Pi Dance Theatre @ the Garden, Sept. 2007

In 1984, the Clinton Community Garden became the first community garden in New York City to be granted permanent parkland status. This was a big moment both for our garden and the future of community gardening in the city. The story of our garden, however, starts some seven years earlier when a group of residents on West 48th Street decided to do something about the garbage heap in the middle of their block. Abandoned for 28 years, the lot held the remains of two tenement buildings, rusted-out cars, and ever-growing piles of trash, and was generally a magnet for illegal activity in a neighborhood that had its share of crime and misery. But the neighbors spotted some wild tomato plants growing out of the rubble and saw a chance for something else.

The city-owned property was leased through Operation GreenThumb in 1979 and organized into two sections, a public front garden with a lawn and flower beds and a back area for individual plots. Over the next several years, the back garden was expanded from the west to the east, so that 108 garden plots were eventually created. Paths were built from salvaged brick, and fences and gates were put in to protect the garden and separate the public area from the plots in the back. Stone benches were made from recycled slabs of slate and concrete blocks. In the early days, the garden featured a geodesic dome for winter gardening, and a mural, the mirror image of the garden, was painted on the building wall on the west side. Traces of this mural, by Mallory Abramson, a prominent garden founder and leader, are still visible today behind the Native American bed. The open green space stood in miraculous contrast to the then nearly tree-less block, offering escape from cramped apartments. The few nearby parks at the time stood in disrepair. Hell’s Kitchen Park, around the corner, had plenty of asphalt, concrete, and pigeon droppings but little greenery.

Despite, or because of, the garden’s success, the city announced its intention to auction off the 15,000-square-foot piece of land in 1981. Developers had begun to turn their attention to Hell’s Kitchen, viewing long-neglected buildings and lots as prime real estate, and the city was anxious to collect revenue on such properties. This was, of course, symptomatic of what communities were experiencing throughout the city and many gardens were perishing as a result. The community united to halt the sale, forming the Committee to Save Clinton Community Garden, and launched the Square-Inch Campaign. The idea was to secure the garden, which had been assessed at $167,000 and advertised for $375,000 in the city’s auction guide, by “selling” a piece of it for a $5.00 donation. The Trust for Public Land, Housing Conservation Coordinators, and the Green Guerillas joined in the fight. The story attracted national attention and ultimately won the support of Mayor Edward Koch, who kicked off the campaign in April of 1984 by buying the first square inch. The Square-Inch mural (it’s a giant segmented worm) on the garden’s east side, also by Mallory, marked the campaign’s progress, becoming greener as donations grew.

2 comments for “History

  1. Dai Mara
    November 4, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    This is a poem I wrote for my mother, Josephine Hanley. Her heart and soul never left 48th Street.

    48th Street Gardens in Hell’s Kitchen

    Eagles flung far from forest canopies
    lock their eyes on utility poles,
    or iron balconies while soaring

    skyscraper high. The location of an eaglet’s
    nest is imprinted in its heart. My grandmother,
    flung far from Mayo, carried her imprinted

    need for a bit of soil. Her green thumb
    and eager fingertips found discarded,
    mangled plant stems on green grocers

    floors. Pieces of plants, barely alive,
    were coaxed back to life with lovely,
    warmed water. Cuttings grew into flowers,

    tomatoes, and herbs that seasoned chicken
    dinners, and life, on 48th Street. Winter
    weather chased the potted plants garden

    from grandmother’s snow covered wrought iron
    fire escape to her linoleum
    kitchen floor during my mother’s childhood

    in the 1930’s. My mother’s memories
    of her childhood garden voice the irony
    of her mother’s apartment flattened,

    but still the site of fertile soil. Today
    her mother’s spirit soars above tilled
    soil in the Clinton Community Garden.

  2. Ellen Harcourt
    June 18, 2016 at 9:40 am

    A lovely place for her spirit to reside! Such a touching poem and tribute to her. Thank you for sharing it.

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