Backed by police, a team of construction workers entered the Children’s Magical Garden on the Lower East Side this morning, stepping over fresh plantings to erect a chain-link fence through the middle of the garden.
The history of the Children’s Magical Garden stretches back more than 30 years, to when neighborhood residents transformed a vacant lot used by drug dealers into a garden for children. But the garden, on the corner of Stanton and Norfolk Streets, has never had a secure legal footing. Part of the parcel is owned by the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development, but a sizable portion is privately owned by Norfolk Development, a company thought to be controlled by Serge Hoyda, a partner at S&H Equities.
In recent months, garden supporters have worked through City Council Member Margaret Chen’s office to try to persuade the city to effect a land-swap with Norfolk, trading the developer’s piece of the garden site for something nearby. But those efforts appear to have gone nowhere. Then, this morning, the garden community learned that the developer was building the fence. They rushed over to try to stop it, but a representative representative of Norfolk Development, who declined to give his name but was later identified as Rex Whitehorn, a lawyer from Great Neck, told them that the fence was necessary for insurance reasons. Garden supporters offered to buy insurance that would indemnify Norfolk, but Whitehorn said that wouldn’t stop the erection of the fence. “If there’s access, the building’s insurance is in jeopardy,” Whitehorn tells the Voice. Asked if there were any conditions under which Norfolk would agree to remove the fence, Whitehorn shrugs. “I’m not an actuarial accountant,” he says.
Feng Chen, a high school junior from the neighborhood who has been coming to the garden since she was in fifth grade, sobbed as she watched the workers dig into earth around new plantings to sink the fence polls. “They’re destroying our garden,” she says. “All of our effort is getting lost.” She pointed to a newly-planted bed behind the new fence-line. “Recently we just made this medicine bed, where you can meditate and relax. It’s the opposite of what they’re doing now.”
Teresa Devore, a teacher at Lower East Side Prep, brought her class to come see the fence going up. Devore, who teaches the English language to recently immigrated 11th and 12th graders, said her classes have been active in volunteering at the garden, painting multi-lingual signs identifying the plants and preparing chicken coops. “This was a green place, a place of fresh air in the neighborhood,” she says. “It was also a way for these students to get involved in their new community.”
The garden’s supporters are still hopeful that a land-swap can be arranged and the garden can be saved — one possible parcel under consideration is an HPD-owned lot on Avenue D north of Houston. We’ll have updates as those negotiations develop.