West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 17 | Sept. 26 - Oct. 2, 2007

Villager photos by Elizabeth Proitsis

Landscape artist Alan Sonfist, l, cleaning the Time Landscape. Below, the end result — some of the 100 bags of debris that were removed.

Cleanup time for Time Landscape indigenous garden

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

On a sunny Tuesday morning in mid-September, a group of volunteers gathered to weed and clean a fenced-in plot of land on the corner of LaGuardia Pl. and W. Houston St.

The volunteers were a combined force from the Eastern Mountain Sports store, located on Broadway between Houston and Prince Sts., the Soho Alliance, Parks Department, LaGuardia Place Corner Community Garden and the landscape artist who created the plot more than 20 years ago. The E.M.S. store donated the work gloves and garbage bags as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations.

“This effort will show that the community has an interest in reclaiming this land for public use,” said Sara Jones, chairperson of the LaGuardia Place Corner Community Garden. The issue of increasing public access to the plot will be addressed at an upcoming meeting of Community Board 2.

Although the scene was an idyllic one, there was tension beneath the shaded beech grove as traffic and pedestrians whizzed by.

“Time Landscape is a piece of ’80s art,” said Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, within earshot of the artist, Alan Sonfist. “The time has come for something new,” Sweeney declared.

The Time Landscape project was unveiled in 1978 by Sonfist as a living monument to the native forest that once was Manhattan.

“Just as we landmark buildings, so too should we landmark nature,” said Sonfist.

However, critics allege that in the intervening years, the 25-foot-by-45-foot plot of land has begun to resemble a weed garden rather than an art piece. Sonfist claimed that there is an annual massive cleanup, but Sweeney countered that neither the artist nor the Parks Department maintains the space.

Much of the vegetation that was planted in the 1970s has a firm grounding in the history of the island. Sonfist mentioned that he had read of Colonial-era allusions to a beech grove in the area having been a pleasant napping spot after excursions to a fishing hole in the former Minetta Brook at what is now 2 Fifth Ave. The soil in the project was transported from City Hall Park, where some renovations were done around the same time as the Time Landscape was created, said Sonfist.

Nonnative plants and weeds have spread to the garden, and the sight of morning glories clinging to the fence troubled many.

“The concept was to have native species,” said Tobi Bergman, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Parks Committee, in a phone interview before the cleanup. “But there is a reason we call them invasive species: They have no natural enemies.”

Sonfist dismissed these criticisms.

“This is an open lab, not an enclosed landscape,” he said. “The intention was never to keep out all nonnative species, but rather to see how they come into the space with time.”

But the volunteers weeded out nonnative species that were identified with the help of master gardener Whilhelmine from the Union Square Greenmarket. The trash bags filled up with more than just plants, however.

Among the assorted trash, volunteers found empty bottles, a railroad spike and a refrigerator box that drew protests from a local homeless man when it was discarded.

Homeless people regularly camp out inside the garden. Although a chain-link fence encloses the area and entrance is by key, there is a hole in the fence and it is possible to climb over the waist-high barrier.

One of the goals in cleaning up the area is to create clear sightlines so that it is harder for people to break in and hide.

“Today was a success,” said Jones after the cleanup had concluded. “Twenty people worked for two and a half hours to remove 100 bags of garbage and debris. We cleared sightlines and invasive species.”


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