Volume 74, Number 42 | February 23 - March 01, 2005

Villager photos by Robert Stolarik

Kathy Gruber, executive director of Ryan-NENA Community Health Center

A battle over an orchard, but Chekhov’s not involved

By Albert Amateau

A Lower East Side block association and a neighborhood health center are fighting over a stretch of Orchard Alley, the community garden between Avenues C and D, but Community Board 3 is trying to make peace between them.

Kathy Gruber, executive director of the Ryan-NENA Community Health Center, told the C.B.3 Housing and Zoning Committee on Feb. 8 that the center intends to join the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a nonprofit housing developer, to build a low-rise building at 321-325 E. Third St. with apartments for mentally disabled adults and Ryan-NENA offices on the ground floor.

But Ayo Harrington, president of the All The Way East Fourth St. Block Association, protested that the lot is part of the block association’s Orchard Alley, organized 15 years ago, that runs between E. Third and E. Fourth Sts.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between a neighborhood health center and a community garden,” said Sam Wilkenfeld, the Housing and Zoning Committee chairperson, after the committee called on Harrington and Gruber to meet and try to resolve the impasse. But, so far, the two have only exchanged telephone messages and haven’t set any meeting dates.

The conflict is especially disturbing because Harrington and Gruber respect and value each other’s work and organizations.

Ryan-NENA, a seven-story center built in 1974 at 279 E. Third St., provides health care, including children’s health, a women’s health clinic, general family health, dental care and psychological counseling and covers uninsured residents of the neighborhood.

The All The Way East Fourth St. Block Association has transformed the junk-filled adjoining lots on E. Third and E. Fourth Sts. into a garden where devoted neighbors, school children and residents of several social service organizations have created an orchard where three peach trees, three cherry trees, six different kinds of apple trees, a nectarine tree, a pear tree, even a fig tree that bears fruit, not to mention a grape arbor, strawberries, raspberries and tomatoes all grow.

Nevertheless, the conflict arose because ownership of the E. Third St. side of what has become the Orchard has been clouded for years until last December when Ryan-NENA took legal possession of the 5,200-sq.-ft. property after negotiating with the former owners and paying real estate taxes that were owed. The E. Fourth St. side of the Orchard, which is larger than the Third St. side, is owned by the city and permanently dedicated to community garden use, Harrington said.

NENA (North East Neighborhood Association), organized as a community health provider in the early 1960s, was the target of a state attorney general investigation in 1980 on charges that the then board of directors was failing to fulfill its health care charter and had improperly bought neighborhood property.

Threatened with loss of government funding, control of the center was given in 1988 to the William F. Ryan Health Community Health Center, based on the Upper West Side. “We were given 18 months to straighten things out and our board had to be 51 percent users of the center,” Gruber said in an interview last week

But the properties that the former NENA board acquired remained with that entity. “There were three or four properties,” said Gruber. “One was the original building at 290 E. Third St., a vacant tenement. Then there was the building known as the Feather Factory at 291 E. Third St., which was sold to a developer, and 321-325 E. Third St.,” she said.

In the early 1990s when the block association was cleaning up the Fourth St. site, the Third St. site became a neighborhood dump for discarded appliances and other trash. “Ruth Messinger [Manhattan borough president at the time] got the city to put a fence on the Fourth St. side in 1991,” Harrington said. “But the city refused to put up a fence on Third St. because they didn’t own the property, so I asked Kathy if [Ryan NENA] would move the fence between the two sides to Third St. to stop people from using it as the neighborhood junk yard. They weren’t unhelpful,” Harrington conceded.

Gruber said Ryan-NENA paid for the fence shifting even though they didn’t own the property and the block association cleaned the lot and made it part of the Orchard.

Nevertheless, Ryan-NENA kept getting city tax bills for the property, according to Gruber. “Last year we got a notice that the city intended to auction the property for back taxes and we knew that meant it would go to a developer,” she said. “Luxury housing is not what the neighborhood needs and we are getting cramped here, so we went to Met Council [Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty] to see what we could do,” she added.

That was when Ryan-NENA found representatives of the old board and negotiated a transfer, which involved payment to the city of the back taxes. “It took about eight months and we closed on December,” Gruber said.

Harrington, however, said that she had often asked Gruber about ownership of the property and never got an answer. Gruber said Ryan-NENA didn’t know who had control of the property until last year. “I told her all I knew,” said Gruber. “I spoke to Ayo in May and told her what we intended to do with the property and she said, ‘I don’t like it but I’ll support you.’ ”

The preliminary plans for the property call for a four- or five-story building with about 40 apartments on the second to fourth floors with support services for adults with a history of mental problems but who are able to live on their own. Ryan-NENA would occupy the ground floor and move its ancillary services like insurance processing from 279 E. Third St. “That would allow us to have another floor to provide medical services,” said Gruber.

While Ryan-NENA is the neighborhood’s primary health care center, there are other social services nearby. Educational Alliance runs Pride Site II, a residence for mentally challenged adults on E. Fourth St., there is a drug rehab center around the corner on Avenue D and there is a residence for former alcohol and substance abusers on the block. Many of the social service clients help tend the Orchard and sit in the shade of the fruit trees. P.S. 15 on north side of E. Fourth St. near Avenue D also participates in Orchard events, Harrington said. There are also several other community gardens on the block between E. Third and E. Fourth Sts.

At one point in the early 1990s, homeless people built casitas (little houses) in Orchard Alley and lived in them, Harrington said. One casita-dweller known as Don Pepe created a four-room cottage with a white picket fence where he had a collection of old jazz records, Harrington recalled. Don Pepe managed to wire his casita for electricity and was working on bringing running water into the place. But the casita situation became dangerous — a neighborhood gang began moving in — so the block association, with the help of GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side) was able to help 11 squatters, including Don Pepe, find apartments, most of them on the Lower East Side, Harrington said.

“NENA is a needed organization and we very much support it,” said Harrington. “They have a program for 11-year-olds which pays for any health treatment — we promote it. Many block association members go there, but NENA has money and can build anywhere. We’re disappointed about their deceptive behavior on this project,” Harrington added. “If I had time, energy and money, I’d love to fight it,” she said.

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