What was there before it was a garden? We get that question often here, and are always ready to help community partners unearth the often little known yet rich history that lies beneath the pavement. Or under a garden bed or willow tree, in this case.
Recently we received such an inquiry from one of the Gardens Rising volunteers who was leading an informative garden tour of the amazing green space, El Jardin del Paraiso, between East 4th and East 5th Streets, east of Avenue C. A garden since 1981, the first of the buildings that formerly stood there seems to have been demolished by 1955, with many more being lost in the 1970’s.
Gardens Rising is a project of the New York City Community Garden Coalition to undertake a federally funded feasibility study through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program to develop a Master Plan on best practices to capture storm water within 47 community gardens of the Lower Manhattan. This is especially needed to reduce flooding and improve habitats.
El Jardin del Paraiso is one such garden. It is said that Liz Christy herself, a seminal gardener and founder of the eponymous garden on Houston Street, planted two of the willow trees there.
What was there? For most if not all garden sites, there was once a building or buildings. And before that it was farmland or even marshland, much of which was later filled int to extend and shape the shorelines of Manhattan. The Welikia Project has a mapping tool that shows what Manhattan looked like in 1609, before the first European contact, when it was the land of indigenous Lenape people.
A narrative tale becomes evident in the historic Sanborn or G.W. Bromley Fire Insurance Maps spanning the decades. The changing block and lot maps showing buildings being extended, and then knocked down, reveal much about the history of the site, and the neighborhood. Starting in 1955, we see one of the buildings on what is now the garden, the one which stood on Lot number 16 of Block 374 is no longer standing.
Newspaper clippings unearthed by our research team reveal some of the daily life and happenings of the people who lived where the garden now grows. In 1896 Hulda Baumgarden got married in the Tombs to Jacob F. Wagoner, who had robbed a pawnshop on Avenue A, hours before he was sent to Sing Sing.
According to the New York Times, in 1957 one of the 6 story buildings that fronted the East Fifth Street edge of the garden sold for $30,000. Today there are apartments on East 5th Street for sale at $5 million.
Such development pressures and the need to preserve the character of our neighborhoods while supporting appropriate building scale and creating affordable housing are why we supported the Resolution approved by Community Board #3 to create the East Village Community Gardens District.
One of the dedicated members of Community Board #3 is now the head of the NYC agency Green Thumb, responsible for helping communities maintain, preserve and create more gardens. William LoSasso, in support of the innovative Garden District, noted “Once open space is gone, then it’s gone forever. We can create new policies to incentivize the creation of affordable housing, but we can’t create new open space through public policy. We should protect the green open spaces that we have.” We are glad to have a home grown Director of that important agency.
Paraiso is a great selection for inclusion in this effort because of its innovative storm-water catchment project that recreates the historic wetlands which once covered this site. Young Environmental, Gaia Institute and many others have been involved in this effort since 2002, and it includes the first biogeochemical cap – an environmental way to eliminate potential contact with undesirable soil contaminants. Gardens Rising will build on this and spur more green infrastructure protects through our neighborhoods.
Now, you want to visit some of these gardens, right? You can!
Joins us for a free
Celebrating Lower East Side History Month and co-sponsored by
Saturday, May 21
11:00 A.M. – 1:00 P.M.
Free; but reservations are required.