About this listing
East Village community garden in operation since 1978
Borough : Manhattan
Neighborhood : East Village
Place Matters Profile
Place Matters Profile
Written by Molly Garfinkel for Place Matters
Nestled at the center of the quiet, tree-lined block of E. 13th Street between Avenues A and B, Dias y Flores Community Garden was founded in 1978, when the neighborhood felt and looked quite different. Since that time, development and gentrification have heavily impacted the East Villageâs physical and cultural landscapes, but the Dias y Flores collective still reflects the neighborhood's long-celebrated multicultural, multi-generational character. Members hail from around the world and represent a wide range of cutural and interest groups; indeed, many say that their membership in Dias y Flores has fostered friendships with neighbors they might not have otherwise approached
Now entering its fourth decade of grassroots cultivation, Dias y Flores boasts a membership roster nearly 60 gardeners strong. Proximity of plot to table is the motivating factor for the majority of Dias y Flores gardeners, most of...
Place Matters Profile
Written by Molly Garfinkel for Place Matters
Nestled at the center of the quiet, tree-lined block of E. 13th Street between Avenues A and B, Dias y Flores Community Garden was founded in 1978, when the neighborhood felt and looked quite different. Since that time, development and gentrification have heavily impacted the East Village’s physical and cultural landscapes, but the Dias y Flores collective still reflects the neighborhood's long-celebrated multicultural, multi-generational character. Members hail from around the world and represent a wide range of cutural and interest groups; indeed, many say that their membership in Dias y Flores has fostered friendships with neighbors they might not have otherwise approached
Now entering its fourth decade of grassroots cultivation, Dias y Flores boasts a membership roster nearly 60 gardeners strong. Proximity of plot to table is the motivating factor for the majority of Dias y Flores gardeners, most of whom live within a few blocks of their harvests. However, you certainly don’t have to be an East Village resident to join up, and members who move away from the neighborhood often maintain their Dias y Flores subscriptions even if they no longer cultivate its garden beds. Despite the multi-year wait list for recieving an individual plot, newcomers from near and far enroll nearly every month.
However, members are forthcoming in suggesting that while the garden is inclusive and relatively egalitarian, it’s not utopia. Over the years the community has faced internal and external challenges, and its constituents have changed as new needs have been negotiated. Elders find the garden to be a mentally and physically stimulating retirement pasttime, while younger members appreciate Dias y Flores’ affordability ($10 for the year). Some members are seasoned horticulturalists while others had never put a trowel to the soil before joining Dias y Flores. Several long-time garden activists have found refuge at Dias y Flores after their previous gardens were demolished to make way for new development.
Today’s members say that the garden collective feels like a family, with all of the attendant tensions and competitions that rattle blood relatives. But they also note that they spend more time fighting for than with each other, and most of their energies are devoted to having good time and providing one another with support, laughter, and, of course, gardening advice. This response is perhaps not unique to Dias y Flores. As is the case with so many of New York City’s community gardens, Dias y Flores started out as a group of volunteers who wondered if they could improve their block by nurturing derelict lots back to health. Somewhere along the trajectory of thirty-four years of reclamation, cultivation, and political resistance, natural instincts kicked in and bound the diverse Dias y Flores gardeners together as a resilient family, one of many constituent tribes of a formidable New York City garden nation. Most of the current members have been involved in the garden for less than two decades, but they have fought protracted battles to protect Dias y Flores and the greater community garden movement. And as the struggle for citywide garden preservation continues, new members add fresh verve to the fight.
Since 1995, the city has several times acted on the conviction that community gardens built on city-owned parcels are “vacant lots” that can and should be more productively used for housing or commercial development. Time and again, garden advocates have contested and mobilized against the city’s actions to develop these community green spaces. Activists maintain that the gardens are productive- they provide densely developed neighborhoods with important quality of life benefits like light, air and food. They argue that the tranquil and often quirky gardens bring neighbors together and increase the assessed property values of adjacent buildings. On a more basic level, gardeners are frustrated because the lots clearly aren’t vacant – they contain gardens. Before the gardens grew, the lots were vacant because the city disinvested in numerous low-income neighborhoods and allowed empty parcels to be used as dumping grounds and open-air drug markets. But then residents did what the city would not-- they anchored and revitalized their communities. And they did it on the cheap -- with just seeds and sweat equity.
The New York City community garden movement was born of a confluence of 1960s environmentalism and the dire fiscal circumstances of the 1970s. Liz Christy and the Green Guerillas are generally credited with galvanizing interest in self-help urban horticulture by throwing seed bombs (seeds, soil and water) over the locked fences of the city’s empty lots. Their Liz Christy Bowery-Houston Community Garden was founded in 1975, and is widely considered the city’s oldest. At the same time in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Hattie Carthan founded the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, an environmental education center that teaches and motivates youth and community residents to garden and conserve the surrounding natural environment. In addition to these and other grassroots efforts, in 1976 the USDA chose the Cornell University Cooperative Extension program to begin providing New Yorkers with expertise on cultivating back yards and local gardens.
