Photo by Lincoln Anderson
Jeff Wright in Dias Y Flores garden after the May 5 arbitration meeting, as two other gardeners who don’t approve of his behavior, behind him, looked on warily.
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | It was still unseasonably brisk on the first Sunday in May, as the members of Dias Y Flores Garden gathered around a picnic table in the place’s rear. White-petaled seedlets drifted down from a tree, and on the East Village garden’s floor, freshly fallen pink cherry blossoms lay clustered in small clumps lining the paths’ edges.
But, despite the tranquil natural scene, not all was well in the garden, at E. 13th St. between Avenues A and B, and the chill was not just a factor of air temperature. Along with the falling petals, the cherry blossoms and members’ own vibrant planted plots, there was also an arbitrator, Roland Chouloute, deputy director of GreenThumb, the agency that oversees the community gardens. A few days earlier, Jeff Wright, one of the Dias Y Flores gardeners, had had his membership of 15 years revoked, and had been forced to turn in his key to the front gate. After being cc’d on an ongoing, heated e-mail string of back-and-forths about the flap, Chouloute decided he had to intervene.
Jeff Wright performing “Ten Little Indians” at Dias Y Flores. “Each garden is like it’s own tribe. That’s how I’ve always thought of it,” he said.
Chouloute told The Villager he became particularly concerned when he saw in one e-mail that Claude T. Kilgore, one of the garden’s board members, had allegedly told Wright to “Grow the f— up.” At the same time, Chouloute was also alarmed that Wright was cc’ing local elected officials on his e-mails.
“He’s copying people from the Borough President’s Office, the [state] Senate,” Chouloute said disapprovingly.
A longtime East Villager, Wright was a leader in the effort to save the neighborhood’s community gardens when they came under threat during Mayor Giuliani’s last term. At the height of the struggle, Wright helped organize a major rally in Bryant Park that saw folk legend Pete Seeger come down to play “Guantanamera” for the garden advocates.
But, despite his green cred, Wright has clashed with the board of directors at Dias Y Flores to the point where they recently felt compelled to expel him. Board members say Wright has made it nearly impossible to get anything done due to his obsessive focus on whether various of the garden’s bylaws are or aren’t being followed, and that he has tried to circumvent the board, for example, by signing up new garden members on his own. One person familiar with the situation said simply, “Jeff is an attention-seeking, loudmouth guy, who, when he doesn’t get his way, tries to dominate.” For his part, Wright calls the board a bunch of “bullies,” and charges they have repeatedly flouted the garden’s bylaws, and that he is only trying to ensure they respect the regulations.
‘Wasn’t kicked out — quit’
Some of his opponents at Dias Y Flores say Wright has been kicked out of several other community gardens. But he says that’s untrue, that he has only been booted from one other garden, Green Oasis, on E. Eighth St., and that he merely “quit” some others.
An ongoing issue is the garden’s parties. Dias Y Flores has a mandatory party each month — mainly because Wright got this inserted into the garden’s bylaws three years ago. The obligatory parties include the likes of Labor Day and Halloween, as well as Leftover Day (the day after Thanksgiving), solstice, equinox and Imbolc (a Gaelic spring holiday with pagan roots). Using Facebook, Wright blasts out the invites for the parties, by some accounts, from 250 to 1,000 invites per event.
The parties, however, had recently been starting to draw complaints over loudness from some neighbors. In addition, there were charges that people were getting drunk and falling down and hurting themselves in the garden. Technically, alcohol isn’t allowed in the city’s community gardens, but GreenThumb — which is under the Parks Department — is a small organization and doesn’t rigorously monitor this.
Wright, however, counters that the garden was being mismanaged and becoming cluttered — for example, with an unstable pile of boards for a long-stalled shed project stacked on the ground — causing hazardous footing that was making people trip and fall.
