The late 1960s and 1970s witnessed the devastation of New York, with many buildings in low-income areas left unattended, burned, and reduced to rubble. Drug dealers, gangs, and junkies soon moved in, making those neighborhoods unsafe to live in.
But a group of ordinary people – dreamers, artists, and activists – rose up and cleared empty lots, planted trees, and vegetables, and created oases of peace and nature for the community amid these unsafe conditions.
According to GreenThumb, the largest community gardening program in the country and part of the New York City Parks Department, there are at least 550 community gardens throughout the five boroughs, accounting for more than 100 acres of open space. From the orderly British countryside style of the Parque de Tranquilidad in Alphabet City, to the vegetable lots of Carver Community Garden in East Harlem, a world of culture is wrapped up in these small green spaces.
“Joy, hope, spirituality, and a love of the absurd can be seen all around,” says Anna Angelidakis, who has created a book celebrating the people who create, cultivate, and enjoy these gardens.
In 2008, after her father, a sea captain in the Greek Merchant Marine, passed away, she found herself looking for quiet places to gather her thoughts. “On one of these walks, I noticed a gate at the corner of 9th St and Avenue C, with the welcoming sign, ‘The garden is open.’ I entered, unaware of how this small step was to change my life.
“I started to see what had always been before me, but I’d never noticed – small enclaves of greenery, each one more pristine and enchanting than the one before it.”
“Maybe it was the tall, willow-tree foliage swaying in the wind,” she says, “or the startling blue eyes of a ceramic geisha, but I knew I had found a home. And it wasn’t just this garden I discovered. I started to see what had always been before me, but I’d never noticed – small enclaves of greenery, each one more pristine and enchanting than the one before it.
“The more I read about the history of New York City’s community gardens, and their struggle to reclaim the devastated lots of the 1970s and 1980s, the more fascinated I became. A world had opened before me, and it was impossible to go back and close the gate.”
Since 2009, she has walked through the gardens, photographing them through all the seasons. “Originally, my attention was focused in my neighborhood, the Lower East Side, but soon I expanded my search to the West Side and Harlem, both east and west. As for the other four boroughs, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island, they’re under exploration.
“Some gardens allowed me to photograph them with ease. The light was perfect and the composition strong. Others proved a great challenge. Some gardens slowly relented, others remained defiant til the end. Nothing was ever static.
“I met ordinary people with extraordinary lives, people whose struggles put my own life into perspective.”
“Photograph by photograph, I came to know the most intimate corners of each garden. I met ordinary people with extraordinary lives, people whose struggles put my own life into perspective, some born in other countries, just like me, and for whom these small plots were both an anchor in this new world and a reference to their ancestral land.”
She photographed a headless statue resting against a withered bridal wreath; a child’s dinner set positioned under the mural of a blue jay; an archangel holding a broken sword standing below a blooming cherry tree.
“The displays of art, flowers, and vegetation constantly change,” she says, “drawing visitors back again and again, each return as fresh, and the experience as exhilarating as the first time. These places are rooted but mutable: royal-pink asters and sky-blue hydrangeas in summer; golden calendulas and burnt-sienna mums in autumn; bone-white snowdrops and boxwood in winter; an eruption of hues and fragrances each spring, as coral peonies and sweet-scented lilacs bloom everywhere.”
And while some gardens are meticulously kept, others are left almost unattended, “poignantly revealing socioeconomic differences,” she notes, “and the varied character of the city.”
These gardens are vital parts of their neighborhoods, with live performances, song and dance, poetry readings, workshops, and a celebration of the seasons. Weddings, birthdays, graduations, and memorials are often conducted in the shade of their trees.
“The idea of combining this history and these experiences into a book came gradually, like a seed slowing taking root,” says Anna. “Once the idea was born, everything else fell magically together: connections occurred, and similar minded people came together. The New York City I thought I knew reinvented itself, and I rediscovered her from the ground up, in the most profound way. This photo essay is a book of love and thanks.”
These are just three of the gardens featured in the book, all essential parts of the Hell’s Kitchen landscape. They remain closed due to COVID-19.
HELL’S KITCHEN FARM
A rooftop farm. A garden in the sky. Plants and vegetables sway gently in the wind amidst skyscrapers, billboards, and cranes. A tall apple tree, ripe with fruit, extends its branches towards the clouds. Kale, lettuce, spinach, and thyme grow in abundance inside blue kiddie pools tended by young volunteers.
The garden’s history begins in 2010, when a team of neighborhood organizations, including the Clinton Housing Development Company, Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, and Metropolitan Community Church, brought their garden plan to life atop the Metro Baptist Church on W40th St, just off 9th Ave.
Their goal was to cultivate healthier food for the needy that frequent this gritty area around the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
I visited the garden on a cool summer morning, where young volunteers tended the plants. Kay, a long-standing member, explained the many challenges they had to face, such as complying with city regulations for safety, carrying up piles of dirt and pebbles four flights of steps, or fighting off pigeons feasting on the young seeds.
After trial and error, the gardeners realized that wire mesh and netting keeps the birds away, a technique that continues to work to this day, so that the garden can flourish and be enjoyed.
CLINTON COMMUNITY GARDEN
In the old rough and tumble area of Hell’s Kitchen, the Clinton Garden is an unexpected place of respite. The garden is divided into two tranquil parts, featuring winding paths and pleasing places to sit and muse. As with so many other community gardens, this was an abandoned lot before residents cleaned and cultivated it in the late 1970s.
In 1981, when the city proposed putting the property up for auction, the gardeners formed the Committee to Save Clinton Community Garden and ran a Square Inch Campaign, in which a $5 donation bought a piece of the garden. The story attracted national attention in magazines, newspapers, and television, as well as the eventual personal support of Mayor Koch, who bought the first square inch of the garden.
Today, an average of 500–600 people use the garden during the summer, and over 2,000 people have access to keys. The garden’s programs include an annual summer solstice event, potluck dinners, art shows, weddings, music performances, gardening seminars, dance recitals, and even fashion photo shoots.
Clinton Community Garden is literally a rescued space, a reclaiming of urban blight, making it bright, making it grow, and giving it back to both residents and passersby.
OASIS COMMUNITY GARDEN
A sandy beach surrounded by purple and white Adirondack chairs; a bathtub filled with rainwater amidst tiger lilies; a marble bench supported by lion heads; mannequin dolls hanging upside down wearing “I Love NY” t-shirts, and elfish creatures peeking through the willow’s branches. This artful mélange challenges the visitor to find out the story behind these creations.
The Oasis has been part of the neighborhood for the last 40 years. Once a barren lot filled with drug paraphernalia and garbage, it was hardly a safe place to walk by, and of course, never a place to linger after dusk.
After the garden was cleared of debris, a “sand beach” was created in an attempt to give the neighborhood children the illusion of being by the sea.
The bathtub, once overflowing with koi, functioned as a small “aquarium.” After a break in the structure, the water leaked out and the fish died, but the bathtub remains looking for a new life.
I sit on a bench observing a group of children running around, while the parents enjoy a quiet evening. The children remind me of my sister and me in Greece, playing with our friends by the river bank.
I’m confident that the moments that these children share with one another, will one day grow into lasting friendships.