Hola amigos: Today I’ll bring you Loisaida, from Voices/Barrios and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. LoisaidaLower East Side, the Latino Community Garden of the Lower East Side of New York.
Loisaida, “Spanglish” for Lower East Side … ES
Puerto Ricans in Loisaida Image/
Loisaida: COMMUNITY GARDENS
AND THE RIGHT TO THE CITY
by Miranda Martinez
The community gardens of the Lower East Side are enduring symbols of the ongoing Latino struggle for the right to the city. Started in the 1970s and 1980s, in the depths of New York’s urban crisis – when this vibrant, working class neighborhood was in the throes of depopulation due to disinvestment, arson and service cuts – gardens were an important strategy for retrieving vacant spaces, and re-establishing a sense of community and solidarity.
Every garden passes down its stories relating to the labor of clearing a lot of rubble bucket by bucket, or facing down aggressive drug dealers, or picking through soil to clean out discarded needles and other waste so the ground would be safe for play.
Community gardens have an unrecognized symbiotic role in the other counter-cultural grassroots experiments for which the Lower East Side is famous. At their best, gardens are easily accessible technologies of community, deeply expressive across class and culture of the urge to connect. The many different sectors of the Lower East Side’s countercultural milieu drew upon that quality as they imagined new possibilities for the troubled neighborhood. Artists, actors and street poets shared their work in gardens, environmental activists experimented with green technologies, low-income renovators of abandoned buildings honed their skills by working together in garden spaces. All the best and most inventive initiatives for community rebirth on the neighborhood have traced a path through a community garden.
For Puerto Ricans in Loisaida, community gardens have been one of the most visible and effective ways to demand a right to the city. They remain among a diminishing number of spaces that anchor and strengthen the community by evoking Puerto Rican rural life and culture. In most gardens there is the casita, whose design evokes traditional houses on the island and whose construction permits the garden to be used for social gatherings during most of the year. Besides the casita, there are other markers such as shrines, murals, or flags that claim these spaces as familial and Puerto Rican identified. During the most difficult years, gardeners used their spaces as social experiments in healing a troubled neighborhood: community gardens were oases, spaces of welcome where a person would wander in to work, socialize, and learn how to create change. Gardeners such as Carmen Pabón, a community activist and ardent nationalist whose garden Bello Amanecer Borincano was destroyed in 2002, believed that working in the ground and being in nature cured depression in isolated elderly people and calmed unruly youth by reconnecting them with their culture.
As the Lower East Side has gentrified during the past twenty years, many community gardens have transitioned to a more diverse membership, and a number of the largest gardens have become local institutions, with large memberships and varied activities. In these gardens the Puerto Rican presence is attenuated, remaining only symbolically in a garden’s name or in the style of the casita, while the membership has become increasingly white and middle class. Today, in the wake of gentrification, for a garden to be ethnically particular or informally familial can be a death sentence; in a neighborhood with few empty spaces on which to build, garden spaces are considered prime real estate. As the pressure has mounted to develop these sites, so has the pressure for gardens to transform themselves into something analogous to a public park or botanical preserve. While this pressure has created incentives to improve and beautify many spaces, it also threatens the deeply encoded significance of gardens as spaces of autonomous community. Needless to say, in the recoding of garden spaces as “public parks” the explicit Latinidad of some gardens is also increasingly controversial.
The most serious assault on community gardens was during the 1990s. Hundreds of gardens throughout the city faced the threat of destruction by Mayor Giuliani, who aggressively pursued a plan to sell the gardens at auction. Community gardeners mobilized, and successfully generated widespread public opposition to the plan. As a result, the Giuliani administration was forced to bargain to save some gardens by selling them to a Land Trust. In 2003, Mayor Bloomberg, noting the public backlash against garden demolitions, negotiated with a coalition of the city’s environmental and open space nonprofits to protect the majority of the city’s gardens, at least until 2010, but in return demanded mechanisms for ongoing evaluation of gardens according to their aesthetics, membership, programming, and environmental impact. Dedicated greening groups have worked since then to help gardeners access resources that can make their garden preservable in the long term, and have spread the word that gardens are vulnerable to destruction if they fail to make their gardens more beautiful and publicly accessible. The new byword is “stewardship”: community gardeners must show that they can maintain spaces in the public good, with the understanding that the city has the ultimate say in how that defines, and what it means.
The hold on garden demolitions expired in 2010, and the City Council has not yet passed legislation that would offer community gardens any certain protection against destruction. Community gardeners are already mobilizing to make the public aware of the renewed threat to garden spaces. There is support for renewed legislation, but officials in the Bloomberg administration continue to resist any laws that would offer permanent, unqualified protection against development.
Let’s hope in the next round of struggle that gardeners emerge with permanent protections, enacted in ways that remove the disempowering threat to upgrade or face destruction. It should be a basic task of the new garden preservation movement to question the impact and meaning of the pressures to rationalize and institutionalizecommunity gardens. In many cases, gardeners have been forced to pay higher costs in terms of money, time, and labor to provide a free public resource under conditions of reduced autonomy, and implied threat. Stronger protections will preserve not only the space of gardens, but the other characteristics—the chances for joy, experimentation, autonomy and idiosyncrasy—that are also part of the demand for the right to the city. For Loisaida Puerto Ricans, a renewed debate over garden spaces once again opens up the wider question of how the neighborhood’s Latinidad will be understood and protected in the context of gentrification. The casita gardens are needed, as spaces that nourish a spirit of community and resistance to erasure. They keep alive the history of struggle, and the chance to envision future alternatives.
Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies