Remembering Liz Christy On Earth Day

liz sunning in garden 1975 Liz Christy sunning in the garden.

Some forty years ago Liz Christy and her group of rebel gardeners, the Green Guerillas, set out to transform an abandoned lot into something resembling the Dutch bouwerij, the farmland that covered Manhattan in colonial times. In 1974, New York City’s first community garden opened at the corner of Bowery and Houston. Ms. Christy unpaved the way for dozens of similar gardens throughout the neighborhood before she died of lung cancer in 1985, at the age of 35.

In honor of Earth Day, Donald Loggins, a founder of the Liz Christy Community Garden, looks back on its history as it prepares for summer hours next month.

Liz and Sign 1974Donald Loggins

Liz Christy
“Liz had landscaping in her blood. Her mother was Patricia Law, who was related to Frederick Law Olmstead [the landscape architect who designed Central Park and Prospect Park]. Liz would be up at 6 a.m. and out until 9 p.m., driving around the East Village in her little orange Datsun filled with shovels and soil. Right away, she founded the Green Guerillas to rally the neighbors to take on these community garden projects. She left quite a legacy to the city.

Liz in White WavingDonald Loggins

The lot at Bowery and Houston, 1973
“Liz lived over on Mott and Bleecker, so she walked past this lot on Bowery and Houston every day. One time, there was a little boy playing amongst all the rubble and trash. He was climbing in an upturned refrigerator. That was when she decided that something needed to change. She had the idea that it could be a garden, like the farmland that it used to be before we tore it up for buildings.”

Original 12Donald Loggins

The original crew
“Originally, there were only about a dozen of us – friends and neighbors – that started the garden. Now, I’m the only one left. Everyone else has died – or moved to Florida.”

Bowery Lot 1973Donald Loggins

Clean-up and opening
“It took us a full year just to clean up the lot. We started in 1973, but didn’t open until 1974. At the time, the Bowery was infested with drug dealers and we’d have to chase them out of here with pitchforks and shovels – like an old-time mob. Once we had it planted and things were finally looking nice, the authorities wanted to shut us down. They marched in here, like ‘It’s city property. Beat it.'”

“I wish [Liz] had been here in the 1990s, when Giuliani came to the garden to shut us down. He called the garden ‘communistic.’ I think she would have hit him with something. Over 2,000 people signed the petition to keep us open, though. That was the last time that the city tried to take the land.”

Go SlowJoanna Marshall

Garden path
“Liz was an artist — graphic design and oil paints. She didn’t know the first thing about gardening. None of us did. We just experimented with things to see what worked. What Liz really loved was designing gardens. That’s why she kept on helping other people start gardens after our first one. She had the idea to lay out the paths in the garden, so that they curved and meandered through the space. This countered the grid pattern of the rest of the city, changing your pace and helping your mind to relax.”

Houston Subway EDITJoanna Marshall The subway stop on Second Avenue never looked so green.

Subway lines
“The subway runs right underneath us. About thirty years ago, we were digging down to plant a tree over by the edge of the fence along Houston and we hit cobblestone. When we lifted up one of the bricks, we could see light shining up and suddenly we were looking right at people on the F-line platform. That has saved us from development. Nothing that requires a foundation can be built on our property because of the subway line.”

Eating under the treesJoanna Marshall A woman eats her lunch under the Magnolia

Changes on the Bowery
“Watching the transition of Bowery over 40 years has been amazing. In the past 10 years the prices of everything has shot up, but safety also increased exponentially. Now we share an intersection with Whole Foods, which has been great. A lot of people buy their lunch in Whole Foods and come eat it in here. The store has reached out to us a couple times. One of their cooking classes took over a plot in the garden to farm vegetables for their dishes. The grocery even offered to give us their compost.”

Turtle PondDonald Loggins

“Right now, we have a pond full of koi fish and some turtles. We also have a resident woodpecker that goes to town on our pine tree. We ask people not to, but there have a lot of animals released in here over the years: frogs, fish, ferrets. Once a rooster turned up. We left him for a while, but then he started scaring the gardeners. He would chase people down the paths, so we had to give him away.”

Hat Party 1985Donald Loggins Hat party, 1985.

A garden party
“We are having our annual Hat Party to celebrate our summer opening. It will be on May 18 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. (If it rains, we’ll have the party on the 19th.) Come wearing a garden-themed hat!”

The Liz Christy Community Garden is open year-round on Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. From May to September, it’s also open on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., and Tuesday and Thursday from 6 p.m. to dusk. 

Correction, April 23, 2013: This post was revised to correct an error. Gardeners encountered the F platform while digging about thirty years ago, not a few years ago as originally stated. The name of Ms. Christy’s group was also misspelled. They were the Green Guerillas, not the Green Guerrillas.