- A History of the Eperanza (Hope) Garden
On 15 February 2000, the Esperanza Garden, for 22 years a much-beloved community gathering place and green space on 7th Street and Avenue C, was leveled by a developer's bulldozer, which was protected by a large city police force. The Giuliani administration argued that community gardens stood in the way of the city's intention to build affordable housing. Community gardeners and their advocates argued that there are over 10,000 vacant city-owned lots, hence, this rationale makes little sense. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer went to court that morning to get a preliminary injunction against the razing of the garden, but Judge Richard Huttner's temporary restraining order came too late to save Esperanza. Spitzer declared, "This is an unfortunate display of the mayor [Rudy Giuliani] preventing the judicial process from operating" (in Chivers 2000). Spitzer and garden advocates maintained that the lots, part of the city's GreenThumb program, should be considered parks, and should only be developed after a step-by-step legislative and environmental review process. GreenThumb, which has encouraged and supported gardeners' efforts since 1978, was begun during Mayor Ed Koch's administration to protect the city's rights to the land, while ensuring that the land be well cared for (temporarily) by gardeners. Along with providing tools and technical assistance, GreenThumb set up a year-to-year licensing system that preserves the city's right of ownership. Hundreds of lots under GreenThumb's jurisdiction were transformed into thriving community gardens.
The furor on the morning of 15 February involved 150 people. Thirty-one were arrested, including dozens who had spent the night in the garden, and had chained or locked themselves into concrete blocks and fences, hoping to prevent Esperanza from being destroyed. Two NYU undergraduates, Dhira Rauch and Rebecca Lambrecht, were arrested, charged with trespassing, and held overnight for morning court appearances. They later participated in the creation and performance of common green/common ground. Rauch's statement from that morning: "I guess I'm not going to make it to my 9:30class," became part of the script of the play. Garden activists Aresh Javadi and J.K. Canepa, who were among the last of the protesters removed from the site, also performed in common green/common ground.
Alicia Torres and her family and friends established the garden in 1977. The Garden of Hope (El Jardin de la Esperanza) was the site of children's birthday parties and neighborhood celebrations over the years and was known for its profusion of sunflowers and roses (including a 20-year-old, 15-foot-high rosebush, still blooming during summer 1999). In a "last ditch" effort to summon the forces of nature to their protest, gardeners and activists erected a giant tree frog sculpture (el coqui) in the garden. According to Puerto Rican legend, this creature was meant to protect the garden and scare off attackers. This too was destroyed on 15 February 2000. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani granted permission to developer Donald Capoccia to build "affordable housing" for low- and middle-income residents on the Esperanza lot. As is often the case, the developer actually set aside only 20 percent of the units for low-income housing. The rest were to go for the much more expensive market rate. By February 2002, construction on the apartment buildings and retail spaces was nearly completed. A sign on the property announced "New Rentals" at "Eastville Gardens: One, Two, and Three Bedroom Apartments starting at $1,995.00 per month." This rent was not affordable for most of the long-term residents in the neighborhood. The sign also advertised 5,500 square feet of commercial space, a fitness center, and a landscape garden on the site. In February 2002, the only sign of a garden was a sliver of land that once was part of El Bello Amancecer Borincano (The Beautiful Puerto Rican Dawn), another community garden, also bulldozed, which was around the corner on Avenue C. A vestigial tree was all that remained of the original garden in the razed lot. [End Page 154]