The three incidents
At the May 5 meeting, Everett Hill, a 63-year-old Marine veteran who is a garden board member, referred to the “three incidents” — two people who fell down and injured themselves and one person who tried to jump over a fire pit but fell into it. One woman who was hastily arriving at the meeting quickly spoke up and said she was one of those who fell — she pointed to her forehead, where she had been injured — but said she hadn’t been drinking; that she fell after her foot got wedged between the garden’s paving stones. Wright later identified her as Angela Lehup. As for the other person who fell, Wright said, “He told me he just got dizzy.”
Wright, who plays guitar and sings at the parties, also later told The Villager that it was Jerry Trudell who, while strumming the guitar, tried to leap over the garden’s cement hob — which is usually lit with a fire for the parties.
“The party was over and I said, ‘One more song,’ ” Wright recalled. “This was my fault. He said, ‘I’m Pete Townshend, watch this,’ and he jumped over the pit and caught his foot.”
Hill later told The Villager that he witnessed two of the people who fell leave the party in taxis to go to the hospital.
“I was right here,” he said. “Serious head injuries.”
Lilacs from Chico
All the charges and countercharges were duly aired at the arbitration meeting. Wright had been ordered beforehand by the garden’s board to clear out his plot, but instead he actually added some more plantings to it that very day — including lilacs that he saved from the Chico Mendez Mural Garden, formerly on E. 10th St., before it was bulldozed by a developer back in the late 1990s. In the interim, he had planted them in another garden, El Sol Brillante, on E. 12th St.
The upshot of the meeting was that Wright was reinstated as a member of Dias Y Flores.
“Your suspension is being reversed,” Chouloute announced.
Also, it was decided that GreenThumb, working with the garden’s board, would go over the Dias Y Flores bylaws, modifying them where necessary, and these would be voted on in the fall.
The GreenThumb deputy director also suggested to Wright that he could switch to one of several other local gardens where the memberships aren’t very active. Chouloute later said that Wright didn’t seem interested in the idea, but Wright told The Villager that actually he was, yet also wants to remain active at Dias Y Flores. However, Chouloute told the newspaper, “I’m not going to give him that option.” He added, “He has some good ideas, to be honest — that he could help gardens that aren’t that active.”
A Free Spirit
By all accounts, Wright, 61, is a free spirit.
Originally from West Virginia, Wright is a poet who formerly edited Cover magazine and currently edits another art magazine, Live Mag! He’s also a special-education teacher in the public school system. He has two sons who are engineers, and a granddaughter. He said he’s trying to change the garden’s complexion by bringing in new members.
Speaking to The Villager after the May 5 meeting, Wright said, “We’ve swelled the membership — this garden’s become the premier art and poetry garden in the city. It’s a music garden too.
“This is the East Village,” he stressed. “This is the last bastion of freedom in America.”
Traditionally, the time when people could apply for membership to Dias Y Flores was one Thursday evening per month. But Wright charged this was unfair, since Thursday — a big evening for gallery openings — is “a working night” for artists. According to other garden members, though, who accused Wright of “subversive activities,” he was trying to sign up new members on his own, but didn’t have the authority to do this.
Kilgore said, “He held meetings and made it sound like they could join through him — and he sent out minutes from meetings that should come from the board.”
At the May 5 arbitration meeting, it was decided that there would also be one Saturday meeting per month at which new members could join.
Wright’s critics were skeptical that the new people he wanted to bring into Dias Y Flores would be interested in planting flowers and composting coffee grounds.
However, putting an end — at least temporarily — to any plans by Wright of a takeover of the garden by enlisting new members, about a week after the meeting, Chouloute abruptly announced that membership for Dias Y Flores was closed until the end of fall.
‘Free — but within limits’
Kilgore, who moved to the neighborhood three years ago and works in real estate, said he has heard about the wild times in the old East Village, and wishes he had been a part of them.
“We never revoked his membership because of the parties,” he said of Wright. “I love the free spirit. I would have loved to be here 15 or 20 years ago. …
“It can’t be limited,” Kilgore said of the revelry, “but it has to be reasonable. Someone has to take responsibility for it when there is drunken behavior and people get hurt. The thing is, with GreenThumb — we’re not even supposed to be drinking in here. He’s inviting thousands of people to these things.”
