This article is written by Bill Di Paola, Claire Duvernet, Madeleine Crenshaw, team members of Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS).
Today, we take advantage of all the sustainable benefits that New York City has to offer (parks, green ways, air quality), yet how many of us know about the grassroots activism and direction action that resulted in these transformations? Whether you call it the Lower East Side, the East Village, Alphabet City, or Loisaida, the impact the neighborhood and its residents had on New York City and beyond is undeniable.
The Beginning: Blossoming Community in a Broken City
In the midst of the urban decay that plagued the Lower East Side in the 1970s, community members began to take matters into their own hands, making efforts to transform their neighborhood’s vacant lots and abandoned buildings into beautiful community gardens, squats, homesteads, and community centers. When the City failed to maintain public spaces and provide social services to the people in this area, they responded by rolling up their sleeves and rebuilding the neighborhood themselves, creating safe, sustainable spaces on city property. In the process of restoring these spaces, community blossomed. Decisions were made collectively, skills were shared, and sustainable practices were adopted. This community history of the Lower East Side is being documented by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) through its exhibitions, workshops, tours, outreach, and special events.
The formation of Green Guerillas in 1973 represents a turning point for the history of the Lower East Side. This group of urban gardeners inspired the transformation of spaces by throwing “seed bombs” over fences into vacant lots, planting seeds in spaces along the streets, and installing flower boxes on the window sills of abandoned buildings. Community members came together to restore the spaces, implementing sustainable practices from urban agriculture and composting to recycling. The Lower East Side became a center for grassroots activism and experimentation.
Activist groups began popping up all over, advocating for sustainable low-income housing, the permanence of community gardens and safe bicycle infrastructure. A place called the HubStation for instance, located right next to the Hell’s Angels Headquarters on East Third Street, was a virtual laboratory for non-polluting transportation where words like “pedal assist,” “dumptrike,” “longjohn,” “hybrid,” and “electric backup,” were the norm. Now these vehicles can be seen all over the city fulfilling a variety of everyday non-polluting transportation needs. The pedi-cabs that now blanket the city were kick started by volunteers at the HubStation as well. Bicycling was extremely common community behavior in the Lower East Side. Many bicycle advocates like Time’s Up Environmental Organization began organizing safe group bike rides which built the confidence of bicyclers who then became everyday bike commuters. This increase in biking put pressure on the city to create the bike lanes which eventually led to the construction of sustainable infrastructures.
Today: Towards a Long-term, City-Wide, Sustainable Change
All of these developments, as documented by MoRUS, met incredible challenges from City officials, from the massive struggle to protect our community gardens, to housing activist efforts to stop gentrification that culminated in the Tompkins Square Park police riots, to the numerous arrests and harassment of the bicycling community. Despite much resistance, these community projects have since all been adopted and implemented by the City – from its recycling program modeled on that of the LES Ecology Center to the commuter cycling enabled by Citi Bike. A greenway now wraps around the whole city, and where riders of Critical Mass once held their bikes in the air in the center of Times Square is now auto free.
Today, the Lower East Side still has the highest concentration of community gardens in the City, with 39 gardens remaining. They represent a huge asset for the community, whether it is to increase food security, climate resilience or social cohesion. Most of the gardens are now housed under the jurisdiction of the Department of Parks and Recreation. The City of New York also adopted a composting program inspired by local initiatives in the LES. The effects of grassroots activism on the Lower East Side can be seen across the City and beyond.
All the gardens and community spaces are maintained by volunteers. Even though their value is now widely recognized, their permanency is the result of a constant commitment. You can learn more about the role played by the community and its impact today during the LES – Community Gardens and Sustainability Tours! Tours organized by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space take you on a journey through vibrant community spaces and legendary tenement buildings that helped create the identity of the neighborhood and shape the city today. Delve deeper into the events and spaces in this article by attending the tours held every Saturday and Sunday at 3pm and a free tour on Sunday, May 8th at 1pm.