The Coqui vs. the Bulldozer


The battle to save community gardens has inspired some odd metamorphoses. Activists who opposed Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s plan to auction off hundreds of gardens this spring protested while dressed as ladybugs, flowers, and tomatoes; one sunflower-guised green thumb registered his displeasure by scrambling up a ginkgo tree at City Hall, forcing police to literally go out on a limb to arrest him. But last week saw a new mode of morphing to save a garden: A frog has become a home.

Staring bug-eyed from behind the fence of the Jardin de la Esperanza on 7th Street near Avenue C is a 13-foot-high, 8-foot-wide coqui , or frog. A gargantuan version of the thumb-sized amphibian that is something of a folk hero in its native Puerto Rico, this coqui is intended as a watchtower for bulldozers that are expected to come to destroy this garden any day now.

“We got a five-day notice on Tuesday,” November 16 , says Jose Torres, whose 76-year-old mother founded the garden on the site of two burned-out buildings 22 years ago. “Now, we’re just waiting.”

Indeed, ever since the notice came, neighbors, students, and garden supporters have been taking turns sleeping overnight, two at a time, in the coqui ‘s innards, just in case developer Donald Capoccia attempts a midnight attack on the 5000-square-foot garden. Capoccia’s firm, BFC Partners, and a local church plan to build an eight-story apartment building on the city-owned garden site. On November 8, a state supreme court ruled that the gardeners had no standing to stop the development. An appeal has been filed, but with legal options vanishing, activists have taken to bunkering down inside the frog.

Gardeners built the faux amphibianon a platform by stretching canvas over a frog-shaped mesh wire form and painted it in the red, black, and yellow tones of a real coqui . About five people can sit inside the frog, whose wide-set eyes—two bulging bowls of clear plastic—provide a perfect lookout both east and west along 7th Street. Amenities include a space heater, a phone, a digital clock, a paper lantern with a single bulb, and two poured concrete “lockdowns” for garden defenders to chain themselves to when the bulldozers come. “The police would have to come up here and saw us out,” says a supporter who would identify himself only as Arish.

The anticipated conflict stems from a deal made in late June when East Village City Council member Margarita Lopez brokered a plan to save a mural and part of an adjoining 8th Street garden by allowing BFC to build part of its development on the Esperanza garden. Lopez did not return calls for this story.

Capoccia, whose development of apartments on garden sites across the Lower East Side and whose strong ties to former councilmember Antonio Pagan and to Giuliani have earned him a local reputation as a villain, would not comment on the plans for the Esperanza site. “All I can say is that BFC has worked closely with the local councilmember to meet what she sees as a very important public need.”

To stem the housing shortage, the city has been turning community gardens, intended as temporary uses for lots where housing once stood, over to developers. What irks Torres and others is that the new housing is unaffordable to most local residents. A typical BFC development, the 98 units of scattered-site condos called Del Este Village, is for families grossing between $32,000 and $70,950 in a community where the median family income is $20,007. On the proposed 7th Street site, Torres says only 20 percent must be rented to low-income families, and only for 10 years.

“It would be easier to go for this thing if it were for low-income housing, but they’re taking over this neighborhood, and we’re all going to be in trouble,” Torres said, chatting inside the coqui on an unusally warm November night.

Why choose a frog to guard the garden? “There are many myths about the coqui in Puerto Rico, and one is that a monster came stomping through town one night terrorizing people,” he says. Crickets, lizards, and other creatures failed in their battle with the beast. The coqui then went forward, and, chirping the famous, shrill cry that sounds like it comes from an animal many times larger than the coqui , scared the monster away.

“A coqui is tiny, but it got rid of the monster,” says Arish. “That’s how we are. We gardeners are tiny, but we want to save the garden by making a lot of noise.”