Dias y Flores’ origin story begins like that of so many other community gardens - with an empty lot in an overlooked neighborhood. During the 1970s global financial crisis, New York City struggled to meet its budgetary needs. The administration scaled back on “soft” city services, including sanitation, park maintenance, and police and fire protection, especially to low-income communities. Fires destroyed buildings, and the empty lots were soon filled with garbage because regular city trash collection was suspended. On the south side of E. 13th Street, the city seized two contiguous, abandoned buildings at addresses 520 and 522. In 1976, the city demolished the structures and walked away, leaving the rubble-filled parcels open to dumping and drug trafficking. The lots were more than an eyesore on the block -- they were dangerous for the whole neighborhood. As JoAnne Wessel, a garden member who has lived in the East Village since 1970 remembers, “local people were horrified by what was going on in the neighborhood. The crime, the drugs, the violence and tensions with the city - they decided to take a stand with the gardens.” In 1978, the 13th Street Block Association formed around the idea of transforming the two neighboring lots into a community garden, and volunteers began clearing out refrigerators, car chassis and hypodermic needles by hand. At the same time, hundreds of other communities were cleaning out abandoned city-owned lots in preparation for building gardens. Because the volunteers were technically squatters, the city government refused to legitimize their gardens without liability insurance. But in 1978, the city realized that it was in its own best interest to support the gardeners’ efforts, and Operation GreenThumb was initiated as an inexpensive liability and garden assistance program.
In 1979, the 13th Street Block Association began digging up ground to lay beds in what would soon become the Dias y Flores Community Garden (meaning "Days and Flowers," after a song by Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez). GreenThumb supplied Dias y Flores with wood for raised beds and soil to start planting. By providing supplies, technical assistance, and, in some cases, yearly leases, GreenThumb soon became an indispensible resource for community gardens around the city.
Leslie Ross, who joined Dias y Flores in 1989, says that cultural diversity was one factor that drew her to the East 13th Street garden. She recalls that when she arrived, the garden had about twenty-five members, half of whom were immigrants from Latin America and who provided the collective with a great deal of urban horticultural knowledge. Ross was also interested in Dias y Flores’ familiar atmosphere and community orientation. “Some other gardens were a lot more formal and had more rules,” she remembers. The only rule at Dias y Flores was a six-foot height limit on anything grown in individual plots. Many community gardens have similar mandates to prevent one gardener’s plot from casting shade onto neighboring plant beds. By the time Ross arrived, GreenThumb had already helped Dias y Flores get off the ground by providing them with numerous trees to put in it. Somewhat in contradiction to their plant height limit, Dias y Flores flourished into a lush shade garden featuring Crab Apple trees, Ornamental Cherry tree, a Japanese Dogwood, and a large Callary Pear tree that was donated by the city.
Shortly after Ross enrolled, New York City’s political and economic climate shifted, and community gardens have been both the subject and the site of intense public debate ever since. In the mid-1980s, the city suffered from a low-income housing shortage. The 1987 stock market scare rendered the sale of vacant lots for low-income housing untenable such that little affordable housing was constructed (or improved) until the mid-1990s. However, the real estate market recovered just as Rudolph Giuliani took office as mayor in 1994. Giuliani, who had campaigned on a platform that focused primarily on crime, ushered a period of authoritarianism and zero tolerance. When he took office, his administration issued Police Strategy No. 5: Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York, which championed an aggressive crime prevention policy based on the "broken-windows theory" that unchecked minor infractions lead to serious crimes. Giuliani’s administration initiated a citywide misdemeanor sweep and arrested scores of graffiti artists, squeegee cleaners, panhandlers, prostitutes, turnstile jumpers, and squatters.
Dias y Flores’ members recall a forced eviction of four squatted buildings across the street from their garden. Many of the squatters had lived in the buildings for over ten years, and they had invested time, energy and money into fixing the structures and turning them into homes. In 1994, the squatters were notified that their buildings were to be developed into low-income housing. While few people argue with the need for affordable housing, garden members shudder when recalling the standoff between the squatters and the police. In May 1995, over one hundred officers in riot gear were dispatched to 13th Street to assist in removing the squatters, some of whom had welded themselves inside of their homes. Thirty-one people were arrested that day, and on July 4, several of the evicted squatters snuck back into one of the buildings where they staged a rooftop demonstration. Fifteen people were arrested, and many others reported being beaten. One Dias y Flores member was booked for interfering with an arrest – she was trying to stop a plain-clothes officer from beating someone lying on the ground between two parked cars. The squatters were able to get an injunction against further evictions, but the injunction was overturned in August 1996. The police, this time accompanied by helicopters, again moved in on 13th Street and cleared the rest of the squatted buildings. Immediately afterward, the city gutted the tenements to render them uninhabitable, and gardeners remember the police-erected barricades at each end of the street. For a few weeks, only those with proof of block residency were allowed to enter.
