A Storied (and Selective) Garden in Hell’s Kitchen
By Joseph Flaherty and Guanhong Hu
Blocks from Times Square and bookended by traffic roaring down cross streets, the Clinton Community Garden is a holdout in a neighborhood of noise and concrete.
In 1977, Hell’s Kitchen activists established the garden in an abandoned lot that held the rubble from a pair of collapsed buildings, even hauling bricks away by hand.
“The first thing in our bylaws says, ‘The Clinton Community Garden was created to give a space of tranquility to residents of Hell’s Kitchen,’” said Andy Padian, chair of the garden’s steering committee.
“A noisy truck can take over the noise in the garden here, but as soon as that noisy truck goes away, the prevalent sound in here is the sound of birds, and it’s a very quiet space. It’s very hard to maintain this as a quiet space even with people sitting here quietly.”
The quiet space the garden offers is so prized that it’s hard to become a member.
The front half of the garden is open to Hell’s Kitchen residents after they pay $15 for a key; however, the back half is for gardeners only. The waiting time to obtain one of 108 garden plots is 6 to 8 years.
“A local chef who lives in the neighborhood came to me the other day and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to grow herbs for the restaurant, can I get a plot?’” said Padian. “And I said, yeah— eight years.’ He was just completely surprised by that.”
Padian attributes the long wait to a dearth of green space in Hell’s Kitchen and to gardeners who don’t want to give up their plot.
“People hold onto their gardens,” he said. “It’s a labor of love. I toss and turn every year about getting rid of my garden.”
This time of year, the gardens are stocked with nearly-ripe tomatoes, green beans, and herbs. But if gardeners aren’t meticulous about tending to their plot, they can find it taken from them by a committee.
According to Padian, only a few of the “leases” on garden plots are turned over to new members each year. This year, it was a high number: 8.
In the early 1980s, the garden survived a development attempt by the Koch administration after residents raised money to turn the community garden into a city park. Koch backed down and eventually threw his support behind the project. The garden became the first community garden to become a New York City park.
Jane Greenlaw, a Hell’s Kitchen resident and longtime member of the garden, said the changes buffeting the neighborhood make spaces like the garden needed.
“It’s really important to note that this area is going through major redevelopment. This neighborhood was zoned for manufacturing forever and it’s only in the last 10 years that it was rezoned for residential,” said Greenlaw. “That means the entire infrastructure is changing. Lots of buildings are torn down, lots of people can’t afford to live here anymore. It’s major disruption everywhere.”
Padian said despite increasing development in Hell’s Kitchen, their garden is not in danger.
“This garden will never be developed, period,” he said. “It is a New York City Park. We’re safe.”
For the garden members, keeping up the planting, watering, and weeding often functions as a part-time job.
“It’s a gigantic labor of love and, to be perfectly honest, we’re under-volunteered,” Padian said. “We need more people here and in the next year that’s really what I’ve got to do: get more people to help keep this space up.”