The Elizabeth Street Garden in Little Italy is one of those quintessential only-in–New York spaces. Wander by on a sunny weekend and you’ll find people flocking through by the dozens to Instagram themselves before the quirky array of neoclassical statues and monuments nestled amid fruiting fig trees and sprays of phlox and hydrangea.
Children play hide-and-seek in the shade of Bradford pear trees, darting behind stone pedestals bearing marble sphinxes and a snarling cast-iron tiger by French sculptor Albert Jacquemar. Families spread picnics on the grass. Lunch-hour techies gaze at laptop screens in the shadow of Roman columns and an elegant wrought iron gazebo designed by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
Many cities would relish the chance to preside over what has in recent years become an active community-run park stuffed with valuable relics. But in space-starved Manhattan, the garden has been targeted for housing for low-income seniors by the area’s councilperson, Margaret Chin.
Both Chin and Mayor De Blasio have refused to consider alternate sites for the housing — despite growing outcry from local residents and the leaders of Community Board 2, who want to preserve one of the last pockets of green in this otherwise dense corridor of lower Manhattan. The public fight over the garden has now spilled over into Chin’s re-election campaign, where she faces an independent challenger, Christopher Marte, who came within 222 votes of toppling her in the Democratic primary.
“If Chin loses the election, the garden is saved,” says David Gruber, a member of Community Board 2 and of the Downtown Independent Democrats, which took the unusual step of endorsing Marte for the general election even though he is running on the Independence Party line. “If she wins, the garden is gone. It’s that simple.”
The Elizabeth Street Garden was founded in 1990 by neighboring gallery owner Allan Reiver, who leased what was then a derelict lot from the city for $4,000 a month and transformed it into an outdoor showroom for the antiques and architectural salvage he sells. “It was full of old cars and dead animals when I got it,” says Reiver, who signed a stipulation requiring him to maintain “a manicured lawn for the storage of statuary, fountains, gazebos and similar objects in a parklike setting.”
Reiver planted grass and trees and stocked the place with treasures, like the limestone balustrade and balcony he acquired from Lynnewood Hall, one of the last Gilded Age mansions outside Philadelphia, and a pair of stone pillars that once stood at the entrance to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
For many years, Reiver kept the space private and largely gated. But since 2013, when locals found out it was threatened with development, it has morphed into a very active community-run park. It’s now open seven days a week, with Reiver’s son and other volunteers organizing free movie nights and yoga classes, poetry readings, and art shows. It’s also used by area schools, including Chinatown’s P.S. 1, whose students come to plant daffodils and learn about composting.
The plot of city-owned land it sits on, however, has proven irresistible to those who would like to allow a developer to build a seven-story affordable housing project for seniors on the site. Chin first pushed to have the lot designated for affordable housing in 2012, during negotiations over the massive Seward Park Urban Renewal Area project (a/k/a Essex Crossing) off Delancey Street.
The de Blasio administration has since backed Chin’s effort to house seniors there and says it expects to select a developer for the project this fall. Only about one-quarter of the garden — 5,000 square feet, slightly smaller than a basketball court — would be kept as open space.
Many local residents and members of Community Board 2 were outraged that Chin did not consult with them about the fate of the lot. Most people in the neighborhood were unaware the land was even city-owned, and mobilized to open it up as a public park instead.
“People here feel strongly about saving it,” says Jennifer Romine, who for the past seventeen years has lived in the block of subsidized Section 8 apartments adjacent to the garden site. Last year, she went door to door collecting petitions to save the garden; nearly all the residents there signed.
“A lot of the older people remember when the old school was demolished,” Romine says, referring to a public school that occupied the block until it was taken down in the 1970s. “They say they were always promised a park there.”
For the mayor, the senior housing project fits with his agenda to build affordable housing in every community. For Chin, who chairs the council’s Committee on Aging, it’s about defending the right of seniors to “age with dignity” in their own neighborhoods.
Before she got into the council, Chin helped found Asian Americans for Equality, a group that builds and manages housing for low-income people and seniors. It also happens to be one of the groups bidding on the Elizabeth Street site.
