Reclaiming Space: Community Gardens



MoRUS helps improve the East Village’s remaining 39 community gardens by arranging work days, remediating soil, clearing rubble, preparing earth for gardening, planting fruits, vegetables, and herbs, building and improving infrastructure such as sinks, stages, and gazebos, and composting food waste. We also hold workshops on topics such as soil treatments and composting.

We are planning projects to create better documentation of the history of the gardens and the activists who created them and ways to improve the transfer of knowledge between gardens. We are also proposing specific work on those gardens that were flooded by Hurricane Sandy, since the flood water contained bacteria, sewage, gasoline, PCBs, oil, feces, industrial solvents, and heavy metals, as described in a New York Times article published December 26, 2012, “Getting the Dirt on Hurricane Sandy.”



Providing places for people to garden has been an innovative strategy to improve American urban conditions since the 1890s when the movement began in New York and Detroit. Many kinds of community gardens came into existence at different times, often associated with times of social and economic change, as described by Laura Lawson in her book City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America (2005).

New York’s community gardens are unique and important historical artifacts as well as critical parts of our urban landscape. Several hundred community gardens previously existed in New York City. Many of them were created in the 1970s, when landlords abandoned their buildings, which ended up burnt out and were torn down. Because landlords failed to pay taxes on them, they reverted to the city. Community members mobilized to turn the vacant lots, filled with rubble and other debris, into vibrant gardens and parks. Over the years, however, many of the gardens were taken over by developers, although in 2002 the Parks Department temporarily protected them by taking nominal ownership over the remaining 114 gardens. Of these, 39 are located on the Lower East Side, in what is the largest concentration of such gardens found anywhere in the United States. Some blocks can boast that they have several community gardens. One can see how remarkably different this block on E. 4th Street looked in 1976 compared to today, after activists transformed it into El Jardin Del Paraiso.

Join the Tour of the Gardens

Community gardens have numerous positive effects. In low-income urban areas, gardens fill a necessary gap in fresh, healthy, and affordable food. As stated in “Food for Thought: The Social Impact of Community Gardens,” published in Electronic Green Journal in 2010, gardens help to make food available, sometimes generating tons of food at a fraction of the cost of supermarket produce. New studies appreciate the benefits in social service costs as well: “by staying active in the garden and practicing better nutrition with fresh produce, gardeners reduce their heart disease, type two diabetes, and obesity, saving on medical care.” In addition as Grace Tankersley comments in her book Community Gardens of the East Village (2009) the gardens contribute “to the physical and psychological well being of individuals and the social cohesion of communities” as well as reduce air and water pollution and provide a lower cost alternative to formal parks.

However the City has set up new mechanisms that allow the gardens to be developed one by one. See this video The Paul Revere Ride
made by the Museum’s parent organization Time’s Up and these slides of the latest attempt to take over the Children’s Magical Garden in May 2013.



For the nationwide community gardening movement see the American Community Gardening Association and here for guerilla gardening developments internationally. By raising local awareness of the community gardens and their histories, MoRUS will increase the Lower East Side community’s utilization of these gardens in the short-term and help protect the gardens from developers in the long-term. Indeed, the success of past activists is inspiring the creation of new community gardens today!

© MoRUS 2015 - Website Design by @aicragellebasi