Late on the afternoon of March 20, Kate Temple-West gathered together several small children to hold hands beneath the barren branches of an apple tree.
It was the first day of spring and Children’s Magical Garden was open for business at the corner of Stanton and Norfolk on the Lower East Side. Temple-West, the garden’s longtime director, had already helped some children plant clover as well as brightly colored tulips and violas. The wind had an icy sting to it, but neither she nor the children were discouraged.
“Wake up apple tree,” they sang out in unison. “Wake up!”
“Wake up apple tree, wake up!”
“Wake up apple tree, wake up to the sun!”
Across the way, Emily Weichers prepared small seed packets of mint, fennel and arugula while she watched out of the corner of her eye as her son Tristan, 6, dug for worms. The seeds were to be planted in dirt-filled egg cartons that gardeners would place on their kitchen window sills until the end of April.
“Even if you live in a small New York City apartment, you can still be a part of gardening,” said Weichers. She stumbled across this green space two years ago while walking her son to school and is still amazed at her good fortune. “My son has eaten apples and peaches from the trees here. I never thought that would happen on the Lower East Side. It’s what makes the neighborhood liveable.”
That could soon change.
Last May, real estate developer Serge Hoyda staked his claim to a parcel of the garden he purchased in 2003 for $180,000 by having a fence installed. It effectively cut the garden in half and deprived it of its raised vegetable beds, chicken coop and meditation circle. City Council member Margaret Chin and Community Board 3 came to the aid of the kids by making sure that the rest of the garden was placed under the aegis of the Parks Department’s Green Thumb program and received permanent protection.
In November, Hoyda submitted a plan to the Department of Buildings proposing to build a six-story building with a penthouse and a gym that would tower over the garden. And in January, he flipped the property for a cool $3.3 million to the Yonkers-based Horizon Group whose owners told the Villager they want to go forward with building on the disputed lot for the benefit of their own children.
Children’s Magical Garden traces its roots back to the early 1980s, when hundreds of community gardens began to sprout up across New York. In neighborhoods like the Lower East Side that had practically been abandoned by the city government, residents cleared garbage-strewn lots and turned blight into beauty. With several neighborhood schools located nearby, the lot at Norfolk and Stanton became a magnet for children and their families.
When New York boomed again in the 1990s, the Giuliani administration moved to hand over the gardens to private developers. Protests and lawsuits followed and hundreds of gardens were preserved from bulldozers.
A booming real estate market continues to make the gardens a tempting target for private developers and presents some intriguing questions: Who should this land belong to? The people who work it and through their collective efforts bring value to their communities? Or, to real estate speculators who invoke claims of private ownership to make off with the wealth produced by others?
In the case of Serge Hoyda, the members of Children’s Magical Garden still hope they can prevail. On March 10, their pro-bono lawyers filed suit in the State Supreme Court claiming the fenced-off parcel of land was theirs by right of “adverse possession,” a New York State law that under certain circumstances allows one party to claim another’s property if they use it “openly, notoriously and exclusively” for 10 years.
Meanwhile, Kate Temple-West is looking forward to another growing season. She’s hoping to acquire enough topsoil to start some new vegetable beds. With the part of the garden that gets the most sunlight behind a fence, she’s set her sights on plants that will do well in the shade — fig trees, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries and mint.
“The kids get excited about any little thing that comes up through the ground,” she said.