Chin notes that an estimated 200,000 elderly New Yorkers are on waiting lists for affordable housing. “It’s a tough decision,” she says of her plan to develop the garden. “But it’s the right one.”
On Tuesday, voters in the district may have some say on that. Marte, a former investment analyst for IBM and son of a Dominican bodega owner, has tapped broad discontent across the district — from outrage over the mostly luxury skyscrapers going up along the waterfront, to anger over Chin’s handling of the NYU expansion and the stalled rezoning in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.
But the biggest thorn in Chin’s side may be the garden. Supporters have rallied behind Marte’s campaign as their best hope of preserving the space — providing him with a built-in base of pissed-off moms, greening activists, and local business owners who are determined to oust Chin in order to save it.
Admittedly Marte’s third-party bid is a long shot in a city where most voters cast their ballots for Democrats. (Two other candidates in the race, Aaron Foldenauer on the Liberal Party line and Republican Bryan Jung, could siphon anti-Chin votes.) Still, given expected low turnout in a year where the mayoral race is considered a shoo-in, having a small army of angry garden fans willing to go door to door to get out the vote could be key.
“Supporters of the garden are a huge part of our base,” confirms Marte’s campaign manager, Caitlin Kelmar. “I think it’s energized a lot of people who don’t ordinarily turn out for local elections. It’s become kind of emblematic of how out of touch Chin is from her constituents.”
Chin’s chief of staff, Paul Leonard, chafes at that accusation. “Margaret is listening to the community — a community that doesn’t have fancy parties with famous DJs,” he says, referring to a recent $77-a-ticket fundraiser for the garden that featured Andrew Wyatt of the indie band Miike Snow.
“I think she should be commended for being courageous on this,” Leonard says of the garden fight. “We’re up against major forces here,” he adds, pointing to garden backers like actor Gabriel Byrne, who lives on the block and made a video in support, and lobbyist James Capalino, who’s done pro bono work for the site. Kent Barwick, the president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, is chair of the board of Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden — which is one of two not-for-profits now advocating for retaining the space.
Community Board 2 has been pressing for the city to shift the senior project to a larger vacant lot several blocks west on Hudson Street, where community leaders say five times as much housing could be built. Leonard says Chin would support additional housing on that site, which is outside her district. “But if you have over 200,000 seniors sitting on a waiting list for housing, why would you give up this site?” he says of Elizabeth Street. “We need affordable housing in all neighborhoods.”
It’s easy to see why Chin’s allies might view this quirky statuary as a luxury, a “pet project of rich Soho moms,” as one detractor put it. Vogue magazine recently championed the space as a favorite haunt of fashion designers.
Still, there’s some argument that the site has long been intended to be preserved as public open space. A land use agreement in 1981 between the city and the owners of the Section 8 housing stipulated that the area where the school play yards had once been — and where the garden now lies — be reserved for “recreational use.” And unlike Chin, the district’s state assembly representative, Yuh-Line Niou, as well as State Senator Brad Hoylman and Congressmember Jerrold Nadler from neighboring districts, have come out in favor of keeping the garden, along with Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Walk the blocks south of Houston, jammed with traffic and incessant construction noise, and the controversy over this site feels a bit more elemental.
“This part of Manhattan has almost no parks, and the few parks it does have have almost no green space — it’s all pavement,” notes Adrian Benepe, who served as parks commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg. “The existing parks in the neighborhood are already heavily used, and with the new development planned at Essex Crossing, there’s only going to be more people using these spaces. So you have to think of that.”
Locals say they’re already feeling squeezed. “I wake up to construction going on in every corner of this neighborhood,” complains Sharon D’Lugoff, who lives in an income-restricted co-op on Elizabeth Street.
“This is my daughter’s favorite place in the whole world,” she says, as her daughter pedals her bike along the garden’s gravel paths. “We come here to read every day. How can you destroy this?”
D’Lugoff notes that as an independent, she didn’t vote in the primary — “but I am absolutely voting in this election.” She says the garden could be the issue that tips the vote for a rare upset of a council incumbent. “Chin would not be in trouble like this if she would listen to us.”