New York Magazine’s Bedford + Bowery, January 2014.
Until 40 years ago, the lush respite at the corner of Bowery and East Houston, the Liz Christy Community Garden, was far from green. Over time the lot sheltered everyone from immigrants to swindlers, eventually deteriorating by the middle of the twentieth century, abandoned and garbage-strewn. In 1973, a group of college students hauled away the trash, lay dirt and planted seeds. Later, the plot took the name of the art student who spearheaded the project.
Twice in the years since, neighbors have battled back developers for the right to maintain the garden and both times, neighborhood loyalty managed to save it. Indeed, if it weren’t for community, the Liz Christy project would likely be just another high-rise.
From Stuyvesant Farm to Saloons and Swindling
What is today 108 to 116 E. Houston is a small part of what in the mid-1600s was Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s farm. He called it the “Bouwerie” (Dutch for ‘farm’), thereby blessing the area with a name that would outlast him by hundreds of years. Stuyvesant died in 1672; in 1778, his grandson sold off much of the property.
By the late 1800s, the lots that now have become garden were buildings: apartments stacked atop street-level businesses. Occasional scandal punctured the usual quiet.
In 1894, inhabiting the street level of 110 E. Houston was the popular United Cigar Store operated by a man named John Lindlau. On October 6, police summoned Lindau to court to explain why he broke up an engagement between “Miss Annie V Ullner, a pretty brunette, 18 years old” and “George Buck, a saloon keeper.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that two letters written in German “are responsible for all the trouble.” In August, husband-to-be Buck received a letter from Lindlau “stating that his sweetheart was not all that he expected her to be,” and that he should talk to the cigar store owner if he wanted the seamy details. After consulting Lindlau, “straightway, Buck broke off the engagement and Miss Ullner sued him for breach of promise of marriage.” (Of what exactly Miss Ullner was accused remains their secret. Of all the colorful details the Eagle did report, the specifics didn’t make the cut.)
The cigar store had changed hands by 1910 (the building’s owner became H. Handelsman) and produced yet another red headline. On September 12, 1910, the Eagle reported the deaths of passers-by when one wall of the building at 110 E. Houston Street “fell outward and crashed… burying the victims beneath about twelve tons of brick.” Handelsman hired the contracting firm of Joseph Freeman and Joseph Grossman to add a floor to the then-60-year-old building, which the Eagle called “an old landmark in the neighborhood.” The renovation ended in tragedy, causing the death of one man and injuries to two others when about 20 construction workers “lifted the roof on jacks and heavy timbers, when the front wall from the top of the third floor suddenly bulged outward.” The contractors were later charged with criminal negligence and bailed out at the price of $2,500 each.
Next door, 108 E. Houston had been converted by the early 1900s from “Best Jacob” – a bar that a local directory classified in 1881 as a “Lager Beer Saloon” – to the Victor record store. One of the Victor employees was a man named Joseph H. Mayers, who years later would become famous for his immigrant-swindling phonograph scheme, through which a fellow swindler was said to have netted an estimated $125,000 annually. Mayers stopped working at this location in 1911, moving to another branch of the record company, from which he would go on to swindle.
“One of the most prolific sources of swindling immigrants and aliens is the phonograph mail order business, a lucrative and highly organized mode of extracting money from the unsuspecting through the medium of the foreign press,” reads a 1915 report from the New York State Department of Labor. The report explained the swindle: advertisements in several languages offered, for an initial payment of $5 and an agreement to pay the balance in installments, a machine delivered to the buyer’s doorstep “with records of your national songs in your own tongue.” The trap door closed when a delivery service arrived to the immigrant’s door with the machine asking for the remainder of the payment in a lump sum, and when the immigrant couldn’t pay, the deliveryman returned with the machine. Mayers, the phonograph baron, made a $5 profit from every victim.