At the same time, the Giuliani administration began to aggressively pursue first public, then private, development of city-owned lots, many of which contained community gardens. Requests to start new gardens were no longer approved, and several gardens were bulldozed. Other gardens, labeled as squats or “disposable” property, were slated for demolition on the grounds that they would make room for affordable housing.
In 1995, GreenThumb was transferred from the Department of General Services (then known as DGS, now called the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, or DCAS) to the Department of Parks and Recreation, but many of the city’s community gardens remained with DGS or were transferred to the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD). By 1997, DGS and HPD were charged with surveying and disposing of the vacant properties in their inventories so that they could be developed for affordable housing. But Giuliani’s policy soon shifted from public housing to privatization of city-owned property. In 1998, the city announced that in May 1999, 114 of the city’s 700 community gardens would be auctioned off to the highest bidder, no matter what the developer planned for the site.
The citywide garden community mobilized, demonstrated, and filed a series of lawsuits to block the sales. Dias y Flores joined in the effort to save their own garden, as well as those across the city. Ross and others attended public hearings to voice their opposition to the sales. Ross remembers that at the hearings, “you’d have one person after another, from real estate agents to residents, who would come up and say that the community garden in question is really one of the best things in the neighborhood.” The refrain was echoed by representatives from neighborhoods across the city.
The Dias y Flores parcel, which was owned by the fire department, was put up for auction three times. Shortly before the final round of auctioning, two private foundations - the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project - purchased the 114 threatened lots from City Hall. Inexplicably, Dias y Flores fell through the bureaucratic cracks and was not sold, either to the foundations or to a developer. Garden members pursued their lot’s status, but did not receive an answer about their jurisdiction or their fate.
In 2000, the New York State Attorney General’s office secured a temporary restraining order that prevented the city from turning community garden lots over to developers. A 2002 agreement negotiated by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer placed the gardens in the jurisdiction of the Parks Department, and prevented the city from auctioning the lots until September 2012. However, in 2010 the terms of the agreement were reassessed, and the official promise of protection was ended. Ross says that while the Spitzer agreement temporarily saved many of the gardens, the deal cut the momentum of City Council members who were advocating for a true process by which community gardens could be preserved in perpetuity. “That’s what the garden movement is really looking for,” she says, “real protective legislation.”
The 2010 reassessment includes more explicit language pledging that gardens will be preserved if they are well-maintained, and if the groups running them are in good standing. To qualify, gardens must operate for 20 hours each week and open their gates to the public. Not surprisingly, meeting these standards is no problem for Dias y Flores. Their garden is well maintained, lush and welcoming. Plots feature plants, figurines, and sometimes even poetry, reflecting the personalities of their caretakers. Some members have cultivated native flowers, while others prefer herbs, and still others are growing multiple varieties of vegetables. Artist Bob Lasher lives in one of the adjacent buildings and serves as the official garden super. He also created a beloved and colorful mosaic along the garden's paths by soft-malleting whole glass bottles into the soil, neck-first. A cast-concrete salmon statute watches over a plot by the entrance, the only one of a school of twelve fish that survived the bulldozing of nearby Chico Mendez Mural Garden in 1997.
Dias y Flores is open to the public any time a member is in the garden. As such, the garden is almost always publically accessible. On most days of the week you will find gardeners troweling, relaxing, or eating breakfast, lunch and/or dinner at the family style picnic tables, as a trio of musicians sing folk classics while accompanying themselves on banjo, harmonica, guitar or tambourine. The music floats through the garden, drifting between wooden trellises, tall stems of Calla Lilies and Forsythia, and over the fish pond with its solar-powered fountain. But gatherings can also be quite lively. As one member says, “any holiday is an excuse for a gathering. National Leaf Day? Ok, let’s get together and have a party!” Indeed, the garden is host to myriad events, from holiday and birthday celebrations, to memorial services for members or acquaintances who have passed on. Visitors to the garden are always invited to sit and stay a while.
Dias y Flores offers free art, science, craft and horticulture classes for adults, and they have led and grant-funded ecology courses for local elementary schools. The garden operates a composter for the use of all neighborhood residents, and until recently, it featured a 1000 gallon water tank fed by rainwater captured on an adjacent tenement's 1500 square foot roof. The tank and its catchment area were too large for the garden's needs, so members have recently completed a new garden shed whose smaller roof provides a more usefully appropriate water supply.
For now, many people believe that the city is not up for the kind of fight it would have to take on to shutter a functioning community garden. However, the gardeners aren’t resting on their laurels. Dias y Flores member, poet and long-time activitst Jeff Wright reflects, “In terms of security for the future, it’s hard to say. The city still hasn’t put the gardens on the official maps, which is a big ‘why-not?’ On the maps they’re still listed as vacant lots, but I think they’d find that if they tried to stop [the gardens] they’d have mayhem on their hands. I would hope so.”