Save our Gardens Social Action Art & Preservation Project (1991-2005) was a 15-year community-engaged art project that mobilized a creative grassroots effort and led to preservation of hundreds of community gardens throughout New York City. Felicia Young, an artist living on the Lower East Side, initiated “The Rites of Spring: Procession to Save Our Gardens” in 1991 to highlight the magnificent community gardens, bring attention to their struggle for survival as their existence was threatened with proposed development plans, and propose strategies for their permanent preservation.
Many of gardens had at that point in time existed for 25 years, created by local residents in the 1970s and 80s who got together in small groups and volunteered their time and effort to improve their neighborhoods that were riddled with rubble-strewn vacant lots that had become dens of crime and drugs and sites where dangerous activities thrived. They cleared out the garbage and planted trees, flowers, and vegetable gardens. The gardens were developed as a spontaneous act of urban improvisation by local residents to transform their neglected neighborhood into a better environment. They had become the hubs of positive community life with open space and nature within the city in this otherwise harsh urban environment. They were an irreplaceable asset to the overall community that had not been valued in quantifiable terms to the neighborhood and beyond to the city administration. Felicia, who had been creating community-engaged art projects and public theatrical pageants since 1988, proposed the “Procession to Save Our Gardens” as a creative approach to highlight to invaluable role the gardens played within the neighborhoods and to bring attention to the devastating impact that the loss of the gardens would have, not only to the gardeners who cultivated these spaces, but also to the entire neighborhood that indirectly benefited in myriad ways from their existence.
The project developed into an on-going and year-long community and cultural organizing process with three months of public workshops creating visual art, performance, music, dance and poetry highlighting the gardens, their history and their struggle to survive. The creative work and collaborative effort culminated in a 10 hour pageant, featuring a spectacular procession of giant puppets, mobile sculptures, ceremonial art objects, costumed garden characters and musical bands weaving throughout the neighborhood to visit the network of gardens. The diverse cultural traditions and history of the neighborhood gardens were honored with ceremonies and presentations by the gardeners and local artists at each garden site.
The Procession as an annual collaborative art project and effort grew organically and adapted itself to the community’s needs. Public meetings and workshops developed new art and performance projects in response to the current issues. By the second year a mythic drama storyline was developed and integrated into the procession with five scenes played out at specific gardens, vacant lots and street corners. The mythic drama told the story of Gaia who represents the gardens and her marriage, kidnapping by developers and rescue at the end of the day by the “butterfly children and garden spirits.” Through this mythic drama the community envisioned and acted out the saving of the gardens. While this was a performance, it also was a public march of support and ceremonial pilgrimage. It built the grassroots support network and shaped the narrative of this drama, not in the world of art or theater, but in the daily reality and context of the most critical city issues.
Development interests had tried to portray through the media that the gardens were preventing needed housing and that the gardeners were freeloaders and unruly citizens. Over the years the pageant publicly and through local and international media coverage conveyed the fact that the city had 11,000 vacant lots that could be developed before needing to build on the gardens that were community assets. The transformative and powerful story by the community as it wanted to envision itself was made public locally, citywide and internationally. The community that had cultivated these ecological oases out of urban blight with their own effort, ingenuity, creativity and hard work could now come together to save the gardens. The procession was the “safe zone” where anything was possible and the community could write its own ending.
The Procession as an annual community art and garden preservation project led to tangible and incremental results every year, increasing and strengthening the garden network, building an active coalition organized on solutions such as a land trust to preserve gardens, garnering extensive media coverage, and mobilizing a grassroots and creative effort that led to the preservation of hundreds of gardens on the Lower East Side and throughout New York City. In November 1994, Felicia Young put together a public meeting at St Brigid’s Church inviting both gardeners and community to explore the possibility of forming a land trust as an option of permanent preservation. The Trust for Public Land was invited to present the concept of a land trust and how it worked. Several hundred gardeners and residents attended this meeting and formed the Lower East Side Garden Preservation Coalition with representatives of the various gardens and other community members that wanted to support the effort. The coalition of gardeners and residents met monthly and various committees were established contributing including research, press, coalition newsletter, legal, mapping, and outreach. The coalition working through more traditional grassroots organizing methods simultaneously with the ongoing community-engaged art project created a powerful combination. Each method significantly enhanced the achievements that alone may not have been reached.
In Fall 1996, after gaining incremental successes saving several gardens and building a strong grassroots effort, “The New York Times” published an article about endangered gardens in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn that were slated for destruction as Mayor Giuliani was aiming to sell and develop hundreds of city-owned lots. Recognizing that the local Lower East Side struggle was now a major citywide crisis we reached out to these gardeners to join forces, forming the New York City Coalition for the Preservation of Gardens (New York City Garden Coalition) with over 200 gardens from the Bronx, Brooklyn, the Upper West Side and Harlem. The effort went from a local struggle to a powerful movement with thousands of gardeners and community members throughout New York City.
Over the years people from other neighborhoods in New York and across America and around the world reached out to express their support as the struggle connected people as part of the growing environmental movement toward sustainable and green cities was emerging. It is also important to remember that this effort began before we had websites, cell phones, email, cameras and video in our phones, and the internet, so the pageant and the media coverage it received was a critical form of communication about the struggle beyond the neighborhood and those directly engaged in the project. The effort also gathered interest and supporters from outside this low-income neighborhood including people in power, city officials, philanthropists, preservationists, lawyers, scholars, journalists, and established greening and environmental groups.
The creative strategies utilizing the public and community-engaged theatrical pageant art form integrating visual art, mobile sculptures, performance, dance, music, song, poetry, and ceremony created by local artists, gardeners, and residents, engaged and built an effort that communicated on the deepest emotional level. It was also subversive, as it was difficult for the powerful forces we were struggling against to cast a lasting negative light on butterfly children and dancing flower puppets. The joy and affirmation of this creative community sang loudly and put into motion an alternative mode of working together for a common goal, where the creative and collaborative process alone was a significant achievement. The enactment of the culminating pageant showed how the community could move forward working together on the goal of preserving the gardens, strengthened and renewed through this creative and collaborative communal reaffirmation.
Earth Celebrations’ cultural organizing work, community-engaged art projects, and creative broad-based coalition building to preserve the community gardens on the Lower East Side and throughout New York City led to the saving of many of the community gardens when in 1999 hundreds were purchased from a city auction to be preserved in a land trust, and then again in 2002 when Mayor Bloomberg protected nearly 200 gardens by transferring them to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. After 15 years we were finally able to celebrate and to take our successful and creative model of effecting social and ecological change to address other ecological issues. The Hudson River Restoration Pageant (2009-2012) engaged the downtown Manhattan community to reconnect with the newly revitalized waterfront in Manhattan and restoration efforts of local river groups. Recently Felicia applied these methods in a global context, initiating a social action art project and international and local collaborative effort to restore the sacred Vaigai River in Madurai, South India that is in a severe crisis due to pollution, waste dumping and the drying effects of climate change. In two years the project has resulted in the Mayor and city officials appointing a panel for the Vagai River Restoration, a city-wide coalition of stakeholders including rural farmers and villagers and urban riverfront areas living in poverty, as well as numerous local colleges, scientists, and environmental and community groups that are now mobilized and working on continued actions. The project also has initiated an international collaboration with Columbia University’s Department of Architecture and Urban Planning establishing an on-going exchange program to work on the restoration effort.