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Peek Inside This Magical Sculpture Garden, One of NYC’s True Hidden Gems

This rare slice of green space in Lower Manhattan may soon disappear.

I tend to describe the Elizabeth Street Garden as a missing tooth. To me, it looks like the street’s been suckerpunched and a magic garden has sprung forth in the gap. Boxed in on all sides by apartment complexes, understated restaurants, and pricey boutiques, it’s charmingly out of place in this downtown NYC neighborhood (tourists will call it SoHo; the newcomers, NoLita; and the old-timers, Little Italy).

Some things you’ll encounter across this acre of well-kempt grass and daffodil croppings: three lions carved from limestone -- one in motion, its left paw outstretched, the other two curled up and sunbathing; a sphinx, propped high on her elbows; two rows of classic Roman-style columns, lined up as if to shoulder the weight of some great architectural wonder; iron-wrought tables and chairs; ornate bird baths; and a few Greek goddesses.

All this old world antiquity -- like the garden itself, tucked between Prince and Spring streets -- feels like some glorious mistake, a glittering urban mirage. It’s a secret slice of New York City that most visitors, touching down in the area for shopping and celeb-spotting, would all-too-easily overlook while, say, waiting in line at Prince Street Pizza just around the corner.

Elizabeth Street Garden
Whimsical sculptures are scattered throughout the garden | Elizabeth Street Garden

“I can’t really explain the garden without saying that it’s magical,” says Joseph Reiver, the garden’s standing Executive Director. “There’s something about the way it all comes together -- the sculpture, the nature, all the different groups of people. It’s an incredible melting pot.” 

Normally open year-round until 5pm, Elizabeth Street Garden is temporarily closed. But before the coronavirus forced New Yorkers to shelter indoors, here you’d find a mix of professionals taking lunch breaks on the garden’s many folding stools. You’d see old-world Italians from Little Italy conversing on a bench. A quizzical tourist or two might wander in, not quite sure what it is they’ve stumbled upon. 

“You can’t really aim to build a place like this. It happens naturally,” Reiver says. “It takes generations of locals and visitors offering up their own influence, changing it and shaping it as time goes on.” Much like the city of New York itself. 

Restorative green spaces like Elizabeth Street Garden help locals and visitors alike find fresh air, common ground, and community -- but, like most undeveloped land in NYC, it’s endangered. Threatened by development, this urban oasis might soon face destruction.

Elizabeth Street Garden
Cozy movie nights in the garden | Elizabeth Street Garden

For most of the 20th century, this lot on Elizabeth Street was a school yard for an adjoining elementary school, P.S. 21. It was demolished in the ‘70s, eventually replaced with apartments in 1981, but the lot remained vacant and overgrown for nearly a decade. 

Then in 1990, antiques collector Alan Reiver -- the owner of the neighboring Elizabeth Street Gallery -- began to lease the space on a month-to-month basis. The lot served as overflow storage; it held 18th century busts and towering sculptural pieces that Reiver couldn’t fit in the gallery proper.  

Over time, Reiver planted perennial flowers, fresh grass, and sprawling Bradford pear trees. He added seating to the statuary and began allowing access through his shop next door -- the only criteria for entry being a willingness to ask.

“When I first moved to New York, I lived right across the street [from the Garden]. I still do,” says Renee Green, chair of the garden’s volunteer board and, at 88, one of its original volunteers. “Back then, my husband and I used to go all the time. We’d lounge under this gorgeous pear tree and read and talk.”

Around the time she lost her husband, Green had been spending a great deal of her time volunteering there. “I remember one particular morning just after he’d died, I was walking down Prince street, and a woman stopped me to say she was sorry for my loss. I asked her if I knew her -- I couldn’t place her -- and she told me, ‘yes, from the garden.’ That’s when I knew, this was my retirement home. My real New York community.”

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In 2013, Reiver opened a public entrance to the garden off Elizabeth Street. It has become a palette-cleansing blip of greenery and much-needed community space, hosting events like free yoga classes, movie nights, readings, and even fashion shows. 

Across the cramped streets that make up Little Italy and SoHo, ESG is the only public greenspace. Population-wise, these neighborhoods make up 23% of CB2 (the region of lower Manhattan that houses the garden), while comparatively offering only 3% of the district’s green space.

“The garden is one of few spaces where I feel like I can breathe,” says Kazusa Jibiki, the manager at Lovely Day, a local Thai restaurant sitting just parallel to the Garden. “It’s the place where I feel most human in the neighborhood. Everytime I visit, I run into old friends, coworkers, and neighborhood locals. This is our only meeting space.”

Elizabeth Street Garden
A space for creativity and impromptu picnics | Elizabeth Street Garden

In the grand tradition of treasured New York artifacts, Elizabeth Street Garden is endangered. Volunteers like Green have been fighting alongside Reiver for nearly a decade to keep bulldozers at bay. 

In 2012, City Council member Margaret Chin introduced plans to develop the garden’s modest square footage into affordable housing. Technically, at that point, the land belonged to the Board of Education -- and Reiver was still leasing it out on a monthly basis. 

Aided by the Bloomberg administration, Chin transferred ownership to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). In 2016, the Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) began to assess plans to flatten the garden and replace it with ground-floor retail space, topped by an affordable housing unit designated for senior citizens. 

The garden’s local disciples were quick to coalesce, forming a city-sanctioned 501(c)(3) non-profit to support the space, titled ESG. And in March 2019, they filed a lawsuit against the City of New York and the HPD, challenging the proposal to destroy the garden. At present, they’re still fighting this battle -- a controversial one, given that affordable housing in this area is as scarce a resource as outdoor rec space.

Reiver and his team have proposed alternative building sites, currently sitting vacant nearby. “We absolutely need truly affordable housing, but we also need community green space,” says Reiver. “One should never come at the expense of the other. Not when alternatives exist.” 

Elizabeth Street Garden
The garden is a relaxing escape from the fast pace of New York | Elizabeth Street Garden

Growing up in South Brooklyn, my classmates and I would embark, not infrequently, on field trips in the literal sense: trips to fields. Time and time again, we were shepherded beyond city limits to revel in the wide open natural space because, our chaperones insisted, it was good for us.

Plenty of studies showcase the positive effects of greenery on mental health, but the numbers are hardly necessary. Most New Yorkers are viscerally familiar with the restorative joy of spending a day in the park. And as we embark on our new normal of COVID-19, it’s more essential than ever to preserve spaces where city-dwellers can spread out, decompress, and get some air.

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“As a kid, living with crazy artist parents in SoHo, there were few truly quiet spaces in my life. But back then, my babysitter would take me to the Elizabeth Street Garden to relax,” says Tristan Reginato, a filmmaker from the SoHo area. “Now, some 20 years later, I still find myself at the garden celebrating friend’s birthdays and the changing of the seasons. Even spending time there before it closed [because of the coronavirus] it felt like a respite from the panic.”
 
“New York can be a lot to handle.” says Reiver. “It’s easy to lose sight of the magic of the place when you’re in the thick of it,” says Reiver. “Coming to the garden always reminds me, though.  

“Of course,” he continues, “part of the magic here comes from the risk. Nothing gold can stay, you know the drill. But it’s been so amazing to watch the community rally to keep this place alive.”

Eliza Dumais is a former staff writer at Thrillist. She now works as a lifestyle editor at Refinery29.