By Avery Nelson and Estelle Keaveny
The Elizabeth Street Garden provides a rare green sanctuary on the Lower East Side. Tall shading trees, climbing vines and century-plus-old statues of lions grace the precious acre of land. Residents escape to the community for quiet and nature in one of the most densely populated and noisy parts of the city.
But a heated debate is disturbing the peace.
Last week, the City Council unanimously approved a plan to build 123 units of affordable housing for the elderly on the site. The so-called Haven Green had been proposed in 2013, to be developed in partnership with Pennrose, Riseboro, and Habitat for Humanity. The initiative would address one of the city’s crises: a critical shortage of such units.
But the plan horrifies the fans of the garden, who argue that they would lose the tranquility and sense of community that the garden brings. It’s a very New York struggle focused around two rare, yet worthy, causes: green space in an area with one of the smallest percentages of it in the city, or apartments for one of the most vulnerable populations. “I think that the community has a lot of different opinions. I don’t think there’s one single perspective on this,” admitted Matt Dunbar, the Vice President of External Affairs for Habitat of Humanity. But for him, the priority is simple: old folks who desperately need housing to win.
Right now, over 4,600 seniors are awaiting affordable housing in the Lower East Side alone. K. Webster, the president of the Sara Roosevelt Park Coalition, comes down firmly on the side of Haven Green. “I think that these buildings would allow some of our elders in the community to remain in the community. And I think it also means that we, as a neighborhood, affirm a commitment to the fair housing law and federal housing law that says that we welcome everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or race.”
The Elizabeth Street Garden is the most practical place to build in the city’s eyes. “This is an important site because it’s right in the heart of SoHo and Little Italy, where affordable housing really doesn’t get built anymore,” Dunbar says.
But people who love the oasis see it differently. “There were many other places to build, and this is the last place the housing should go,” said Elizabeth Kurtzman, a local resident, running her wrinkled hands through her golden retriever’s soft fur. “I’m no spring chicken, so I know that for older people it’s really important. But if this garden were to go, then there would just be one less outlet for people who want to get away from the cramped city.
The park was created in 1991 by Allan Reiver, who originally paid $4,000 a month in rent for the space. Its original function was to store and sell statues from his gallery, but it evolved into a public garden after years of restoring the once destitute lot. Now, the garden is run by Allan’s son, Joseph Reiver, alongside volunteers who oversee the garden during the week.
In 2013, the city’s plan for developing the garden sparked protest among supporters of the garden. After years of unease among the community, a city-owned gravel lot about a mile away from the garden was repeatedly proposed by the garden as a better option for development. However, housing advocates say that the process of getting a new site and making it available for development could take years.
Undeterred by the City Council vote at the end of June, garden advocates are fighting back with two lawsuits filed by the famed civil rights attorney, Norman Siegel. “I think [the City Council people] are bending truths,” said Joseph Reiver. “They have to watch their backs, because we’re watching them like hawks.”
The Elizabeth Street Garden held a fundraiser on June 27 to raise money and awareness for the continuing legal fight. The park glowed with string lights hung delicately around from branches, and a local band, Bo, resounded through the tall trees and antique statues. Millennials dressed in flowy dresses and Doc Martens, and swayed gently to the band playing in the background. They clustered sipping white wine and conversing as eight-and-a-half-year-old Vivianne reached for glowing fireflies with her tiny fingers.
“Spaces like this are rare,” said Jeanea Walker, a five-year resident of Manhattan who frequently visits the garden after her day’s work at a nearby cafe. “So, when there is one that is popular and becomes a part of peoples’ daily routine, it becomes really important to the community and neighborhood.”
Reiver, the ESG’s Executive Director, roused the crowd with fighting words. “We’re fighting this in court. We’re fighting this in the streets as well. And we’re fighting it against those politicians who are abusing this process,” he exclaimed passionately. The audience responded with loud shouts and a round of applause that could be heard down the block.
Despite the pleas of those fighting for the garden, the City Council remains unmoved. “We should welcome the fact that there would be more senior services especially in an area that doesn’t have that many,” said Rush Perez, the communications director of the local councilwoman, Magaret Chin.
But through the turmoil, the childlike wonder of the park remains intact. The families who enjoy the garden are hopeful for more Easter egg hunts, movie nights, and the oh-so-rare moments of natural bliss. For now, eight-and-a-half-year-old Vivianne will continue catching fireflies under the tall trees and the city stars, making the most of whatever time she still has to continue doing so.