Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars

Photo Source Eden, Janine and Jim | CC BY 2.0

Because plants convert CO2 (a greenhouse gas) into oxygen, gardens combat global warming. Right? Isn’t this, as Sherlock Holmes would say, elementary? So why then is the mayor of a major coastal city, one whose very existence is threatened by global warming, intent on destroying community gardens? Could it be because the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, isn’t terribly concerned about the already unfolding ecological catastrophe? It certainly looks that way. Perhaps this is why, in spite of the fact that he lives in a city in which getting around by car is ridiculously slow, and there’s great public transportation, and cars are a major source of pollution and global warming, and New York City will be accessible only to scuba divers before too long because of sea-level rise, he not only travels 12 miles in an SUV to work out, but reproduces anachronistic, car-centric politics. His priorities lie elsewhere, with those of real estate developers, and the “business class” generally. This is why de Blasio can’t stop shutting down community gardens.

Grown on lots of land leased from the city, these gardens are being taken away from the communities that cultivated them, and that they enrich, and handed over to de Blasio’s real estate developer allies. Transferring vital resources to the wealthy, so that the wealthy can enjoy even more than they need, while the rest of us manage with ever less (no different from efforts to take away Social Security), is, of course, how this system works – and has worked here since the Dutch colonized the region in the 17th century. It doesn’t matter that the planet is growing hotter, and that trees and gardens ameliorate this – cleaning and cooling the carcinogenic air. The system has rules of its own, it must “efficiently exploit” the land and everything on it – i.e., generate profit. Necessities must be subordinated to luxuries. Obstacles to this effort will be plowed under.

Among the many community gardens slated for destruction by the de Blasio administration in the coming weeks is the Elizabeth  Street  Garden, just south of Houston  Street in lower Manhattan. A derelict lot for years, its transformation into a community garden began in 1991 when local gallerist Allan Reiver planted it with flowers and filled it with sculptures. Nearly three decades later the garden is a green oasis, beloved by its neighbors – as well by those who visit it from other parts of the city, and from other parts of the world. In spite of this, however, and despite the fact that those who live near the garden have been agitating for years to save it, Margaret Chin, who represents the district in the City Council, and her ally Bill de Blasio, are intent on destroying it. Why? If asked they’ll say it’s in order to build affordable housing for senior citizens – a laudable goal, to be sure. However, there are less charitable goals as well. These include building 11,000 square feet of commercial space on the site (even though the city presently has so many commercial vacancies that even affluent neighborhoods are blighted by all the empty store fronts, and an insufficient amount of open space).

But a conflict between creating affordable housing for senior citizens and saving the garden is actually illusory. Why? Because there is an other, even larger, site on nearby Hudson Street on which housing could be built. Both can exist. For no persuasive reason, though, de Blasio and Chin have rejected that (less profitable) location.

Responding to the community’s objections to the plan, de Blasio announced in 2017 that, though he cares about the community’s concerns, he still wants to build on the site. Explaining, he related that he came up with a compromise – one that he described as the “ultimate Solomonic decision.” He would, he said, cut the garden into pieces. I suppose he didn’t understand that Solomon did not in the end cut,  nor did he ever actually intend to cut, the baby in the Solomon story into pieces. No, Solomon gave the whole baby to its mother – the one who genuinely cared about it. So, Bill, if you’re reading this, if you truly want to make a Solomonic decision, you might consider allowing the community to keep the garden. Indeed, if you want to be known as a wise decision-maker, like Solomon reputedly was, you might consider not just preserving this garden, but saving the other community gardens slated for destruction as well. Moreover, you should make it a priority to create even more gardens and parks. In a world growing ever hotter, such an expansion is not only necessary, it would be welcomed with enthusiasm by the majority of New Yorkers.

Now, I’ve heard you and those in your administration say that there’s just no public land left upon which to build, and this is why you have to destroy the community gardens. And I recognize that in certain respects there is a very limited amount of space in the city. But, looked at another way, there’s actually plenty of public space – it’s just that cars take up nearly all of it. I’m talking about the streets. So, in the interest of the public health, and the public good, not to mention the continued existence of the city itself, which very well may disappear beneath rising seas, you might want to lead an effort to begin phasing out cars from the city, and start transforming the streets into parks and gardens. Seriously, imagine how much nicer 14th  Street would be (to take just one street) if it were a park. Rather than its current clogged, cacophonously carcinogenic incarnation, it could be a model urban park, a paragon of transformative design. Synthesizing the green spaces along the Hudson River, the High  Line, Union Square, and even Stuyvesant Square and Tompkins Square, with East River Park, a continuous greenway (below which would be car-free) could belt Manhattan. And once this is accomplished the rest of Manhattan, and then the rest of the city, could be freed from its car infestation (investments in various modes of transportation infrastructure – bike lanes, bus lanes, etc. – could easily accommodate the city’s transportation needs). Just imagine how lovely it would be if the Brooklyn  Bridge, the Williamsburg  Bridge, the 59th  Street  Bridge, and other bridges, freed from car traffic, were transformed into river-spanning parks – hanging gardens above the city.

Insane you say? On the contrary, it’s utterly sane. For the word sane, derived from the Latin root sanus, literally means healthy; and as the planet grows ever hotter, and the seas rise ever higher, such a city plan would not merely be healthier than the present one, it might actually save the city from the coming floods. And wouldn’t that be a nice legacy to leave behind? Wouldn’t that be better than being remembered as one of the mayors who could have saved the city but opted instead to destroy it? Because, Bill, absent some major shift, that’s just what your legacy will be – especially as you, Chin, and your real estate developer friends proceed, despite widespread popular resistance, to destroy the Elizabeth  Street  Garden, among others. There’s still time to change course. Think about it. And, who knows, centuries from now, when referring to wise decision-makers, instead of Solomon, people just may use the name de Blasio.

I know, I know. It’s not gonna happen. That’s what you’re thinking, right? And, in the exceptionally unlikely event of such a conversion, even that would be insufficient to effectuate radical, meaningful change. I mean, even getting a bike lane built in this town meets with tons of resistance. So, what to do? Form a new political party? A Garden Party? And take over the City Council? Why not?

Until then, a rally to save the Elizabeth  Street Garden is scheduled for October  28, from 2 – 4. You can learn more here. Though demolition is already scheduled, it can still be stopped. Show up if you can.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber