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BY ERICA RAKOWICZ | Acting as a lush community oxygen tank and a center for growth, the scattered oases of LUNGS (Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens) keep the Lower East Side green and diverse.
Started last year and now with about 20 affiliated gardens, LUNGS generates a feel-good atmosphere with clean air, friendly people and an inspired mission.
These community gardens are on city property, some sitting where buildings were razed. The urban green spaces add an aesthetic touch and a swath of nature to the concrete jungle.
LUNGS sees each individual garden as a special treasure.
“Some of the gardens house turtles, chickens and turkeys, while others grow corn, and others work with flowers, herbs and compost,” said Elizabeth Ruf-Maldonado, treasurer of LUNGS.
With more than 40 community gardens in the East Village and Lower East Side, LUNGS has room for growth. Ruf-Maldonado is working with Charles Krezell — the garden keeper at De Colores Garden on E. Eighth St. and a member of the New York City Garden Coalition — to bring more local gardens into the new network.
In addition, City Councilmember Rosie Mendez provided grants for six of the gardens about two years ago, giving them access to water mains for nurturing the greenery. Without the new direct water connections to the gardens, they would have to rely on fire hydrants for watering.
The process to become a part of LUNGS isn’t difficult. Garden members simply have to say they’re interested in becoming affiliated.
After the initial step, members must attend a monthly meeting, pay a membership fee and sign a contract, declare garden hours and devote personal time to garden care after receiving the key to the gate.
“Having a key to the garden is what we have to do in today’s world. It keeps unwanted refuse out and keeps it secure,” Ruf-Maldonado noted.
“We don’t have too many worries,” Krezell added. “We may run into trouble, depending on who the new mayor is and what the ideals may be, but until then, we will keep on with our mission.”
“I guess our only threat would be developers, but that’s kind of a given,” said Shell Sheddy, a photographer, artist and active LUNGS member.
But Ruf-Maldonado said she feels confident about the gardens’ safety.
“I don’t think it’s much of a concern anymore, since I think people are catching on to how important and beneficial these gardens are for the community,” she said.
As a resident of the neighborhood since 1979, Ruf-Maldonado has seen the community that she knew and loved nearly destroyed, and said she’s also been lucky enough to have witnessed its rebirth.
“Studies have shown that since the popping up of gardens through the city that the air quality has improved,” Ruf-Maldonado noted.
Art is entwined with the culture of the East Village and Lower East Side, and the gardens are a natural venue for its expression.
Earth Celebrations, a nonprofit organization headed by Felicia Young that encourages ecological knowledge through artistic expression, was formed with a focus on the Lower East Side’s gardens. The group held an annual “Rites of Spring: Procession to Save Our Gardens,” a colorful parade from green oasis to green oasis, with an unfolding drama of garden spirits. LUNGS and a few art groups have held onto the ideal started by Young.
Members of LUNGS, along with Underground Howl, a nonprofit that represents diverse artistic expressions, have worked together to organize outdoor creative performances.
Although the world increasingly seems focused on social-networking sites and the Internet as information hubs, LUNGS members still prefer word of mouth. The gardens are diverse and are sometimes run by individuals unable to access the Internet, or by some who don’t speak English, so word of mouth seems to be the most effective, Ruf-Maldonado finds.
As for the social-networking approach, LUNGS dabbles a bit. They have a Facebook page to post upcoming events and extra information. However, they also have an old-fashioned bulletin board near the busiest garden.
The family-oriented and bilingual gardens of LUNGS hope to strengthen and deepen their roots even more, and connect all the Lower East Side’s gardens.
LUNGS and other community groups will be co-sponsoring an East Village Town Hall meeting with Borough President Scott Stringer on Tues., July 17, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Tompkins Square Library, 331 E. 10th St. (between Avenues A and B). The town hall won’t be specifically about gardens, but LUNGS members hope to question Stringer on the subject.