I moved to this neighborhood in 1990 where my husband has lived since 1978. When our son arrived we joined a parent cooperative in Vesuvio Playground’s parkhouse and when he enrolled in local P.S. 130 for school we played in Little Italy’s DeSalvio playground afterwards. And to our delight we found GreenThumb’s M’Finda Kalunga Garden in Sara Roosevelt Park and Liz Christy mere blocks away.
We felt no lack of nearby, vibrant, diverse community gardens and playgrounds.
Now we hear that, were it not for the Elizabeth Street Garden, there would be no green spaces “for miles and miles,” that Sara Roosevelt Park is an asphalt wasteland, and Liz Christy (godmother of community gardens) isn’t mentioned at all. This site is proclaimed, as of 2013, to be the “soul of the neighborhood,” discounting generations who never stepped foot inside it or may have other ideas on the whereabouts of our neighborhood’s soul.
So what changed?
We became a trendy neighborhood. People came here with large incomes and even larger expectations of their due.
With the inundation of wealthy newcomers, we lost affordable housing units and storefronts. Buildings were bought, rents went up. Long-time friends left. Small businesses that served our practical needs—bodegas, boot repair, copy shop, bakery, grocery store, all owned by or employing people of color—gone. Seniors living here for decades like Adele Sarno, were forced out—evicted by a Museum created to honor her people’s history. Those with disabilities are essentially trapped in walk-ups: one dying of loneliness in a wheelchair, another dying of complications from a fire beneath her fourth floor walk-up.
On Elizabeth Garden’s block came a building with $3.5 million condos. On that same street are renovated historic (now luxury) buildings. A block away on the Bowery a building sold for $55 million, the same block where dozens of homeless men sleep, almost all of them Black. The older white men from the SROs seem to have evaporated. And ancient Asian-American women comb these same streets pulling recycling from the garbage for the refunds.
In 2013, at a first meeting on the housing proposal, an older Italian woman with her grandson turned up for her husband who could no longer walk downstairs. Probably speaking publicly for the first time, and with no sense of any right to ask, they asked for housing. There were four of us in support. The auditorium was packed with garden supporters. They had a power-point presentation and a video with music and a movie star spokesperson who’d just bought one of those $3.5 million condos. He was talking about compassion and keeping the garden as is.
Other meetings followed where we heard that removing this garden was tantamount to “ethnic cleansing” (to applause). Chinese American elders were accused of mindlessly supporting this housing because someone “bussed them in and told them to.” I sat next to an older Black man, who volunteered for four decades to create a safe park nearby, listening to his efforts belittled by a roomful of garden supporters. At another meeting an older white man left without speaking after being booed. Garden supporters showed up en masse in 2015 to argue against funding that could mean even more deeply affordable housing from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. And they booed and hissed affordable housing advocates at the City Council meeting last week.
The Councilmember, Margaret Chin, risked her re-election for this project. She was opposed, at times, with reasoned disagreement, but opposed always by a well-financed campaign with a high-powered lobbyist and a local media outlet. And sometimes opposed with misinformation, and oppression-laced commentary.
This is a punishing city to grow old in if you’re poor. We have 63,615 homeless people and elders hoping to survive the seven-year wait for housing. The median income for immigrant seniors is $9,900 a year, more than one in five older women live in poverty and among older women who live alone, one in three is poor. The Stonewall Generation, having fought gay oppression, are now elders living in walk-ups that not all can manage. Having survived the AIDS epidemic, they now hope to survive the housing shortage.
And we always want more green spaces. And this project would have both. Not as large as either group would like perhaps, but a way to move forward with both.
We are in deep trouble everywhere due to racism, sexism, poverty, age and gay oppression, and a climate crisis. We are not going to get out of any of these crises without feeling some sacrifice. And in a crisis you don’t tell someone else from across town what they should do. You ask – what can I do? And then you do it.
This is no charitable offer – this is about a chance for an affluent neighborhood (and all its housed members) to do right in these times by prioritizing the minimum well-being of those targeted by brutal forces, which will be all of us, eventually.
Granted, the garden that remains after the housing is complete will not be the same garden—the garden that was only truly opened to the public in 2013 afteraffordable housing was proposed here. It will probably not hold the statuary for the purveyor of luxury artifacts in his adjacent building.
But 123 people who need it will have a home. Half of them will be from Community Board 2. The rest will come from all over New York City. Thirty-seven units will be set-aside for those who were formerly homeless. There will be an explicit welcome for LGBTQ people in this neighborhood.
And there will be a garden.
And to be very clear, even if the oft-mentioned Hudson alternative site was miraculously re-engineered immediately, I would still want us to do our part in thisneighborhood.
To those who oppose the housing here I would say: gardens can be reimagined. This is a chance to accept with graciousness and generosity a challenge: to make this place even more beautiful than it was. You have the expertise and the heart. Use the funding amassed to make something remarkable here, instead of paying lawyers in a bitter contest you may lose.
Because, how beautiful a garden really is, is up to us.
To incoming neighbors, borrowing the wisdom of Mr. Rogers, I will say: “I’ve always wanted a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.”
Kathleen Webster is a resident of Little Italy, a community gardener, President of Sara Roosevelt Park Community Coalition working on a community/climate resiliency center, and helps spearhead the fight for Rivington House