GUERRILLA GARDENS OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE
Beginning in the 1970s, Manhattan’s Lower East Side endured a period of crippling disinvestment brought about by the city’s fiscal crisis. Arson and the demolition or collapse of condemned buildings left the neighborhood peppered with vacant lots either in the midst of ownership disputes or repossessed by the city. As a reaction to the proliferation of these lots which often became hotbeds of gang activity, members of the Puerto Rican community began neighborhood gardening collectives by reclaiming the disused land and sowing it with food crops. In the 1980s the city legitimized the gardens, providing the collectives with funding through urban-greening programs. In the 1990s, activists and community organizers resisted Rudi Giuliani’s efforts to raze the gardens to accommodate real estate moguls. The gardens later became rallying points for the Lower East Side’s low-income immigrant residents who stood strong in the face of rampant gentrification and corporate development. The “guerilla gardens”--referred to as such because the founders took the initiative to put the land to practical use despite trespassing laws--became a constructive way for the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican residents to assert their presence amidst growing ethnic homogeneity.
By the mid 1990, the same territorial tug-of-war plaguing the area eventually took its toll on the community gardens. The project that began as a community fortifier was now a source of contention between its Puerto Rican founders and the young white newcomers. For years the elder Puerto Ricans, skilled in agriculture, had set standards for the maintenance of these crops and the participants abided by them. Tensions arose when newer white members, notably less skilled in the raising of crops, would neglect their plots after the initial harvest, letting extra produce litter the ground, attracting rats and other vermin. Not only did this raise sanitation concerns, but the squandering of food is taboo in Puerto Rican culture and older members took the offense to heart. When other gardeners would gather the fallen fruit, the plot’s owners would accuse them of stealing. Such cultural misunderstandings created irreparable rifts between the veteran and the rookie community farmers.
The expanding gentrification of the neighborhood had by 2005 almost completely displaced its original low-income immigrant residents. The “guerilla gardeners” were ultimately forced to relinquish many of the lots to real estate developers who in turn built towering condos. In the past five years, ten community gardens have been razed to the ground while others languish unattended. Residents still struggle to preserve the remaining gardens but ultimately, real estate giants have significant advantage over grass-roots community activists. It is likely that this neighborhood tradition won’t be allowed to continue much longer. Visit the gardens while you can.
Martinez, Miranda. ""Ella no Inventa Na'": Constructions of Whiteness by Lower East Side Puerto Rican Community Gardeners" Aug 12, 2005. 2009-03-05