In 1921, the Leader-Observer reported a landmark accident claim: the $7,000 settlement in the case of wrongful death of a man who lived on the seventh floor of 108 E Houston. The man, Max Weinstein, was a “cloak and suit contractor” who fell seven stories down a faulty elevator shaft to his death. Because no one witnessed Weinstein’s death, there were doubts as to whether his wife and children would receive restitution. But the $7,000 that the building’s owner, Jacob Finkelstein, was ordered to pay to the victim’s wife was “the first time in the annals of the Supreme Court of New York county that a death claim prosecuted without the aid of eyewitness testimony succeeded in winning such a substantial sum.”
At the time, Finkelstein’s brother, Paul, owned an auctioneer business in the same building. Also housed at 114 E. Houston, on the ground floor, was a bakery that delighted customers with bread, pastries and ice cream, according to an 1897 ad in the New York World.
In 1929, the city widened East Houston, wiping out a group of contiguous buildings that had used the rectangle of lots that now form the garden as a backyard. The lots lay fallow, abandoned for decades thereafter during Bowery’s slide into what some dramatically referred to as “evil and blackness.” For instance, a homeless shelter, the Hadley and Wesley Rescue Halls, described its mission as “the work of rescuing destitute and outcast” men and women of the area – which numbered some 15,000 people, according to a 1901 article in the Methodist publication The Christian Advocate. The Church of All Nations, next door to what would be the garden site, offered a community center, childcare, recreational space for 1,200 boys and girls, and — for adults — plays, dances, lectures and films. It closed in the 1970s, replaced by a group called CUANDO, which converted the whole building into a community center until the early 1990s. At that point a company called AvalonBay bought it and turned it into the Avalon Bowery Place, the glassy luxury apartment building at the address that stands next door to the garden today.
Neighborhood Friends See Trash, Think Trees
By the early 1970s when Liz Christy and friends came along, the empty lot at Bowery and East Houston was a pile of televisions, refrigerators and needles standing about two feet tall.
Liz Christy was an art student at Columbia University. She rented a room on Mott Street near several of her friends, including a man named Donald Loggins, the only founder of garden who remains in New York City. Loggins is a computer security technician, kind blue eyes behind rimless glasses, who installs firewalls from an office in downtown Brooklyn.
He recalled an offhand suggestion that sparked the idea that became the garden. One day in 1972, while walking past the abandoned lot, Christy saw children playing inside a decrepit refrigerator turned on its side. She asked the children’s mother why the neighbors didn’t clean up the lot to make it safer for the kids. As Loggins tells it, the slump-shouldered woman looked at her and said something to the effect of, “I have two jobs and children. I don’t have time. Why don’t you do it?”
Christy, Loggins and 13 other artist friends who lived on the Lower East Side started dreaming. It took them almost a year of daily digging to finish the task the tired mother gave them. And it wasn’t hard only because of the physical labor; the garden wasn’t in a safe area. “We were two blocks away from the epicenter of drug dealing in the city” at Second Avenue and East Fourth Street, Loggins says. “We had to chase dangerous people out of the garden with pitchforks!” (In fact, four years ago in a cemetery a few blocks from the garden, the caretaker unearthed ten pounds of military-grade explosives that had been buried in preparation for who-knows-what.)
The neighborhood, a mix of German, Yiddish and Latino people, watched the progress curiously. They asked questions. They started to help when they could. “Many came from other countries, and there was no Whole Foods then — you couldn’t buy Asian vegetables at the store,” Loggins says. “So they brought seeds from their home countries — from Tibet and China, for instance,” he says. “We even had a guy from the Italian mafia who lived in the area and grew tomatoes in the garden.” The garden’s membership immediately became the people who lived in the neighborhood — making it the first “community garden” in New York City history.
They first called it “The Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden.” (The name was changed in Christy’s honor after her death from lung cancer in 1985, at age 39). But given the freshness of their idea, they had to learn many things by experimentation. In fact, no one in the group had gardened before. A few factors worked in their favor: for instance, they had the luck of a nearby police station with a mounted patrol unit. “Their horses meant free fertilizer,” Loggins says.
One of Loggins’ favorite stories from the early days is the time they tunneled into something unexpected. Someone donated a four-foot cherry tree. While digging down to plant it, they hit cobblestones, which they started to remove, one by one. Then, they heard a rumbling. “It was the roof of the subway!” Loggins says. “We quietly put the stones back and planted the tree somewhere else.”
Getting legal responsibility for the garden plot was nearly as difficult as clearing out old refrigerators and chasing off buccaneers with pitchforks. The city technically owned the lot, because the property’s last owner stopped paying taxes and was slapped with foreclosure. Still, the city wasn’t eager to grant them a lease. “We argued that no one would ever want to live in the East Village,” Loggins says, chuckling. At the time, it seemed true.
It was thanks to support from the neighbors and media coverage that the city agreed to lease the space. The cost for that East Village real estate in 1973? One dollar per year.
The second time the group saved the garden was in 1989. That was when AvalonBay bought the old All Nations church and the community center building next door, which once had housed McGurk’s Suicide Hall. AvalonBay’s original plan involved dividing the garden in two, in order to connect its building — a towering high-end housing structure — directly to Bowery.
But the garden team pushed back, and the neighborhood did too. By the time construction began in 1995, AvalonBay agreed to leave the garden be. The company reportedly furthermore agreed to build without harming the plants by blocking the sunlight or rain. In return, the garden closed during the building’s construction, for about one year. AvalonBay now provides the garden with monthly water access.
Loggins says the garden’s appeal extends far beyond New York. Over the years, they’ve hosted international visitors from Paris, Berlin, and Japan — especially from people brainstorming ways to utilize areas still abandoned after World War II bombings.
Its appeal is also due to Christy herself. In 1975, she enshrined the ideals behind the garden into an organization that she called the Green Guerrillas. Christy, a Vietnam War protester, also applied her activism to gardening. The Green Guerillas’ tactic was to throw “seed bombs” into abandoned lots, hoping to spread plants throughout the city. In 2004, a man named Richard Reynolds “inadvertently reinvented” the tactic in London, Loggins says. After a flurry of U.S. network news shows covered Reynolds’ initiative, he began corresponding with Loggins. Reynolds came to New York in 2006, and the two men talked through the garden’s history while they admired its 2,000 plant species, including the tallest Redwood tree in the city.
Reynolds remembers being struck: the garden was “a place created by many hands for many hands, rather than the single designer or landscaper.”
However, even laying eyes on the area for the first time, Reynolds could see it was gripped by change so swift that projects borne of love for one’s neighborhood, like the garden, may only belong to a bygone era. “There was also a sense of sadness,” Reynolds wrote in an email. “The changes to the wider area seemed to have pushed older gardeners further away; the garden a remaining link to the area they once lived in but could no longer afford.”
The Garden Today
Across the street from where Tibetan refugees used to grow their native vegetables, a glass-paneled Whole Foods now stands. Loggins says that when children visit, they’re often surprised to learn that grapes grow on branches. “They think they come from the supermarket,” he says.
Today, the garden is a dense, organized world of green that seems to have a life of its own. One warm September 2014 day, car horns and jackhammers blare just beyond the thin black bars that separate the garden from new New York. The plants at the entrance brace against the noise. Thick, wide frond leaves that reach some ten inches tall stretch over their shorter, more delicate siblings beneath. A shale stone path leads deeper into the garden, and the din of modernity fades. Now, the world is trees dressed in brittle silver bark, wound round with vines hung heavy with leaves.
On this early fall day, the garden has been open to the public for two hours. Although a new group shuffles in about every five minutes, people fold into nature so immediately that it’s clear this is the garden’s domain. It seems that the garden prepared itself for today’s public; that it watered and preened itself, confident in its power to be shelter amidst the concrete and din. “If we weren’t here, this would be another high-rise,” says Loggins.