Guest Post: Finding Inspiration in LES Gardens

9th Street & Avenue C

9th Street & Avenue C Community Garden & Park. All photos by Matthew McDermott

As we reported a few minutes ago, the NYC Parks Department has agreed today to strengthen protections for the city’s community gardens.  An earlier version of proposed rule changes did not sit well with many neighborhood activists, who feared the city might be tempted to sell the garden sites to developers.

Coincidentally, we recently discovered a beautiful (and as it turns out, a very timely) collection of photographs documenting some of the community gardens in and around the Lower East Side.  The photos were taken by East Village resident Matthew McDermott, senior writer for treehugger.com and planetgreen.com. We asked Mat to send us some of his favorite photographs from his series and to tell us a little about what inspired him to document the gardens. His story and the photos are featured after the jump:


La Plaza Cultural, on the corner of Avenue C & East 9th St.

I started casually photographing in the community gardens of the East Village and Lower East Side shortly after moving to the Grand Street Co-ops about 18 months ago. They seemed such at an integral, lively and interesting (both conceptually and visually) part of the community and, being a street photographer at heart, seemed an ideal location.

6th & B Community Garden

Moving into an apartment on Avenue C & 4th Street last October, and then fully realizing how many of them there were within just a few block radius, each with its own distinctive character, really solidified that view, making me appreciate them even more.

6th & B Community Garden
El Jardin del Paraiso - East 5th Street, between Avenue C & D

But it wasn’t until earlier this summer, when I received an email from Ben Shepard of Time’s Up! pitching me a story about how the 2002 Spitzer agreement protecting these wonderful green spaces was about to expire, and the Bloomberg Administration did not, to put it mildly, seem overly keen on permanently protecting the gardens, did I start photographing them in earnest.

El Jardin del Paraiso - East 5th Street, between Avenues C & D
El Jardin del Paraiso - East 5th Street, between Avenue C & D

I didn’t move to New York City until 2005, so didn’t live through the genesis of any of these smalls parks, vegetable gardens, botanical gardens even (a few rivaling the Brooklyn Botanic Garden or the New York Botanical Garden in care and artistry, if not size). It was shocking news to me, as it I’m sure it is to many people not fully knowing the history of the neighborhood who pass by the gardens daily, that they could all potentially be put up for development.

El Jardin del Paraiso - East 5th Street, between Avenue C & D

9th Street & Avenue C Community Garden & Park

Over the summer I photographed in frantic clumps rather than methodically (and wrote some less-frantic articles for TreeHugger too) visiting as many gardens I could in an afternoon—there are many local ones that I haven’t managed to reach while the gates are unlocked, and still literally hundreds throughout the five boroughs that I hope to visit.

La Plaza Cultural - corner of Avenue C & East 9th St.
La Plaza Cultural - Corner of Avenue C & East 9th St.

Since I began this project (which doesn’t have an end in sight, really) there has been some movement on protecting the gardens.

(The compromise announced today protects gardens from development but does not guarantee their preservation.)

Not ideal, no, but movement, and improvement from August 10th when the line to testify in support of the gardens stretched for over half a block between 9th and 10th Avenues on 25th Street and took several hours to clear.

9th Street & Avenue C

All I can say is that I hope these images represent what residents and visitors alike can continue to see in the East Village in the future, and not just be a split-second glimpse of what once was.

Mat McDermott is a Senior Writer for TreeHugger and PlanetGreen.

Many more of these images are viewable on Flickr at: NYC Community Gardens.