Community Garden Bulldozed
Air Date: Week of March 10, 2000
Manhattan teenager Jose Torres’ audio diary of the battle over a community garden in his East Village neighborhood. The garden was recently razed by a city work crew to make way for a high-rent apartment building. This segment was produced by Joe Richman for NPR’s Teen Diaries series.
CURWOOD: Every spring, for more than 20 years, a small lot on Seventh Street in Manhattan's East Village would come to life with sprouts of flowers and vegetables. But this year, what's known as the Esperanza Garden is a vacant lot, surrounded by plywood, waiting for something else to rise from the earth: a high-priced apartment building. The garden was bulldozed by a city work crew last month and protesters were arrested. It was the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle between New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani and community garden advocates over the use of vacant city-owned property. It was also the likely end of a story that began more than two decades ago. That was when Jose Torres helped his mother Alicia and neighborhood volunteers turn a rubble-filled lot into a community garden. Radio producer Joe Richman lives in that neighborhood. He gave a tape recorder to Jose Torres to keep an audio diary of the fight to save Esperanza Garden.
(Voices in the background)
TORRES: My name is Jose Torres and I'm in the middle of the Esperanza Garden. My mother's area is in this corner, this is her plot. I don't know really what she grows, but she grows some big stuff here, because she loves it. (Calls) Ma! Look right here! Look right in there! I thought it was a few beans. These are green peppers and these are jalapenos, right?
WOMAN: She got hot peppers. I got green peppers.
TORRES: You can eat these. These are good.
WOMAN: She has the small little tomatoes.
TORRES: She's got tomatoes, lettuce. We've got grapes that grow here, a grapevine. This grows real big, this starts from right here all the way to over there. These grow beautiful in the summer. And you know what's so beautiful about it? That people will be passing by, and when we're cooking here they see the smoke going up and they can smell the hot dogs, the chicken burning, you know, the cooking. And rice, they can smell the rice. And people passing by hear the music and you see them, they look in and they want to come in. And we say come on in, come in. They walk in, they go, this is beautiful. We love this. We do Hallowe’en parties. And for Christmas we do, we do Easter egg hunts. The children love it.
CHILD: Look at that big one! See it moving?
TORRES: I guess when we first started here it was like, wow, I don't know -- about '75, '76. Because there was no fence and everybody used to come in here and shoot up, you know, it was open lot. And then the whole back was just full of bricks and junk and everything, you know how I mean? Those sinks, a lot of piping, boiler parts here and everything. There was a lot of junk here. And from there we started moving, little by little. It took us a while, it took us a long time. And since then it's become this big place. (Calls) There you go, Johnny! I'll follow you. More this way, toward me.
CAPOSHA: My name's Donald Caposha, principal in BFC Partners. And I told them that I was going to be building a building on their garden. That's all I said to them: I'm going to build a building there. It's a seven-story building, cast stone base and some sort of a brick veneer facade, setbacks with some balconies. Should be a very beautiful building.
TORRES: My mom's reaction was that she was just scared. First time she heard it, I guess she was crying, you know. And she's been crying for the longest. You know, we're going to fight to the end.
MAN: (Voice echoing on mike) Hearings will be conducted and testimony will be heard in the order of the printed calendar. Speakers opposed to resolution shall be heard first, and then speakers in favor thereof.
TORRES: My name is Jose Torres. I represent Esperanza Garden...
(Away from hearing) For politicians to do this, you know, we're not rich people. Donald Caposha has a lot of money and a lot of power. He probably got his own house out on Long Island or something, has his own little garden. And I bet you he goes out there and sits in the back and relaxes. We struggled here for years because this place was the worst for a long time. Now that it's changing everybody wants to come in and just drive us out.
(At hearing) I feel that you've got to hear us and help us out and protect our garden. Thank you.
WOMAN: Hearing adjourned.
(A gavel strikes)
TORRES: We had to get more people involved, to try to save Esperanza.
(A crowd shouts: "More Fridays!" Drumming starts)
TORRES: There were hundreds and hundreds of people supporting me. College students, a lot of law students coming from all over, hanging out, saying look, we'll give you the support, whatever you need we're here. And that's what we did, you know?
(Drumming continues up and under)
TORRES: (Grunts) Try to move it this way. This way, this way. All right, right there. Okay, I'm going up the stairway. Up here is the big cookie. It's like a frog. It stands for Puerto Rico. It looks out to the front of the garden, and you've got to go up a ladder to the back. You've got to go up to the tail of the cookie. I think cookies have a tail, I'm not sure. It's like a security house. People sleep inside. They've got sleeping bags in there. We have a phone in here so in case the bulldozers do come in they can start making calls. We'll keep two people at a time a night here to always watch.
(Music is played in the garden)
TORRES: I tell you, like 10 people fit. It looks like an apartment in there. I know it's like a little mess, but you've got to see it just to believe it.
(Music continues, up and under)
TORRES: It's real quiet here at night, especially, you know, the other night I was here with Mario. He's staying here. He's staying inside the cookie. And me and him, we're sitting here, the lights were on, we're just talking here for a long time, and it was quiet. Felt like we were in the woods. I was like, wow, I don't know. Felt so good.REPORTER: Twenty-two years ago it was a vacant lot, a hangout for junkies. Two decades later it's known as el haldines esperanza, the garden of hope. This morning there was almost a party-like atmosphere as residents tried to delay what the city had told them was inevitable. The lot had been sold, and bulldozers would soon raze the land.
CROWD: Save Esperanza! Save Esperanza! Save Esperanza!
MAN ON BULLHORN: Leave now. If you stay you will be placed under arrest.
CROWD: Save Esperanza! Save Esperanza! Save Esperanza!
MAN: Hey! Five seconds and you're going to be arrested.
WOMAN: What -- I'm going in the house.
MAN: Get inside, ma'am. Get inside...
SHEEHAN: East Seventh Street between Avenues B and C remains closed. Police moved in this morning armed with power tools to cut through the chains. A large frog had to be dissected by cops so that two protesters could be removed.
WOMAN: Oh my God! Look how fast it came down! Oh my ....
TORRES: This is sad, you know? This is like the day my mother's going to always remember.
WOMAN: Oh my God. (Sniffles)
SHEEHAN: Recently the city sold the lot to a developer, who now plans to build a 75-unit luxury apartment house on the site. But as you can see, the city wasted absolutely no time. The bulldozers are already in there, they're clearing the land. Reporting live from the East Village, I'm Mike Sheehan. Mario, back to you.
CAPOSHA: This is not for me to decide. This is not for gardeners to decide. This is really for lawmakers to legislate. I'm simply a builder, and I go forward with the work that I've been made responsible to do.
GIULIANI: You know, there's competing demands. We have a city in which people can't find a place to live. We have a city in which people can't find affordable housing. And if you live in the unrealistic world, well, then you can say, well, everything should be a garden. A mayor has to live in a real world.
TORRES: Well, this is the Esperanza Garden. They got like plywood running across, blocking the whole entire front. You can't even see it. I always thought we were going to be there forever, you know. It's like a story, it's like a story that you would -- see, a rich man comes out of nowhere with a lot of money and just gets rid of the poor people, and it's like, I still don't believe it. I still can't believe it. It's just -- I don't know how to get over it, you know? It's like a bomb, like they threw a bomb, right in the middle of the garden. Boom. And it was gone.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Our story was narrated by Jose Torres and produced by Joe Richman for the NPR series Radio Diaries. Special thanks to the Torres family.
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