chains. Fifteen minutes later, the bulldozer had demolished the majority of the garden.

Despite this loss, later that day Attorney General Spitzer successfully procured a temporary restraining order on the development of GreenThumb (New York City Parks and Recreation sanctioned) community garden land. Spitzer also declared that Mayor Giuliani had “subverted the legal process” in pushing ahead with the bulldozing while the injunction was in deliberation. Largely due to the positive media exposure from the Esperanza campaign, the restraining order remained in effect for two years. Prominent political figures such as Senator Hillary Clinton and state Democratic Party chair Judith Hope spoke out against Giuliani’s actions and in favor of El Jardin de la Esperanza.

It is important to note that on March 5, 2000, a group of about 200 people, as part of a floating party demonstration who called themselves the Subway Liberation Front, took over the L subway, broke into the recently demolished Esperanza garden, and began replanting it. Police in full riot gear swiftly came to the scene and began clubbing the protesters, temporarily blinding one. Police told the New York Times that 8 people were arrested, and 7 officers and 1 protester were injured. Protesters claimed that at least 4 protesters were seriously injured.

According to writer and Esperanza protest participator Benjamin Shepard, the Esperanza campaign radicalized a generation of garden activists and laid the groundwork for the 2002 garden settlement that allowed for the construction of over 3000 affordable housing units while preserving almost 500 community gardens.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Influenced by the More Gardens! Coalition’s creative actions in the previous year that involved costumes, parades, and other celebratory forms of activism. (1)

Influenced the defense of countless other gardens in New York City that were threatened since 2000. Many staged similar sit-ins, as well as promoted the celebratory party atmosphere. (2)

Sources: 
“Defending Gardens.” Time’s Up: NYC’s Direct Action Environmental Organization. 2010. Times-up.org. 2 April 2010. <http://times-up.org/index.php?page=defending-gardens>.

“Esperanza Vigil.” Under The Asphalt: Community Gardens in New York City. Interactivist.net. 3 April 2010. <http://skillshares.interactivist.net/gardens/ev_1.html>.

Ferguson, Sarah. “New York Mayor’s War on Community Gardens Backfires.” Jinn Magazine. 21 February 2000. Pacificnews.org. 2 April 2010. <http://www.pacificnews.org/jinn/stories/6.04/000221-garden.html>.

Lobbia, J.A. “The Coqui vs. the Bulldozer: 7th St. Gardeners Plan Amphibious Attack.” The Village Voice. 23 November 1999. Villagevoice.com. 3 April 2010. <http://www.villagevoice.com/1999-11-23/news/the-coqui-vs-the-bulldozer/1>.

Shepard, Benjamin. “Community Gardens, Convivial Spaces, and the Seeds of a Radical Democratic Counterpublic.” Democracy, States, and the Struggle for Global Justice. Ed. Heather Gautney, Omar Dahbour, Ashley Dawson, and Neil Smith. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Shepard, Ben. “Esperanza, Garden of Hope.” March 2000. Tenant.net. 2 April 2010. <http://www.benjaminheimshepard.com/dates/2000_EsperanzaGarden.pdf>.

More Gardens! 2010. Moregardens.org. 2 April 2010. <http://www.moregardens.org/>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Hannah Jones, 3/4/2010