Wright said, “There have been charges against me ever since I joined: ‘Drunken parties, drunken parties,’ always ‘the drunken parties….’
“Did he thank me,” he asked of Kilgore, “for bringing people into their little private garden?
“The gardens are really important,” Wright said, “and I’m afraid that GreenThumb is trying to neuter and sanitize them with this power grab that they’re doing.”
Wright said he’s also trying to build up the garden’s membership because he’s always worried that it could be seized back for development. But Hill said that’s ridiculous because the garden isn’t lacking for members, and in fact currently has 68.
Beef at Brillante
After the arbitration meeting at Dias Y Flores, over at nearby El Sol Brillante, a man who asked that his name not be printed said they decided this year not to give Wright a key because he wasn’t doing the minimal things required of members. Plus, he said, he objected to the huge fires Wright would have blazing, as well as Wright’s trademark wolf howling. They change the lock on the gate annually, which is the way they weed out unwanted members, he said.
“He was thrown out,” the man said. “Look at this party — nice, quiet, mellow,” he said, as he nursed a can of Budweiser. A former garden member was having a pre-wedding party. As opposed to a GreenThumb garden, El Sol Brillante is a land trust.
As for Wright, the man continued, “This guy used to take a Christmas tree, chop off all the branches, light it on fire and run around the garden. They used to have a flame 12 feet high” in the fire pit, he said.
Nick Breeden, another El Sol Brillante member, said with a smile, “I like Jeff,” later adding, “He’s a handful.” Plus, he said, his wolf howl is “horrible.”
Both said that, just as at Dias Y Flores, Wright was prone to making a big issue over bylaws at El Sol Brillante’s meetings.
“We used to call him ‘Bylaws Jeff,’ ” Breeden noted.
For his part, Wright denied he was kicked out of El Sol Brillante.
“That’s not true. They just wouldn’t give me a key after 12 years,” he said.
After his Dias Y Flores key was initially taken away, friends of his threw him a party, giving him 30 keys, including one 5 feet tall made out of foamcore. The plan is to assemble these into a sculpture.
Wright said he sinks about $1,000 of his own money into the parties each year, which includes “refreshments, charcoal and logs.”
How the howl started
As for how his signature party howl emerged, he said it was “when we were in the garden struggle — ’95, ’96 — trying to save Chico… . I was looking for a war cry. I tried the rebel yell and the war cry whoop.”
Then he was at a family affair in North Carolina and heard a wolf howl in the distance.
“I can do it for like a minute,” he said. “I like to do it a couple of times [per party] — when someone really cool comes in or goes out. And why shouldn’t I make a little noise, to let people know that we’re in the garden, and using it, and defending it? There’s no law against howling. Excuse me — get over it, it’s New York City. … I love howling. The people who like it are at the party and they howl with me.” “People don’t like it,” Hill said, “and it seems to me, people don’t like it is why he does it.”Wright noted that he sent food up to Hill in his apartment when he was recently recovering from quadruple heart bypass surgery.
Hill admitted he used to do the grilling at Wright’s parties.
Hill said, however, after neighbors started complaining about noise from the parties, he “tried to help” Wright and went over to the Ninth Precinct to find out exactly what the regulations were. Basically, he was told that guitar playing and loud music at garden parties are supposed to end at 8 p.m., except for Fridays and Saturdays, when they can go till 10 p.m.
‘Freedom Gate’ gone
Not long after the May 5 meeting, another controversy erupted over the so-called “Freedom Gate” that Wright had stuck in his garden plot. This had been a small prototype section of a new fence that the garden’s board was planning to install. They paid $2,600 for this sample, which came out of the garden’s $5,500 treasury, and were then looking into a grant for the fence’s full $75,000 cost. Wright slammed the process, saying not all members were involved in the approval, and the board ultimately scrapped the project. Wright then took the small mock-up section of the fence and stuck it in his plot, dubbing it the “Freedom Gate.” But the fence recently vanished — and he filed a report for grand larceny at the Ninth Precinct.
