On Monday evening I attended the Jefferson Market Garden Friends’ Annual Garden Party. If you are already familiar with the Jefferson Market Garden (a 1991 Village Award winner), there’s no need for me to tell you what a wonderful place this is. If you are not, then allow me to tell you a story about a transformation that took place because of Greenwich Village residents who saw an opportunity to make their neighborhood a better place – and then worked hard to do it.
Most of you know the beautiful Jefferson Market Library, née Courthouse, that abuts the garden. This iconic building has its own rich story, and you can read more about it here. But the adjacent garden wasn’t always the pretty picture it is now. From 1932 until 1974 the site was occupied by the New York Women’s House of Detention, which was connected to the courthouse for the immediate incarceration of women prisoners. Some of its noted inmates were Ethel Rosenberg, Mae West, and Angela Davis. But long-time Village residents remember the prison for the raucous conversations between inmates and passersby. Some of the women asked for cigarettes or money to be thrown up to their window, and some propositioned men or entertained visitors.
In 1971 the prison was closed, and demolition soon began. By 1974, the building was gone, and the city had an empty lot on its hands. Some hoped for a nursing home, some for a parking lot, but an active and vocal group thought it would be nice to have a park, and so it was. Because the city had no money for a new park, volunteers took charge. The land was transferred to the Parks Department but entrusted to the care of the Jefferson Market Garden Committee, Inc., a grass-roots group of neighbors who raised money through bake sales, book sales and letter-writing campaigns. Landscape architect Pamela Berdan volunteered her services, and the city provided water supply. Volunteers planted trees, rosebushes, shrubs and flowers. A garden was born!
One day a woman name Anne was walking down the street and saw some other women in the garden planting bulbs. She decided to join them, and her fate was sealed. Anne soon became more and more involved in the Jefferson Market Garden, eventually being named Chairman of Volunteers. Anne told me the story of how one day she received a phone call from Andy Warhol. He asked if he could come in the morning before the garden was open to take some photos. Anne was skeptical, but said yes, and went to the Garden with her key (at the time the garden was surrounded by a chain-link fence and a padlocked gate.) To her delight, Andy Warhol met her and she unlocked the gate and let him in to take photos. She only asked one favor: that he pose for her to take a photo, and he obliged. Anne has treasured this photo and I’m grateful to her for sharing it with us.
Another prominent person who took notice of the Jefferson Market Garden was philanthropist Brooke Astor. The Vincent Astor Foundation had helped fund the early efforts of the Committee in 1974. In 1997, GVSHP worked to secure an additional grant for a new decorative fence around the Garden, replacing the old chain-link fence.
Over the years, the trees and other plants in the garden have grown and the space has been transformed from spindly to lush. The garden is still maintained by volunteers and we should all be grateful to them. Stop by the Jefferson Market Garden and walk the path, enjoy the beauty (see if YOU can find the dahlia!), and leave a contribution with the volunteers – or become a volunteer yourself.