New York City

In New York City’s Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, a carefully tended garden is host to a daily gathering of Chinese men with beautiful songbirds in fancy bamboo cages. This trio of garden, men and birds creates a sense of place and destination in a part of this park that seemed forgotten until only recently. The garden is the work of an energetic and diverse local community of Italian, Dominican and Chinese immigrants who helped build and maintain this unique meeting place.

Project Background

Sara Delano Roosevelt Park is a seven block long, one-half block wide, Depression-era park on New York City’s densely populated Lower East Side. While the northern and southern ends of the park have seen major renovations, one interior block remained neglected until two nearby residents mobilized neighborhood children and their families. The result was a careful restoration of the space into a garden for this multi-ethnic neighborhood.

At first, Federico Savini and Anna Magenta, whose apartment is adjacent to the park, simply worked to rid the area of garbage and get the city to enforce sanitation regulations. They were soon joined by neighbors and local children, mostly Dominican and some Chinese, who enjoyed the weekend events, and organized to reclaim their park. Confrontations between the residents and the park’s usual denizens — mostly drug dealers and users, according to Magenta — galvanized the neighborhood.

In 1994, the non-profit Forsyth Street Garden Conservancy was founded, and landscaping work on the park’s border gardens began. They planted with care — for example putting in forsythia — which they thought was appropriate given that the park borders on Forsyth Street. When they planted small evergreen trees, which symbolize good luck to the Chinese, the conservancy was approached by a member of the Chinese community who asked if they would build a garden there for a population rarely catered to in New York Parks: older Chinese men, a small group of whom had been bringing their songbirds, a special kind of Chinese thrush known as hua mei birds, into a central area of the park every morning to sing.

In the spring of 1995, the conservancy built the bird garden with help from neighborhood children. The garden is a semicircular area of approximately 2000 square feet, dense with stone paths, boulders, lush perennials, and small native and Asiatic shrubs, particularly berry-producing plants that attract wild birds. Posts made from 1/2″ plumbing pipes and planted with climbing vines were sunk into the ground to accommodate more bird cages. A paved area in front of the garden is used by a group that meets in the mornings for tai chi.

Funding

According to Lenny Librizzi, a Forsyth Street Garden Conservancy board member, there is no direct and constant source of funds for the garden. The bird garden was built mainly with a $1,750 grant from the Trust for Public Land. An irrigation system was installed with help from the Council on the Environment, which has donated considerable support along the way. Other groups who have given money and tools include: Operation Green Thumb, The Citizen’s Committee, and the City Parks Foundation.

Impacts

In nice weather, the garden can be filled with singing birds, sometimes as many as 30, along with the men and other residents. The garden’s reputation has extended all over the city, and people bring their hua mei birds from miles away. Their singing nearly drowns out the heavy rumble of traffic coming across busy Delancey Street.

Encouraged by their success with the original garden, the conservancy has now turned their attention to a larger, unrenovated area of the park: a 10,000 square foot former wading pool abutting the bird garden. Last year, the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Community Coalition — made up mostly of residents who live in a more affluent neighborhood several blocks north of the bird garden — proposed building a dog run in the old pool, and began to bring their dogs there. This situation was bad for the birds, but also for neighborhood children, who wanted to use the area as a playground. The children, both Chinese and Hispanic, set up tables in the park and collected close to 1,500 signatures over one weekend. The petition convinced the community board to reject the dog run proposal. The conservancy has applied for a grant to bring in the Manhattan based Children’s Environments Research Group to design a play area with input from the neighborhood children.

Lessons Learned

In cleaning and beautifying their section of the park, the conservancy has made the area attractive to other neighborhood groups, some of whom, like local dog owners, challenge the special treatment they think other groups are given. Lenny Librizzi attributes much of the conservancy’s success in maintaining control over the park to being “very in tune with the neighborhood.” The conservancy makes sure to weigh in at any and all hearings and meetings that deal with their park (for example, Magenta and Savini, as president and vice president of the conservancy, reply to every newspaper article about the park with a clarifying letter). However the conservancy has its critics. Recently, there have been disagreements not only with the Sara Delano Roosevelt Park Community Coalition, but also with key members of the New York Parks Department who, at least initially, favored the dog run.

The conservancy is on public land, and must deal with the consequences. Savini said that while he intends to “turn as much of the park as possible to green,” he does so with the knowledge that the parks department could pave over parts of the garden whenever they wish. He hopes that the conservancy’s efforts, if seen as an extension of the wants and needs of the surrounding neighborhood, will be given the respect he believes they deserve.

Contact

Anna Magenta/Federico Savini, Forsyth St. Garden Conservatory, 212-966-9351

Lenny Librizzi, Council on the Environment, 212-788-7927

(Spring 1997)