Places that Matter
Liz Christy Bowery-Houston Community Garden
Place Matters Profile
Liz Christy Garden, located at the corner of Houston and Bowery, is New York City's original community garden. Over two thousand varieties of plants, shrubs, and trees grow in some 7,500 feet of green space through all four seasons. The garden is surrounded by a high iron fence, but the gate is often wide open - and the public is invited. Enter the garden and Houston Street almost disappears from view. Concentrate on the turtle and fish pond, the beehive, the little nook with the Buddhist altar, and traffic sounds miraculously diminish.
The garden's founder was Liz Christy, an artist who lived nearby. She died prematurely in 1985, at which point the garden was renamed in her honor. Christy tired of seeing an abandoned, junk-filled blot on the local landscape, and one day in 1973, challenged by a local mother to do something about it, Liz did. she organized friends who spent about a year cleaning up almost eight feet of trash dispersed around the lot, and together they started the Bowery-Houston Community Farm and Garden.
Donald Loggins, who helped build the garden, recalls their early interactions with the Sanitation Department and the police. "When the Sanitation Department saw us they thought, Great job! They came by and threw our bags in the back of their sanitation trucks and were really nice about it. Once we got down to ground level, we had to dig through about two feet of rock and rubble. Then we needed topsoil. That's when the Police Department got involved. There was a police stable over on Varick Street where about fifty to sixty horses were producing a lot of manure. we couldn't afford fertilizer at that point, so we said, 'How about giving us the manure?' One of our gardeners had a little truck, so we'd go over to the stables once or twice a week and fill it up with tons of manure. The police loved us because the manure smelled to high heaven and we got rid of it for them."
The second year planting started: not only trees, shrubs, and flowers but also vegetables, which the gardeners distributed free to local residents. After a while the plantings became more ornamental, in part because, due to high lead content in the soil from surrounding pollutants, the gardeners felt that their produce might not be safe to eat. According to Loggins, the switch since then to unleaded gas for cars has alleviated the problem to some extent, so a few gardeners grow food again - tomatoes, a little corn, peach and apricot trees, and "delicious grapes" - but most of them prefer to grow flowers.
To convey to new gardeners the accumulated knowledge about growing conditions at Bowery and Houston, the group publishes a wise and funny compendium of facts about the place, complete with answers to frequently asked questions like "Yes, we get honey from the bees," and No, we don't have killer bees (yet)." The authors encourage gardeners to take advantage of a "microclimate pleasantly modified by a number of favorable circumstances," thus supporting a long growing season for dahlias, gladiolus, calla lilies, snapdragons, and agapanthus. "Winter is slightly milder," the writers explain, "because we're located near the ocean, in the middle of a big city, and protected from cold north winds by high brick walls. These walls also act as solar collectors to release warmth at night."
What distinguishes this garden's story from many others is that Liz Christy and her gardener compatriots didn't stop with this project. Calling themselves the Green Guerillas, they forcibly brought their case for community greening to devastated places around the entire city. Their methods were unorthodox. Take seed grenades, for instance. Abandoned lots lay everywhere, but many were not so easy to enter. So Liz and friends filled balloons, condoms, old Christmas ornaments, and other conveniently throwable receptacles with fertilizer and seeds, and over the fences the seed grenades went! Donald Loggins remembers everybody's amazement when in the middle of a vacant lot flowers burst forth. "There's a halo effect," he says. "If you have something nice, people want to make it even nicer. If it looks like garbage, people are going to throw more garbage in there. So once flowers started sprouting, people said, 'Oh, let's put some more flowers in there.'" Also, the seed grenades were fun to throw and felt a bit like civil disobedience, advancing the Green Guerillas' political mission. Although urban farming had been done before (perhaps best known are the Victory Gardens of the World War II home front), the idea of appropriating abandoned land for community gardens was new in the early 1970s when the Green Guerillas started. On the surface their mission was all about gardens. Just below the surface lurked the radical idea of bringing into the public domain land that once have been privately held but now had been callously abandoned.
The message struck a chord. Between seed grenades, press coverage, and word of mouth, news got around that the Green Guerillas could help start other gardens, and soon Liz was packing her little Datsun full of tools and seeds and responding to calls from all over the city. The urban gardening movement grew, helped by the labors of volunteer gardeners throughout the five boroughs, and a myriad of public officials, experts, and politicians such as Congressman Fred Richmond of Brooklyn, who sponsored the first federal program in urban farming and gardening, and President Jimmy Carter, whose 1977 walk int he rubble of the South Bronx spurred the release of federal money to help devastated urban areas.
Three decades into the movement, both the Liz Christy Garden and the Green Guerillas are established organizations that continue to provide leadership. Both welcome new gardeners and guerillas, for, as the gardeners' orientation brochure so aptly states, "In the dog-eat-dog world of Mother Nature, the weeds usually win."