On a crisp October afternoon, New York City Civil Court Judge Richard Tsai wore a dark suit and red lens sunglasses and sauntered into Elizabeth Street Garden in Manhattan’s Little Italy, notepad in hand, accompanied by three uniformed security guards.
Stepping along the pebbled entrance at 211 Elizabeth St., he wound his way through the 20,000 square-foot park and crossed a lawn dotted with cafe tables and whimsical sculptures. Wind chimes hanging from a nearby tree announced a breeze. Tsai occasionally stopped to take in the lion sculpture or a flowering bush and to scribble in his notepad. He acknowledged the birds and roaming dogs as he walked the garden’s perimeter. A low hum resonated as a tour guide chatted at the entrance and visitors, young and old, shared cups of coffee and conversation.
Just as quietly as Tsai arrived, he disappeared onto the street unnoticed by the park’s other visitors. His tour of the green space was part of the final stages of an eviction trial between Elizabeth Street Inc., the non-profit organization that leases the land for Elizabeth Street Garden, and the city, which granted the lease and now plans to build affordable housing on the site. The dispute has been raging for more than a decade.
In 1991, Allan Reiver began leasing the space from the city on a $4,000 month-to-month lease. Twenty-one years later, in 2012, former City Council Member Margaret Chin negotiated a rezoning that transferred ownership of the site to the New York City Housing Authority through the Housing Preservation and Development agency (HPD) for the construction of 123 units of senior affordable housing.
Elizabeth Street Inc., the non-profit group that manages the park under the direction of Joseph Reiver, Allan Reiver’s son, has been fighting this deal ever since.
In June, the Appellate Division of the New York State court of appeals ruled against the garden, in favor of affordable housing. Following this decision, the city issued an eviction notice to Elizabeth Street Inc., to vacate the property. The group is appealing the ruling to the court of appeals, while simultaneously fighting the eviction notice in civil court before Judge Tsai. He heard competing testimony over several days from the development agency officials and community members on the neighborhood’s competing needs for parkland and living space.
“I just want to stress, there is a tremendous need for more affordable housing in New York City,” Sarah Leitson, the director of the development agency’s Senior Affordable Rental Apartments Program, testified in October. Leitson, who received a master’s in urban development from Harvard University, has worked for the agency for four years.
There are more than 200,000 New Yorkers on the waitlist for senior affordable housing through the city’s housing authority, with expected wait times as far out as a decade.
According to the New York City Department for the Aging, of the approximately one million city residents who are above the age of 65, of which, over 400,000 are living in poverty. The department projects the number of seniors living in poverty to grow, adding to the demand for affordable living space, particularly in Little Italy. The neighborhood is “in the bottom one-third in the whole city for low-cost housing,” Leitson said.
“We are all going to be older one day, being old is not some separate category of person, older people are the foundation of NYC, they are the people that built this city,” said Dori Block, senior editor of The Center for an Urban Future, who specializes in aging in NYC. There is a growing demand for additional units to allow for the elderly to age with dignity. Last year, according to a report by the New York City Rent Guidelines Board, the number of permits for new buildings in Manhattan decreased by 18%, “this is one of the greatest issues this City faces, particularly for older people, new housing is just not being built”, said Block.
After five years of discussion and numerous proposals, the HPD team selected developer, Haven Green, to construct the plan for the 123 units of senior affordable housing at 211 Elizabeth St. Haven Green seeks to “be an inclusive model for how affordable housing and green space are complementary and necessary for meeting community needs,” by including a small public green site in their construction plans. While Leitson has never been to Elizabeth Street Garden, she says, the new alternative green space, will be, “6,700 square feet of open space, open to the sky and open to the public 365 days of the year,” hoping to mitigate the public’s concern over the possibility of losing the park.
The design will be created with input from the surrounding community, if the city wins the eviction trial, and will include 37 apartments for seniors experiencing homelessness.
It is hard to deny the need for more community green space in the concrete jungle. A place for residents to breathe fresh air or read a book outside the confines of their apartments.
