Elizabeth Street Garden, New York City, NY

City Threatens to Evict the Elizabeth Street Garden

Last week an eviction notice was served on the New York City’s Elizabeth Street Garden, a sylvan oasis on the Lower East Side that was transformed by the late outsider artist Allan Reiver from a vacant lot into a beloved neighborhood park filled with sculpture and salvaged architectural artifacts. The site, which has operated on a month-to-month lease since 1991, is slated to have a seven-story mixed-use building with affordable housing for senior citizens, and some green space. In 2018, The Cultural Landscape Foundation enrolled the garden as a Landslide site and believes that the site is eligibile for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2019, ESG, Inc., the non-profit that operates the garden, sued the city to prevent the site’s demolition; that litigation is pending. However, rather than wait for a resolution of the litigation, the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development announced the lease would be terminated on October 31, 2021, so that the site could be made ready for the development. 

Patti Smith at Elizabeth Street Gardens, New York City, NY
Patti Smith at Elizabeth Street Gardens, New York City, NY - Photo courtesy Elizabeth Street Gardens, 2021

“The community is outraged by this,” said Joseph Reiver, executive director of ESG, Inc. and son of the late founder. “We see this as an underhanded move. It’s unseemly and we’re going to vigorously oppose this.” According to a lawyer for the garden, Norman Siegel, “the city is attempting to achieve through lease termination, what they have yet been able to achieve through litigation.” Siegel’s firm filed a letter with the court protesting the move. 

One of the of the strongest proponents of the development is New York City Councilmember Margaret Chin; however, she is term-limited and cannot run for reelection on November 2, which would appear to make the October 31 eviction deadline more consequential. According to Chin, the development “presents the opportunity to build greatly-needed deeply-affordable housing for low-income seniors in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. This project creates not only 123 new permanently affordable units, but also ground-floor storefronts for local-scale retail, and the proposed 6,700 square feet of open space will be available to residents and to members of the public in perpetuity. None of these things can be said about the current use of this lot.”

Reiver says the choice of saving the garden or building affordable housing is a false choice, and bemoans the city’s pitting of garden supporters against housing advocates. “There are real solutions where you get as much housing, affordable housing, that you need without community gardens being destroyed,” Reiver said, “including existing vacancies and having office space conversions.” 

This past weekend friends, neighbors and other supporters of the garden rallied to save the garden from eviction. On Saturday, September 25, punk rock icon Patti Smith headlined a day-long event at the garden. On Sunday, more than 100 people gathered in support of saving the garden, including Chris Marte, the Democratic nominee running to replace Chin on the city council who said “no matter where you live the city, you know ESG, you know the magic of this space … This is a magical space.”

At the rally, Reiver said of the city: “They place their bets on us getting tired. And they place their bets on this going on and on and us losing spirit, but we’re not going to lose the spirit. We’re going to keep fighting for this place because this place is still here.”

Garden advocates are asking supporters to write a letter to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development using an online form; and they’re asking for donations to support their efforts.