← Back

Touring the Gardens of the East Village

The 1970s was a dangerous and difficult time for New York City. Arson and neglect left many poor and working-class neighborhoods with abandoned lots, filled with hazardous debris.  Residents of the Lower East Side and East Village felt abandoned by the city, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. They had already pioneered the homesteading and squatting movements, taking over abandoned buildings and making them livable again (the former through a process of legal petitioning, the latter through intentional illegal occupation). But what was to be done about the vacant, unusable lots? Here began the community garden movement; here are five of these revolutionary green spaces.

Liz Christy Garden

On the northeast corner of the Bowery and Houston Street is the first community garden in New York City. The Liz Christy Garden was founded in 1973 by the Green Guerillas, the grassroots activist group of which Christy was the founder. A lifelong environmentalist and Lower East Side resident, Liz Christy was one of many people who sought to improve the quality of life for people in her neighborhood by creating gardens and green spaces. She and the Green Guerillas pioneered the ‘seed bomb’ method of taking over vacant and abandoned lots––tossing balls of soil, fertilizer, and seeds over the chain link fences, and later sneaking in to tend the emerging plants. After a year of cleaning and planting in the lot on the Bowery and Houston Streets, Christy and her collaborators were approved by the city for a $1 month-to-month lease for legal use of the site as a community garden. Christy passed away in 1985, and after her passing the garden became known as the Liz Christy Garden. The Green Guerillas went on to start many other ‘guerilla’ gardens and are still in operation today.

Le Petit Versailles

This small garden on East 2nd Street between Avenue B and C was once the site of an auto body shop. When the shop was closed and torn down, leaving yet another vacant lot, artists Peter Cramer and Jack Waters saw an opportunity to create a garden and open air performance space. They started Le Petit Versailles in 1996, and the garden became a home for their organization, Allied Productions, a fine arts nonprofit that was founded in 1981 that supports independent artists of all disciplines, especially LBGTQ+ artists. Allied Productions hosts theater and dance performances in the garden, as well as film screenings, and accepts annual open calls for artists who wish to submit new work for their programming. The garden itself is sanctioned by the Green Thumb Program. 

6th and B Garden

This stunning garden was founded in 1983 by a group of homesteaders in Alphabet City. While the homesteaders petitioned for a lease from Operation Green Thumb, the group began planting on the site without official permission, and for four years they defended it from outside forces who had other ideas about what it should become. The city had repossessed the land from the previous owners and intended to auction it off to the highest bidder. A local waste company wanted to raze it and turn it into a parking lot; the community board wanted to build more housing. But the residents who took charge of the lot firmly believed that what their neighborhood needed was a green space, a healthy reprieve from the tenement-style buildings in which they lived. Members of the garden joined the community board to convince them that their project was worthwhile, managing to defend it from bidders for many years. In 1996, the garden finally gained permanent status and was annexed by the New York City Parks Department.

In addition to gardeners, the 6th and B garden has also hosted many artists over the years. It is the former home of the ‘Toy Tower,’ a sculpture by Eddie Boros that gained notoriety through its appearance in the opening credits of NYPD Blue and in the musical Rent. The garden won a Village Award in 2012.

9th Street Community Garden

If you stroll one block east of Tompkins Square Park, you will come across the 9th Street Community Garden on Avenue C. This garden was founded in 1979 by Augustine “Nin” Garcia, a maintenance worker who lived on Avenue D. Garcia was a self-taught farmer and dedicated gardener, and was known for his high standards when it came to allowing new members into the garden. While his strict approach sometimes gave rise to conflict, the gardeners that made the cut turned 9th Street into one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse gardens in the neighborhood. 

La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez

Across from the 9th Street Community Garden is La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, a sprawling garden and amphitheater that is open to the public almost year-round. Founded in 1976, this garden was also began life as a dirty, abandoned lot, though it quickly transformed through the ambitious efforts of CHARAS, the organization that revitalized their neighborhood through education and community building, often out of their squatted community center, known as El Bohio (the hut) in the former P.S. 64. One of the ways they defended the garden was by planting trees, notably willows, which posed greater difficulty for law enforcement who attempted to demolish the garden. Though a developer had an official claim to the land, the gardeners did not back down from the many intimidation efforts waged against them. In 2002, La Plaza gained official status through a legal settlement. A year later it was renamed in honor of CHARAS leader Armando Perez, who was killed years earlier.

La Plaza is also known for its performance space, the amphitheater built by artist Gordon-Matta Clarke from repurposed building waste that once filled the lot. The stage of the amphitheater (la plaza) was the site of one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, which he built in collaboration with CHARAS and neighborhood residents. Some of the garden’s iconic willows still surround the plaza, though one tree, known affectionately as ‘Cher,’ was removed due to limb rot in 2017. A funeral was held for the tree by the community. 

To learn more about the history of the East Village, check out our East Village Building Blocks maps.

2 responses to “Touring the Gardens of the East Village

  1. The effort and brilliance of this outstanding “piece” is a major gift during this season of presents. Growing up in the Fifties, and NYC kid walking the streets at 7 years old, recall this area amongst many others. Great community doing truly wonderful things.
    Brian J.McManus

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *