December 26, 1999
NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: LOWER EAST SIDE/EAST VILLAGE; Gardeners Visit a Plague of Giant Frog Upon a Developer
By COLIN MOYNIHAN
In spring 1977, Alicia Mendes and her neighbors cleared a burned-out lot next to their building on East Seventh Street between Avenues B and C and planted sunflowers, vegetables and herbs. They named the garden Esparanza (Spanish for hope), and during the last 22 years it has been the site of birthday parties, neighborhood meetings and annual pig roasts.
But on Nov. 4, a Supreme Court judge dismissed a motion by gardeners seeking to stop a developer, BFC Partners, from razing the garden to build apartments. The gardeners were distraught.
But as they filed an appeal, they also made plans to resist. For weeks, local residents and garden lovers have slept each night in a giant sculpture of a tree frog that rests on a raised wooden platform near the garden entrance. The purpose they say, is to deter nighttime bulldozing.
Anticipating that possibility, the gardeners built the sculpture three months ago, forming the body of the frog with wire mesh and steel bars, then covering it with canvas that was painted red, yellow and black to resemble a tree frog, or coqui. The coqui is the national animal of Puerto Rico and is said in legend to repel more powerful attackers.
The gardeners hope the sculpture will play a similar role for them. Inside are two cement blocks to which they can chain themselves and delay their forcible removal from the site. The gardeners have other defenses, too. They plan to climb to the top of a tripod in the rear of the garden to prevent bulldozers from smashing through, and to lock themselves into chairs lashed to the chain link fence along East Seventh Street.
The developer has a different view of his project. ”We were very pleased to have been able to work closely with Councilwoman Margarita Lopez’s office to address very important community needs, which include the preservation of a community garden on Avenue C between East Seventh and East Eighth Street,” said Donald Capoccia, a principal of BFC.
As a drizzle fell on Monday night, Timothy Doody, 25, and Robyn Hillman Harrington, 18, climbed a rickety ladder and entered the frog. Mr. Doody, who has spent the night in trees to oppose clear-cutting in the Allegheny Mountains, said he had slept in the frog once before. ”People who were passing stopped to look up at us,” he said. ”By the time of last call, they were talking to the frog.”
During the next several hours, Mr. Doody and Ms. Harrington sat in the sculpture, talking, eating a pepper and slices of cold pizza, and peering through the domelike eyes of the frog to the sidewalk below. Around midnight they wrapped themselves in blankets, and about an hour later they lay down to go to sleep.
The next morning, Mr. Doody climbed downstairs. ”All quiet on the front,” he said. ”The garden is safe for another day.”
Of course, although the garden was still intact as of Thursday evening, the developer might arrive anytime. Indeed, on Wednesday morning, workers hired by BFC to clear a lot next to Esparanza demolished the brick wall separating the lots. That afternoon, the gardeners gathered in Esparanza and vowed continued resistance, saying they would dig pits for more cement blocks like the ones in the frog.
Aresh Javadi, a part-time teacher who had watched the BFC workers in the neighboring lot, said: ”They could attack Esparanza at any time. But whenever they do, we’ll be ready.”