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BY SAM SPOKONY | Three decades after a Lower East Side community garden was founded on a corner that was once home only to drugs and crime, its gardeners are now seeking to ensure it remains a permanent fixture. To do that, they are seeking to gain the piece of privately owned land that covers more than one-third of the garden’s 5,000-square-foot lot.
The Children’s Magical Garden, as its name implies, has focused on serving the youth of its community since its creation by neighborhood activists Carmen Rubio and Alfredo Feliciano in 1982. Its space at the corner of Stanton and Norfolk Sts. is adjacent to two schools — P.S. 20 and The School for Global Leaders (M.S. 378) — and one can’t walk through the garden on a sunny afternoon without spotting one or more smiling youngsters planting in the soil or learning about nature.
Although it’s not currently being threatened by development plans, the garden faced a scare in 2006 when S&H Equities, Inc. — which owns roughly 2,000-square-foot strip of land within the lot — mounted a brief attempt to build condos there, which never came to fruition.
The garden’s two other conjoining plots continue to be owned by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
But since it has never been registered with the Park’s Department’s GreenThumb program, the garden remains susceptible to future intrusions by developers.
Now, leaders of the beloved community space are taking steps to convince S&H to donate the private portion of the land to the city in order to permanently solidify their — and, of course, the children’s — claim to it.
“There aren’t many spaces in this neighborhood where kids can really get in touch with nature, or just climb a tree,” said Kate Temple-West, an herbalist and one of the garden’s co-directors. “For a lot of them, this place is all they have.”
Temple-West is being supported in the effort by several other co-directors of the garden, the garden’s more than 20 active community members and her partner, Aresh Javadi, who, in addition to helping at the Children’s Magical Garden, is the director of More Gardens!, which advocates for green spaces throughout the city.
Javadi told this newspaper that he tried calling Serge Hoyda, the S&H partner who seems to be handling this particular swath of land, two weeks ago. He has yet to receive a response, but added that he remains optimistic about the possibility of gaining the land, along with a safe future for the garden.
“We don’t want to shock [Hoyda] with this approach,” Javadi said. “We want to ease him into the idea. I think all of us just want some kind of a resolution, and I’ll sleep a lot better knowing this garden is permanent.”
Hoyda did not respond to several calls seeking comment.
If their ambitious hopes of a philanthropic donation from the developer go unfulfilled, Temple-West and Javadi explained that they are considering other options.
The second-best choice, they said, would be to facilitate a land swap through H.P.D., which would allow S&H to take an equivalent piece of land elsewhere in the city in exchange for relinquishing control of their current slice of the Children’s Magical Garden. If that fails, the garden’s staff and members would have to raise enough money to purchase the land from S&H.
But for now, amidst all the strategizing and technical details, life goes on within the garden. The space recently hosted several performances of the Vision Festival — an experimental jazz series run by the Lower East Side-based nonprofit Arts for Art. Along with other area gardens, Children’s Magical Garden will host a portion of the Harvest Arts Festival in the Gardens on Oct. 7 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
In addition to that adult-friendly entertainment, the garden specializes in various youth programs, including the much-loved annual “Pizza Garden” event, which allows local children to plant and harvest their favorite vegetable pizza toppings. Garden directors have also formed successful partnerships with The School for Global Leaders, Grand St. Settlement and the Cub Scouts in order to continue drawing new groups of children.
And the garden doesn’t just introduce kids to the joys of green space — it keeps some of them around for years to come.
Feng Chen, who lives on Clinton St., has been coming to the Children’s Magical Garden since she was in sixth grade. Now, at 17, she’s a co-leader of the garden’s youth leadership group, which meets every Tuesday after school.
“The experience has really helped me grow,” Chen said, “because I’ve met so many wonderful people at this garden, and they just let me shine. They let me do everything I want to do.”
That environment and freedom of expression, she added, has helped her to realize that she’d like to work with kids when she grows up — just like Temple-West and Javadi do at the garden now. Chen lit up when she spoke about the two of them.
“Kate and Aresh are, like, the nicest people I’ve ever met,” she said, smiling wide. “I don’t even know how to explain it… . They’re just so earthy.”