Q&A: Earth Day Art Exhibit Commemorates Demolished NYC Gardens


In honor of Earth Day, we wanted to tell you a story about a garden — The Magic Garden — that’s going to be torn down to make room for a high-rise housing development.

Oliver Rios, an East Harlem-bred artist, grew up around gardening when his mother Lydia Roman began transforming abandoned city lots into garden spaces for community use in the 1980s. The Magic Garden, which was named after a popular children’s television show, was founded in 1991 at 118th Street and Park Avenue.

A nonprofit developer, the Lantern Group, later came in to redevelop the place and put up an affordable housing complex for homeless veterans, which will reduce the size of the garden by around 80 to 90 percent of its current size, says Rios.

Inspired by the garden, Rios decided to commemorate it and his mother’s efforts by putting together an exhibit called “The Magic Garden,” which premieres today at Somniac Gallery in East Harlem. We spoke with Rios about the transformation of the garden and the importance of maintaining nature preserves in the city.

Where did you get the idea for the show?

It started in the early 80s. My mother had a love for gardening, so she took it upon herself to take these empty lots and clean them up and put in an application to Green Thumb to create a community garden. So, she did about three gardens in Spanish Harlem over the years, and the Magic Garden was by far the largest. I always grew up around it and I got to appreciate the work that she did, especially since she’s retired now. That inspired me to do the show.

You tried to save the garden from demolition, though, right?

Of course we did. I mean, all the gardens in NYC were in danger of being demolished or downsized due to redeveloping. It’s been an ongoing battle trying to save this one and the others. A lot of the community members like Pro-Gardens and Green Guerrillas all got together to sign petitions and stuff, but didn’t win the war. One of the gardens my mother started is not being demolished, and the other, which was on 117th and Lexington, was demolished. We knew it was probably a matter of time. At least the Magic Garden will still be around, but it’s going to be significantly smaller.

How is your mother taking the news?

She has been a good sport about it. She’s had the garden for a long time, for about 18 or 19 years. She knows that it would be taken over eventually, but she really appreciates that she still has some of it, at least. Now she doesn’t have to do as much work to it, so it’s probably sort of a relief that it’ll be smaller now.

Why is community gardening so important?

A community garden is a different environment. For me living in the city for so long, the only escape I’d have was to go to Central Park or a community park. The gardens are a little closer to the heart. I was just so impressed with the organic fruits and vegetables we could grow in these places, and when I was younger I couldn’t wait until the summertime to eat them. It’s about uplifting the community so that people, young and old, have a place to go. It’s like your backyard… it sort of feels like home.

Even with a housing development for homeless veterans, you’ve got to be sort of angry that this garden is going to be really small now.

It’s frustrating because you do a lot of work and you raise the value of the community by doing these positive things like planting beautiful gardens, and when you see them get redeveloped, it’s sad. Where a beautiful pine tree once stood is now an oversized building, and so yeah, it’s frustrating.

And your favorite memory in the garden?

Definitely the best for me was in 2005, with the Latin Grammies. They wanted to document 100 years of Latinos in New York City, and so they decided to film a segment at the Magic Garden and it aired on national television. Not only was the garden involved, but there was a salsa group that performed, and my mural was part of the show. It was really exciting and it showcased what we Latinos in New York City really do. It was a proud moment for me.

So, your show is a one day thing, going up on Earth Day. What can people expect from your artwork?

Growing up I was influenced by graffiti art, so that’s basically part of the style I’ve used and been influenced by. I got all of these new ideas to do a retro feel and apply that to images of the plants that grew in the Magic Garden, so there will be lots of neon and bright colors done graffiti-style. And, I wanted to give each tree and plant life some type of character. Even though they are being destroyed, they will live forever through my art.