Great Reads, Postcards from the Lower East Side

A Garden Grows in the LES

September 2, 2020


Did you hear that a tree grows in Brooklyn? On the Lower East Side, so did a whole garden. Nearly fifty followed.

In the 1960s, with the eddying of fiscal crises, many families left the city for suburban areas. Tenement buildings were often abandoned, and became the victims of arson, or were simply demolished. Empty lots cropped up as the city became less and less of a desirable place to live. But people have always lived in cities. Even ones left to tend to themselves.

Community gardening in the Lower East Side

As empty lots became public domain, the public took advantage. One of the very first gardens bloomed in 1962: El Jardin del Paraiso or “The Garden of Paradise”. It began in an empty lot on 4th street between Avenues C and D by Luis Torres, a Puerto Rican resident who lived across the street. He was clearing the space when his neighbor joined in. Another neighbor followed, followed by another and eventually the lot, filled with garbage, was cleared. Slowly but surely a garden grew, as did a community. They were just looking for a place to sit.

A garden is inherently a place of growth, for plants and for New York City children. Growing up here, I once turned to my father and complained that I didn’t have a backyard. My father, a writer who’d left a home with a backyard where it was impossible to grow, came to downtown Manhattan where anything was possible. Even gardens surrounded by tenements. He looked puzzled, then irate. There were gardens, there were parks. Children on the Lower East Side plant and play in spaces that have been tended to by the community. It does indeed take a village.

A garden can be an escape as much as it is an extension of home. It just isn’t as often outside of your door. Thankfully, New Yorkers are used to traveling many blocks for what they need.

A garden can also be a political act, of taking something once private, then left behind, and giving it new life. Giving a community local sustainability. By showing that something beautiful, something that continues to grow — Is a community’s growth.

Painting activity in a Lower East Side community garden

Many of the gardens downtown are extensions of other aspects of a community. Local theatre and music productions spill out plots upon plots. Gardening is an analogy for life — Even more so in a city like New York. Walt Whitman once compared an individual in our society to a single blade of grass.  

The Lower East Side is a concrete jungle with so many blades of grass. 


Written by:

Arabella Friedland has been a member of the Tenement Museum Shop staff since 2015. She is a visual artist and writer, inspired by New York and all its complexities.