Joseph Reiver, 32, who wears his hair long and messy, has spent most of his days grooming the garden since his father died in 2021. A resident of Elizabeth Street, he knows the neighborhood’s dogs and people by name, greeting them as they walk through the gates. His neighbors describe him as kind, caring, patient and calm. In his court testimony, he said the park is “a work of art, it’s a place of nature” and that “there is nothing else quite like it in all of New York.”
A six-foot tall lion chiseled from limestone greets visitors at the entrance to the garden. A group of volunteers is passionate about maintaining the grounds. While other spaces, such as Thomas Paine Park, almost a mile away downtown at Foley Square, offer some greenery, they are less secluded and lack the artistic ambiance of Elizabeth Street Garden.
Reiver and Elizabeth Street Inc. contend there are alternative sites for affordable senior housing in the area that would allow the garden to remain. Their top choice is 388 Hudson St., an empty city lot one mile to the west in Greenwich Village. The property, however, is already slotted by the Preservation and Development for low-income housing. For Lietson, and the HPD team, they do not view these locations as an “either/or” given the number of seniors on the waiting list – the more units of senior affordable housing the better. According to Leitson, both locations are needed for construction given the waiting lists for new units.
Magali Regis, a board member of the community garden coalition, testified in court to the positive environmental impact of urban gardens. “The benefits have been well documented,” she said. “They clean the air. They are 5 to 10 degrees cooler than surrounding areas.” Landscaped parks also aid in rain collection to avert flooding. New York will need more of this as severe weather events become more frequent with climate change. About 165 million gallons of storm water is diverted from the city’s streets by community gardens, according to a study by Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit. While there are over 550 community gardens in New York, the Little Italy and Soho neighborhoods have only about 3 square feet of open space per 1,000 residents, among the lowest ratios in the city. Except for Elizabeth Street Garden, all other open areas within this district are paved.
For Jennifer Lee, who teaches fifth grade at P.S. 130 Hernando De Soto School eight blocks away, the park has become a gathering place in the neighborhood where people feel connected. The garden is a “place of calm in the busy bustling city,” she said.
One sunny Spring morning, Lee led her 25 giggling students through Little Italy to visit the secluded garden. Biweekly walks to the park are a regular part of the spring curriculum at P.S. 130. Reiver greets the children with a smile, takes them on a tour of the grounds, and picks a few berries off a tree for sampling. The students love “getting to touch the dirt and the seeds,” Lee said, and are “excited to see their seeds grow into flowers.”
Forty percent of Lee’s students have special needs and the ability to teach through hands-on
experiences is important to their learning, she said. Topics such as “tender love and care” and social emotional learning are woven throughout each trip to the park, she said. The children write poems in their journals to capture their experiences at the garden.
In testimony at the trial, Lee said her class visits to the park provide affordable outings for students. “Money costs add up throughout the year,” she said. “This can be a burden to a lot of our families.”
This sense of comfort is felt by many community members. Hai-Yin Kong, the director of ThinkChinatown, a non-profit organization focused on neighborhood engagement, testified that this space is her home outside of her apartment and the place she goes to “for a piece of heart.” Without this, Little Italy and Chinatown “would lose a connection,” she said. Residents speak of the weekend garden yoga classes and tai chi sessions, as well as the annual Halloween pet parade and Spring Easter egg hunt as activities that pull them closer together as a community.
“Not only is the garden a place to relax and enjoy nature, it’s also a place that brings people together,” Lee said.
On Oct. 12, after hearing the testimony, Judge Tsai denied Elizabeth Street Garden’s request for a postponement of the eviction trial until the appellate court rules on the case. That decision clears the way for an eviction should he rule in favor of the city’s plan, even if the state appeals court hasn’t yet made its ruling on use of the land.
Some of the community members who had crowded into Tsai’s courtroom on Centre Street, afterwards made their way back up to Elizabeth Street Garden.
Days later, a couple exchanged wedding vows beneath the trees, an elderly man sipped a cup of coffee in the sun and volunteers presented a cake to Reiver.
“To many more birthdays in the garden,” a volunteer said.