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The Guerilla Gardeners of El Sol Brillante

As we’ve previously covered, the East Village in the 1970s was a far cry from the neighborhood we know today. But amidst the chaos of city negligence, architectural deterioration, and needless destruction, community members rose up to reclaim and rebuild their neighborhood with a new vision. The roots of that vision took hold and continues to blossom at El Sol Brillante, a community garden at 522 East Twelfth Street.

El Sol Brillante’s iron gates

In 1977, the space at 522 East Twelfth Street was covered in the ash of four burnt-out buildings. Luckily the Eleventh Street movement, a radical group that was renovating nearby 519 East Eleventh Street through a city-funded “sweat equity” program, looked at the rubble-filled lot and saw an opportunity. They previously constructed a “pocket park” adjacent to their Eleventh Street building, but they believed the neighborhood deserved even more space to cultivate their own food and join with nature. They initiated the 12th Street garden project to transform 522 East Twelfth Street into just that space.

The project was spearheaded by the Eleventh Street group alongside the local residents of Twelfth Street. The original organizers had very little in the way of formal city support; members often scrounged for materials and largely relied on the expertise of local organizations and community members to lay the garden’s groundwork. They partnered with the Horticultural Society of New York and the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service, two organizations that provided urban gardening advice, along with the CETA Summer Youth Corps which provided on-site labor and jobs for local youth. These “guerilla gardeners” were determined to transform the site of destruction into a lush, flourishing community space.

El Sol Brillante sign. Anton Van Dalen. 1977.

In the fall of 1978, the Eleventh Street Movement and the newly-named “El Sol Brillante” Community Garden group jointly requested help from The Trust for Public Land to legally acquire the four lots composing the garden site. The El Sol Brillante group soon incorporated and gained ownership of the site as a nonprofit land trust. Thanks to the dedicated work of the community, the rubble-filled lot was transformed into a thriving vegetable garden for use by the community in perpetuity. 

Today, the garden continues to be a gathering place for community members, whether they garden or not. Garden members pay annual fees and contribute to the garden by tending to the land for at least 20 hours per gardening season and attending meetings with fellow members. The garden also houses approximately 40 raised beds for individual cultivation by members. Plot-tending members can choose what they grow, literally transforming the land into a living mosaic of community members’ environmental values.

Community members enjoying El Sol Brillante. Date unknown.

El Sol Brillante actively contributes to the betterment of their community at large by offering community and educational programs. They host demonstrations for local schools to inspire students to think about the role of nature in a pavement-filled city. The garden also practices a special form of Japanese composting called bokashi, which ferments organic matter rather than decomposing it. Their bokashi education center seeks to share the practice with anyone interested in more feasible urban composting.

The lush foliage at El Sol Brillante. Date unknown.

Thanks to El Sol Brillante, East Twelfth Street is a remarkable green corridor with four community gardens, six public schools and a park. The spring and summer see the garden positively enveloped in a layer of greenery and colorful vegetation. In the fall and winter, when trees are bare and the ground is hard, one can enjoy the gorgeous mural painted on the back wall, depicting a sunset overlooking a vegetable farm. No matter the time of year, El Sol Brillante is a thriving community space where any curious passerby or neighbor can revel in the beauty of nature and witness the power of cultivating community bonds.

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