In the early 1970s, New Yorkers banded together with a shared vision: beautify the urban landscape with lush greenery. Many neighborhoods at the time were seeing a high number of abandoned lots and buildings as the city entered a massive fiscal crisis, and community members aimed to transform these spaces one seed drop at a time. The Green Guerillas formed, and were part of a larger citywide movement that was spurred by Lower East Side (LES) residents Luis Torres and José Ayala, environmentalist Hattie Carthan in Bedford-Stuyvesant who was battling redlining with a tree-planting program, and others around the five boroughs.
To help combat the urban decay that was spreading throughout the city, the Green Guerillas would toss what they dubbed "seed green-aides" (grenades) into street medians, install flower boxes in windows of abandoned buildings, and take over empty, overgrown lots to grow community gardens.
At the time, a bulk of these efforts were in the East Village and Lower East Side (also known as Loisaida), and many of those gardens still exist. The Green Guerillas are still here too, operating as a nonprofit environmental group that remains dedicated to their original core mission. To this day, the gardens they created are "one of the most interesting examples of New York's hidden green urban spaces," according to the authors of Loisaida: NYC Community Gardens.
The gardens seeded during this initial grassroots effort (and thereafter) are often hidden in plain sight, and while only members hold keys to their gates, there are rules that require them to be open to the public. According to the NYC Parks Department, “Gardens must remain open and accessible to the public for a minimum of twenty hours per week during the garden season from April 1st through October 31st." They must also provide a sign on the gate with garden hours.
Each garden has its own style and features, a reflection of the community that helped build and maintain it. Your best bet in navigating these hidden gems is to get off the train or bus and do some exploring — photographer Sai Mokhtari reported back from a recent garden adventure with this sage advice: “I would advise anyone who wants to go explore these gardens to look at the list [of gardens] and then immediately light it on fire and just go to the area and start walking around. This is one of my very favorite NYC hangs because it's a little adventure every time, you're never 100% sure what's open, where you might end up, and who you might meet along the way."
Here’s what you may find along the way.
Choose Your Own Community Garden Adventure in the East Village
📍Located at 630 E 6th St (between Avenues B and C)
📍Located at 422 E 11th St (near Ave A)
📍Located at E 9th St and Ave C
No matter which garden’s gate you walk through, you’ll enter an oasis with plenty of places to sit, pause and reflect, as well as socialize. Even if you arrive alone, you’ll find plenty of conversation opportunities with old timers who can tell you about the neighborhood in the 1980s, reflect on the changes, and tell you their history of how the community gardens came to be. While the mythology may slightly differ depending on the storyteller, it’s all still rooted in the 1970s, and the gardens are part of the fabric of an area that feels like the last remnants of bohemian culture in Manhattan.
While the city’s large parks can help you escape from the city, wandering the gardens in Alphabet City, you know exactly where you are: New York, New York.
The gardens are all full of plant life and surrounded by apartment buildings, but each has its own distinct vibe beyond that, reflecting the community members who created and maintain it. Some more peaceful, some a little chaotic and more than a little overgrown, and all brimming with life – filled with not just greenery, but community, cultural expression, music and art.
📍Located at 350-54 E 4th St (near Ave D)
📍Located at the corner of 6th and B
📍Located at 333 E 8th St (near Ave C)
📍Located at 710 E 5th St (near Ave C)
📍Located at 415 E 11th St (between 1st Ave and Ave A)
📍Located at 703 9th St (near Ave C)
The gardens are hubs where neighbors mingle, work together, play games, and enjoy it all without having to pay for something. A true network of oases.
You can find a full map of the gardens here provided by LUNGS (Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens). And don’t forget some bug spray when you go!
Depending on subway line, there will be a 5-15 minute walk or bus ride to the get the community gardens.