Lower East Side Activists Fight to Save Gardens
by Steven Wishnia

With four Lower East Side community gardens already fallen to the bulldozer, neighborhood activists are gearing up to save two more gardens from being demolished—for luxury housing to be built by a major contributor to Mayor Giuliani.

The two gardens, La Esperanza (“Hope”) and El Bello Amanecer Borinqueno (“Beautiful Borinquen Dawn”) on Avenue C and East 8th Street, are both on city-owned land slated for “80-20 housing” to be constructed by developer Donald Capoccia. The proposed project, endorsed by Community Board 3 on Jan. 27 despite heavy protests, would contain 61 luxury apartments and 15 low-income units.

Citywide, nearly 400 community gardens on formerly vacant lots are slated for development under the Giuliani administration’s plans to sell off city-owned land. “What they all have in common is that they’re located in low-income neighborhoods and they’re being sold for middle-income projects,” says L.A. Kauffman of the Lower East Side Collective. “They’re selling it at bargain-basement prices to cronies of Giuliani.”

Capoccia’s companies gave at least $2,300 more than the legal limit to Giuliani’s re-election campaign last year, as well as contributing substantial amounts to outgoing Lower East Side Councilmember Antonio Pagan. A four-month battle over the fate of four other Lower East Side gardens ended last Dec. 30, when the city bulldozed them to pave the way for an expensive “middle-income” condominium project— which will also be built by Capoccia.

Police sealed off East 11th Street between Avenue A and B in order to destroy the Chico Mendez Mural Garden, along with the 10BC garden on East 10th Street and two smaller gardens. “They completely plowed them down,” says Kauffman. About 25 people protested.

The demolition came after the courts rejected gardeners’ efforts to block the 98-unit condominium project, Del Este Village. Mortgage and maintenance charges on the condos are estimated at about $1,200 to $1,800 a month, after a $40,000 federal subsidy for buyers who make less than $70,000 a year. Capoccia acquired the land for Del Este Village for $39,000, according to Kauffman. He is expected to clear at least $1 million in profits on the project.

The demolition set off a wave of protest. Garden supporters barraged the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Roosevelt Savings Bank, which is financing the project, and the New York City Housing Partnership, its co-sponsor, with phone calls and faxes. On Jan. 1, longtime Lower East Side housing activist Fran Luck and gardener Jeff Wright were arrested when they slipped into Giuliani’s inauguration ceremony and raised a “Save the Gardens” banner.

Four days later, 75 protesters appeared outside the New York City Partnership’s Lower Manhattan offices, while four more chained themselves across State Street, blocking morning rush-hour traffic for an hour. Seven people were arrested.

Since then, garden supporters have handed out over 10,000 flyers in the area, and continued to flood HPD, the Partnership, and Deputy Mayor Randy Levine’s office with phone calls and faxes—as well as sending flowers to the agencies’ beleaguered receptionists.

The Parks Department has granted permanent status to one neighborhood garden, on Avenue B and East 6th Street, and has recommended that at least one more be preserved. Garden activists suspect that there may be a split in the Giuliani administration between the pro-development faction and Parks Commissioner Henry Stern’s desire to emerge as a savior of green space.