February 17, 2000
Death of a Garden
The New York Times
On Tuesday morning, Esperanza Garden, a community garden on East Seventh Street in Manhattan, was bulldozed after 22 years of existence. Its destruction marked the latest battle in the long-running war between Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and community advocates over the use of city-owned lots for community gardens. City Hall contends that many lots were only lent to the neighborhoods for gardens with the understanding that they would ultimately be taken back. Now, the mayor says, the lot on East Seventh Street should be sold to a developer to build low- and middle-income housing.
But the developer for this lot has set aside only 20 percent of the planned housing units for low-income housing. The rest will be made available as the market dictates. There are also provisions for nearly 7,000 square feet of retail space and 5,000 square feet of permanent open space. The fate of Esperanza Garden had been decided during a series of public hearings intended, in the administration’s words, to balance competing interests, though it is not clear how the users of a community garden can compete with the economic clout of a developer.
No city ownership right can quite absolve the mayor and his administration of insensitivity in their handling of community gardens. ”If you live in an unrealistic world then you can say everything should be a community garden,” the mayor said. But their defenders do not assert that everything should be a community garden. They only say that such gardens, rare as they are, bring vitality and a sense of purpose to neighborhoods.
The conflict underlying the destruction of Esperanza Garden seems more fundamental than a struggle between gardeners and developers, green space and housing. It seems to be a conflict about the expression of public will. In most cases, the mayor clearly tries to take the broad view of what is best for most New Yorkers. Not every community garden will survive in an economic climate as ebullient and a housing market as tight as this one. But the most meaningful definition of public value is not always the broadest or most economically justifiable one. A patch of green or a plot of flowers can often do more for a neighborhood than new apartments and retail establishments.