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Volume 73, Number 3 | May 19 - 25, 2004


Olean For, a gardener who gave tough love, was 83

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Villager photo by Federico Savini

Olean For at the re-opening of her renovated garden last year.

Olean For, the founder of the All People’s Garden on the Lower East Side and a beloved neighborhood fixture, died on May 9 at Beth Israel Hospital. The cause was pneumonia, said her sister, Irene Ho. She was 83 years old.

For helped create the All People’s Garden on E. Third St. in 1979, when drugs plagued the neighborhood and empty, trash-filled lots were more common than greenery. From the beginning, she stood her ground against the drug dealers, even when it meant starring into their guns.

But beneath her tough exterior, For truly cared for the troubled lives she observed from her habitual perch in the garden, on E. Third St. between Avenues C and D. One former addict credited her for turning his life around by offering him a chance to tend the garden.

“I would walk by and, you know, she’s like a stern woman,” Sal Mendolia told The Villager last fall on the occasion of the garden’s grand re-opening. “She said, ‘Son, you’re going to die.’ ”

Inspired by the seasonal renewal in the garden, Mendolia stopped doing drugs and is now one of the garden’s most trusted caretakers.

“Being involved in movements is one thing, but individually affecting people is where she was really strong,” said Lenny Librizzi, assistant director of the Open Space Greening Program, who knew For since the mid-1980s.

Librizzi recalled how in the ’80s For ran a club for teenage girls in the garden, called the Respectable Girls Club. She watched several generations of neighborhood children grow up, and many who knew her when they were young brought their own kids by to visit the woman they called Ms. For, Ma or Grandma.

For would tend the All People’s Garden every day, except in bad weather. The garden, For told The Villager last fall, “is my life.” Librizzi recalled how For would regularly sweep out the whole garden, including the grass.

Last fall, the All People’s Garden celebrated its grand re-opening after a two-year, $50,000 renovation. At the ceremony, For was modest about her achievement.

“I just wanted to do something for the community, and that was open the garden,” For said.

Barden Prisant, a candidate for chairperson of Community Board 3, and chairperson of the board’s Housing Committee, made a special mention of For at the start of last Thursday’s Housing Committee meeting. Prisant has lived across from the garden for the last 13 years.

“She befriended me, a white guy walking down the street, 12 or 13 years ago,” he said. “She did so much for the neighborhood.”

Anna Magenta, of the Forsyth Garden Conservancy, recalled that All People’s Garden was the first “park garden” in the Plant-a-Lot Project, which was started on the Lower East Side and then expanded throughout the city. Started by Liz Christy, Plant-a-Lot specifically created small gardens.

“I’m just glad I was able to videotape her at the garden’s rededication,” Magenta said of For.

Olean For was born on Oct. 28, 1920, in Troy, Alabama, to Charles and Myrtle Cowart. She was one of five siblings, three boys and two girls. The family moved to Florida, where For was raised.

As a young woman, she moved to Detroit, where she met her first husband, with whom she had one son. For moved to New York City in 1946, where she met and married her second husband, Gan For, with whom she had two daughters.

For is survived by her sister, Irene Ho, also of the Lower East Side, and her three children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

The Board of Directors of the All People’s Garden is currently planning a memorial service for For, when a tree or other living shrub will be planted in the garden in her honor. The memorial is not yet scheduled.