Researched and authored by member David Rougé.
Until the colonial era, the site was a salt marsh, an arm of the East River. These coastal wetlands provided cover for waterfowl. These marshes were later filled in, and by 1845 the first buildings had appeared on the site, providing housing for tradesmen and artisans. By the 1890’s, the Lower East Side had become the home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, densely concentrated into dank, airless tenements, lacking adequate light, air, or green space.
In the 1960’s the outward movement of families began to change the neighborhood into the home of students, low-income working people, and a growing Latino population. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, the energy crisis caused landlords to abandon their buildings, and the corner of Sixth Street and Avenue B was occupied by deteriorating, vacant buildings used as shooting galleries by drug addicts. As the City removed the buildings from six of the lots for safety reasons, the ugliness and uselessness of the debris- filled terrain galvanized the community into action. Seeing the vacant lots as an important opportunity to restore some green to an overbuilt community, in 1982, a committee of the 6th Street A-B Block Association petitioned the City’s Operation Green Thumb for a lease and began the arduous task of hauling rubble and trash from the 17,000 square foot site.
Before the city could issue a lease, a local waste hauler petitioned the City to use the lots as a parking lot. Residents of Sixth Street marched into the Community Board to voice support for the Garden and opposition to the parking lot. Throughout 1983, garden members surveyed the site, drew up the plans for its optimal use, built 125 4′ x 8′ plots, laid pathways, prepared for the installation of a fence, and laid out ornamental borders. By April of 1984, Green Thumb had issued a one-year lease. Garden members were busy planting ornamental shrubs and trees. The Garden established partnerships with the Green
Guerrillas and the Trust for Public Land in order to allow the Garden to raise funds to buy supplies and gardening equipment. In 1985, a new, more serious challenge threatened the garden. The garden lies on City land taken from former owners in lieu of back taxes. The City maintained that the land should be sold at auction to the highest bidder. Arguing that housing was the highest and best use of the land, the
City administration hatched a scheme to sell the site to high-end housing developers. The plan was officially adopted by the Community Board, backed by some housing advocates who took the short-sighted view that the environment was secondary to bricks and mortar. An aroused garden membership drew up an outreach program to counter the housing lobby.
They threw open the gates of the garden, holding their first annual Corn Roast and Harvest Festival, invited members of the local clergy and an Onondaga Chieftain to come bless the land, and unveiled a stunning garden trellis by a local sculptor. Alliances were made with a local garden coalition and community planners. An events committee was formed to tap the skills of the many artist members, who staged programs of crafts, horticultural/science workshops, slide shows, multicultural festivals, and performances from around the world. In addition, three preschool centers joined the garden; garden members developed an environmental curriculum to teach the children gardening and nature principles and skills. By 1986, the Community Board was forced to take a more flexible stance. Although the Sixth and B
Garden was easily the most valuable site, the extraordinary size of its membership and the growing awareness of its vitality among Lower East Siders and greening organizations kept it off the auction block for 10 years. In 1991, the Garden obtained 501(c)3 not-for- profit status. In 1992, electricity was installed. In 1993, our gazebo was built. In 1996, a deal was worked out by the Trust for Public Land to give the garden permanent site status. Our garden was transferred to the NYC Parks Department as part of the City Spaces program. Our stage was also rebuilt in that year. In keeping with the goals of the program, the garden constructed a children’s adventure playground and children’s garden in 1997. The children’s activity area was designed by the Children’s Environments Research Group of the Graduate
School and University Center of The City University of New York. Also in 1997, our fence “the Wave” was built, replacing the chain link fence. In 2000, the Garden was connected to the City water system. In 2001, our pond was built. And in 2002 and 2003, the paths leading from E 6 th Street and Avenue B were re-built with New York blue paving stones.
The 6th Street and Avenue B Garden has produced a thorough and detailed history of the community and the garden itself. You can download the first part of it here 6BGardenBriefHistory.