Stanton St. kids’ garden is in need of some magic
By Jefferson Siegel
A peaceful oasis on the corner of Norfolk and Stanton Sts. is in danger of vanishing, and a community is once again mounting the barricades in defense of a garden.
The Children’s Magical Garden de Carmen Rubio is one of many community gardens dotting the landscape of the Lower East Side. Like most of them, it was created from an abandoned lot, a debris-filled eyesore once haunted by drug dealers and users.
In the late 1970s, Alfredo Feliciano was studying art at the State University of New York at Binghamton when Reagan-era cutbacks curtailed his financial aid. Arriving in a neighborhood forgotten by the city, Feliciano saw something others didn’t.
“I believe in God and I believe he gave me a vision,” Feliciano said on Sun. Oct. 15 as he took a break from constructing a flowerbox near the garden’s entrance. As he spoke, volunteers moved about, painting a wall, planting flower bulbs and tending to all things flora.
“I saw a kid walking through all the garbage and saw his purpose,” Feliciano said, recalling a child in an abandoned lot filled with discarded TV sets and crack vials. Feliciano laid out a blueprint for a plot of land he envisioned could be a community jewel. Then he started knocking on doors.
One door was Apartment 5C in an adjoining building. A young Carmen Rubio invited him in. As they spoke, she revealed a dream from a recent night, of someone who would come to clean up the lot. He said they talked about many things that day.
“She became my right hand,” Feliciano said. “Without her, this place would never have been possible.”
In 1982, few saw the potential in a garbage-filled lot. Feliciano did and he enlisted the help of local children to start cleaning it up. Groups of youngsters would join him as he ran after drug dealers, yelling, “Get out!” He recalled some dealers later coming back to apologize when they saw what he was trying to accomplish.
“It was an uphill battle for a number of years,” he said. “It was all-out war. The Lower East Side was a terrible place.”
Two things kept him going, he said: the kids and Rubio.
“From the very beginning, it was children — so they could learn how to garden, how to plant.” Feliciano even brought groups of mentally challenged children, who were delighted with the evolving garden.
At the time, Rubio was an activist lawyer who worked at GOLES, the Good Old Lower East Side, a neighborhood housing and tenants rights organization.
“I told her to just keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll keep the garden going,”
Feliciano said. They lived as a common-law couple.
During the Giuliani era, community gardens came under assault from the city and developers. One cause celebre was El Jardin de la Esperanza, the Garden of Hope, on Seventh St. between Avenues B and C. In February 2000, after months of protests and legal efforts, police stormed the garden, arresting 31 protesters who had occupied the grassy enclave in the hope of saving it. The garden was bulldozed and a building rose.
Today on its 50-foot-by-100-foot lot, the Children’s Magical Garden de Carmen Rubio boasts mulberry, maple, apple and peach trees. A swing hangs from a branch, children’s toys are strewn about, and the apples are ripe for picking.
“I really love the fact that it’s for kids,” said Kate Temple-West, the garden’s co-director. “I can’t imagine being a kid and not being able to run and play,” she added. Temple-West organizes events at the garden, including teaching children about planting and composting and, twice a month, hosting a garden day.
Temple-West, who has done research in child psychology, has concluded that youngsters develop better if exposed to nature.
“Biophilia,” she said, “makes for sane, happy adults if they have a chance to play in green spaces as children.”
But the garden is now in a fight for its life. Its land is in two adjacent portions. One is owned by a private developer and the other by the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development. Feliciano said the developer wants the city to sell its part of the property so the developer can erect condos.
The garden is receiving support from Time’s Up!, the East Village environmental advocacy group. On Oct. 15, Bill DiPaola, Time’s Up! founder and executive director, stood holding his ubiquitous video camera as several dozen of the group’s volunteers cleaned, planted and pruned.
“Time’s Up! is now involved in trying to save the Magical Garden,” DiPaola said. “If they want to try to destroy this garden, it’s not going to be so easy. This garden has a long, strong history in this community as a place that kids can go and have a break and learn about community,” he said. Time’s Up! also donated a number of children’s bicycles to the garden.
Adam Savitch, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood who has lived on the block five years, visited the garden that same Sunday. After pushing his 3-year-old nephew Ethan around the garden in a toy car, Savitch spoke of the garden’s value to the community.
“I’m all for [saving] it,” he said. “I would like to see it be utilized more. I’m hoping that, if it’s saved, that we can improve it,” he added.
Last Tuesday, the Housing Committee of Community Board 3 had scheduled a hearing on the garden’s future, but the garden gained a reprieve, as the committee decided to postpone the discussion and vote for two months. Time’s Up! planned to show the committee a video, hoping that pictures could better convey the value of the garden to the neighborhood. On Oct. 24, however, the full board of C.B. 3 was to meet and would decide whether to vote or follow the committee’s recommendation to table the discussion for two months.
One person won’t be at the meetings but her name will be in everyone’s thoughts. Last Thanksgiving, after a bout with breast cancer, Rubio died. Her name is inscribed on a wall in the garden, next to a mural created two weeks ago. The artwork depicts a bear, a wizard and four stern-looking rabbits. Guard rabbits, perhaps.
As newcomers move into the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and look inward, hiring designers and interior decorators to feather their nests, Feliciano hopes they will also look out their windows or walk past the garden. Feliciano is optimistic about the upcoming battle.
“This has been the adventure of my life,” he mused.
At the garden’s Norfolk St. entrance, a steppingstone bears the inscription: “And evil shall not destroy this garden.” The hope among many is, neither will another new building.