This past Memorial Day, per the Dias Y Flores bylaws, the garden had a party. However, feeling his actions are now under the microscope, Wright said that “to be safe” he didn’t send out a mass notice on Facebook.
New zero-tolerance policy
Sitting on a bench inside the garden’s gate, Fran McGorty and Robert Freedman explained they were enforcing a “zero tolerance policy” on alcohol, though they suspected it was being violated.
“It’s a city rule — no alcohol,” McGorty said. “It can be done, but it was becoming unsafe,” she said of drinking in the garden.
McGorty said she is the garden’s senior member, having been with Dias Y Flores since 1983.
As for the missing “Freedom Gate,” she scoffed, “The fence can’t be stolen if it’s not your property. It’s been removed for safekeeping. It’s not a ‘Freedom Gate.’ It’s the property of the garden.”
Freedman said the final straw was the Easter “drunken party.” He said someone had peed in the plot of a gardener named Alex.
Kilgore later explained what actually happened was that some of the partiers had been emptying beer bottles into Alex’s plot and Alex objected, and they then threatened to urinate in his plot.
Photo by Lincoln Anderson
Susan Yung, left, and Everett Hill had differing ideas on exactly what kind of “community” is meant by the term “community garden.”
A party of artists
Gathered in the garden’s rear, the Memorial Day party was fairly small and low-key, with only about 15 or 20 people. Most were artists of some sort, including Ron Kolm and Steve Dalachinsky of the loose-knit writers’ collective The Unbearables; Debra Drexler, a visiting art professor from Hawaii; Gary Ray, who formerly ran Darinka, a performance space on the Lower East Side; poets Judy Rifka and Susan Yung; and Patricia O’Rourke, a visual artist from Gowanus. Some were discretely sipping wine from paper coffee cups covered with plastic lids.
One gardener who didn’t give her name, but who everyone else told The Villager was Debra Jenks, was circulating a petition for the “immediate revocation” of the Dias Y Flores board.
It was a little too mellow, so Wright decided it was time to play some guitar and sing.
“It’s the East Village! It’s Memorial Day!” he said with a semi-incredulous expression on his face, aware of the others up at the front of the garden keeping a watch on the party, before he launched into “My Girl.”
“Caterwauling” was how McGorky described Wright’s singing, but he actually wasn’t too bad. He later hopped up on the table and did a dance with another reveler.
Some partiers who were more into drinking had decided to go over to El Sol Brillante, where they found a secluded bench. But when a Villager reporter arrived, one of them promptly tipped off the side of the seat and toppled over onto the ground.
“Whoa! I don’t normally do that!” he said as one of his drinking buddies stood convulsing with laughter and woozily tried to fill his own lidded, paper coffee cup with more wine.
As the party back at Dias Y Flores petered out about 6 p.m., Jenks, who is an accomplished artist, was painting the garden’s “new coat of arms” — which Wright had mentioned to The Villager earlier — on a wall of the controversial shed. It was two large green, crossed keys on a white background.But it turned out they didn’t have board approval, sparking yet the latest garden flare-up.
Afterward, Kilgore said, “They went and vandalized and painted some kind of ‘freedom keys’ on the shed. ‘Coat of arms,’ what does that mean? If it was up to me, I would file a police report. I think we’re probably just going to paint right over it. This could be grounds for immediate removal.”
Other gardeners weigh in
Other veteran East Village gardeners offered their take on Wright and the Dias Y Flores situation.
Elizabeth Ruf Maldonado, a founding member of LUNGS (Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens) and a performing artist, said, “I think people are standing up for Jeff right now. And I think what they’re standing up for is the spirit of gathering and spontaneous joy. I know that when administrative stuff takes over it can be a downer. I think gardens not only are there for preserving nature but also are supposed to be fun places to relax.
“I’ve been at plenty of events where there will be wine,” she said, “but I wouldn’t want to have an event that was built around drinking in a garden… We have a right to celebrate — I mean, it is New York City.”
Another longtime East Village gardener, who asked that neither her name nor that of her garden be printed, said that howling in the gardens — specifically, at the full moon — is a neighborhood tradition. But she said she didn’t know Wright, or his particular howl, so didn’t want to comment about him.
“We have people that howl like wolves, too,” she said. “That wouldn’t identify him to me.”
In general, the neighborhood has radically changed, she said, noting, “We had some of the loudest rock and roll bands play our garden in the early years and nobody complained. Nowadays, the people here have a lot more money. They want to go out and party on the streets, but when they live there [come home], they want quiet.”
Liz Christy Garden, at East Houston St. and the Bowery, has its factions, too.
“We have a core — I would say, three dissidents,” said Hector Rodriguez. “So you have three that say ‘No’ and 12 that say ‘Yes.’ Tension is just personalities usually.”
Hill has had it
A few days following the May 5 arbitration meeting with GreenThumb’s Chouloute, Dias Y Flores members held yet another contentious meeting. During this one, Wright accused Hill of dispensing garden memberships without making the applicants go through the normal sign-up process. Afterward, Hill told The Villager that’s it, as far as he’s concerned.
“We used to be friends,” he said of Wright. “He comes and lies on me today. I’m sorry to say, I’ve had it. I feel the garden ain’t gonna be O.K. until we get rid of him.
“All I want to see before I die is the garden being peaceable, a new fence and a whole bunch of children enjoying themselves in there,” he said. “You got holidays like Easter, Halloween — you could have thousands of children.”
However, poet Susan Yung, a fan of Wright and his parties, countered, “But there are lots of different places around here for kids to go.”
Yung recalled that, as an emerging artist from Chinatown, it was Wright who gave her her first reading back at the old CHARAS/El Bohio community center.
‘Think of the garden’
But Chouloute said, ultimately, the focus needs to remain on the garden itself.
“He’s too confrontational — his way, or no way,” he said of Wright. “Maybe he enjoys the spotlight. Whoever he really is, it’s not really doing good for the garden. Because people come and go — but the garden stays. At the end of the day, he should ask himself, what exactly is he trying to do.”
Meanwhile, for his part, Wright said he’s being unfairly harassed and that he’ll continue to battle the garden’s board.
“The board is ‘drunk with power,’ to quote another garden member,” he said. “They remain as they have been for over a decade — bullies, cheats, thieves and liars.”
Ron Kuby, the well-known civil rights attorney, and his wife, Marilyn Vasta, a psychotherapist, used to live in the building just east of the garden. In fact, Vasta was a founding member of the garden, and gave it the name Dias Y Flores (“Days and Flowers”) after a song by legendary Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez.
Kuby said Wright recently contacted him for legal representation about the garden. But Kuby, in a telephone interview, told The Villager that he gave Wright basically the same advice as GreenThumb’s Chouloute — if you want to party hearty, find another space.
“The people who are on the board, most of them have been in the garden for 30 years,” Kuby said. “They’re good people. I can see why it’s attractive to use it as a large, outdoor party space. All of us, I think, love large, outdoor, loud, drunken, s—stomping parties. We just can’t have them on 13th St. It’s a residential area.
“It is first and foremost a community garden, an oasis for kids, nature and gardening,” Kuby continued. “If Jeff wants to party and drink — which I totally approve of — he should be allowed to. But my advice to him was: ‘If you want freedom, no limits, hearty party — create your own space.’ I said, ‘I understand your vision, but don’t force your vision on other people.’
“I’m not a prude — ‘smoke ’em if you got ’em, dude,’ ” Kuby said. “But don’t do it where you’re jeopardizing an institution that people worked decades to build. If there are a couple of people having beers at night, no one gets upset. But don’t make it your party space. It can’t work. The garden eventually will get closed down.”
As he sniffed a bush of pink flowers on Memorial Day, poet Dalachinsky offered, “Jeff, he should howl a little less. … And this should be the last line of the article: Don’t forget to smell the petunias.”