Back to the Lower East Side, this time to tour a very few of the scores of community gardens in the neighborhood. The flourish of greenspace cultivation started in 1973 with the Green Guerillas, a movement that began with a single seed bomb tossed into a vacant lot. A reaction to the territorial divides brought about by the financial turmoil of the decade between the foreclosed, the city and urban pioneer developers, the movement quickly gained momentum. Gardeners educated themselves and began to organize; these urban oases sprang up all over the city, but are most concentrated in the East Village and the Lower East Side. This map lists 85 current and former gardens below 14th Street:
A few Days ago I spent an afternoon walking around the Lower East Side with a group of photographers. We set out to explore some of the classic spots: The Essex Market, Streit’s Matzoh, Katz’s Delicatessan and ABC No Rio. Wait a sec – we just grouped ABC No Rio, an artist/activism collective founded in 1980 with a multi-cultural food market, a matzoh factory and a classic deli. THIS is the beauty of the Lower East Side, and it represents a microcosm of our city in all its diverse and eclectic glory.
This neighborhood is alive with change – electric with possibility. The people, the art on the walls.
Germans settled the neighborhood in the early 19th century. 50 years later Italians and Jewish immigrants arrived, followed by Puerto Ricans and African Americans after the world wars. Then in the ’80s – the artists; today: gentrification.
Walking these streets and looking closely one can see the imprint each of these groups has had on the neighborhood. And scattered between the old tenement buildings and the new high-rise residences are more community gardens than any other neighborhood in the city. Those are my next stop.
I used to come here fairly frequently when we lived on 59th Street in Manhattan near the bridge. It’s changed a great deal in the last 30 years. There’s a beautiful church that used to stand in a field but is now tightly surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings. The Smallpox hospital at the south end of the island was once a prime destination for urban explorers. Now it stands, nearly demolished, embraced by a chain link fence. It’s future is uncertain. At the very far south end of the island is the new Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, a truly stunning memorial/green space with spectacular views down the length and width of the East River.
Roosevelt Island sits in the East River between Manhattan and Astoria, Queens. You can get there by a bridge from Queens, or the subway. You can also get there by tram. Tram? This is a truly unique feature of this spot.
The island is within spitting distance of either shore, but it has a character all its own.
There’s a tame, suburban quality to the vibe of the place, lots of tourists. There was a film crew lunching between takes at the top of the island when we stopped by to look at the lighthouse. That’s a story in itself – it stands near the former “lunatic asylum” and a resident of said institution apparently built a sea wall to connect Roosevelt Island to a tiny island off its northernmost shore sometime in the 19th century. He claimed responsibility for the lighthouse as well.
The island is rich with history, as are many of the islands that form the archipelago that is our city. Well worth a visit.