Receiving lifetime keys to the garden were, back row, from left, Ross Martin, Chino Garcia, Harry Kresky, Margarita Lopez, Mary Owens, Marianne Perez, Virginia Tillyard, (with daughter Dana, 3, and front row, from left, David Bober, Don Yorty and Slimma Williams.
In an event that was both a celebration and a memorial, La Plaza Cultural at E. Ninth St. and Avenue C, was renamed La Plaza Armando Perez in a ceremony last Sunday afternoon.
The garden and performance space symbolizes many things to the neighborhood, perseverance, rebirth, culture and beauty. It was one of scores of community gardens across the city legalized a year ago after Mayor Bloomberg settled a lawsuit Attorney General Eliot Spitzer had brought that was blocking development of the gardens.
Closely linked to the history of the 25-year space was Armando Perez, the late East Village Democratic district leader, who was slain in Queens over four years ago.
Chino Garcia, a co-founder with Perez of CHARAS/El Bohio, the former cultural and community center on Ninth St., near Avenue B, recalled how legendary Green Guerillas founder Liz Christy planted the two willow trees in the garden. No one thought they would survive, but an underground stream nourished them with plentiful water and today they soar into the sky and droop over the sidewalks.
Councilmember Margarita Lopez told the audience of 75 people sitting on La Plazas stone amphitheater seats about how it was Perez who had encouraged her to run for Council. Perez had always warned about gentrification. Prophet was the word Lopez used. In the Council, Lopez was able to use her clout to save La Plaza Cultural, even though another large, already legalized garden was diagonally across the street. At least three attempts to develop the site were fended off, twice for senior citizens housing, once for a clubhouse for the Lower East Side Girls Club with luxury housing on top. One of the senior projects and the Girls Club found sites elsewhere. But the community had held the line at this spot, La Plaza Cultural, Lopez said firmly.
In addition to the gentrification battle, David Bober, a former resident, talked about how heroin had once raged in the neighborhood and how gardeners risked their lives when confronting dealers in the garden. Bober slipped into the drug scene himself, but the garden helped him put his life back together, he said.
District Leader Rosie Mendez said the gentleness and beauty of Perez is expressed in the garden.
Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe also gave remarks. Now that so many community gardens have been legalized, the Parks Dept. is planning to use La Plaza as a model for how to make the transition to permanent space.
Lopez, Garcia, Bober, Mendez and several others received keys to the garden, and Marianne Perez, the slain activists widow, also received a bouquet of flowers.
Mendez noted that that one of the two defendants in Perezs murder has pleaded guilty and the other is set to go to trial in about two weeks. She urged people to come show their support at the trial.
Marianne Perez said she was looking forward to the renaming of E. Ninth St. for Armando Perez. Board 3 has already approved the co-naming and the City Council is expected to vote on it soon.
Afterwards, talking with Garcia, Phil Hartman, of Federation of East Village Artists, said his dream is for FEVA to buy the former El Bohio building and turn it into a museum of the counterculture. A Smithsonian of the counterculture, was how he described it, adding that the first thing he would do would be to put CHARAS back in the building, now owned by developer Gregg Singer. As he was saying goodbye, Garcia smiled and told Hartman he was looking to talking more about that with him.
Everyone enjoyed the barbecue and jazz and there were arts and crafts for children.
Writer Sarah Ferguson said the fact that now the chief quality of life complaint is from neighbors who say the Shakespeare performances at La Plaza are too loud shows how much the neighborhood has changed.