How the ‘Garden People’ of Riverside Park Grew a Community

By Lisa Kava

It is always a joy and often a surprise to stumble upon a quiet place where nature abounds in the midst of New York City. Such is the 91st  Street Community Garden, a magnificently maintained garden in Riverside Park at 91st Street.

Though it is located in Riverside Park, the garden’s beginnings trace to a small, once empty lot on Broadway. In 1977, Mary Louise Taylor, head of the 97th Street Block Association at the time, received permission from the owner of the lot between 96th and 97th and Broadway to plant a garden, according to Norris Smith, one of the first members of the original gardening group. The caveat, said Smith, was that when the time came to build on the lot, the garden would need to vacate.

Smith recalls there were about 15 original members when the garden was on Broadway.  “It was like the Garden of Eden” she said, “it was very unstructured and spontaneous.” Then, in 1981 when construction of a condominium began, it became necessary for the garden to find a new home, said Smith.

“Mary Louise looked all over and came across the spot in the Riverside Park. She applied to the Parks Department, and got permission to plant a garden there but it all had to become official. The group needed a statement of purpose, bylaws and members who would pay dues,” she added.

“They reached out to the right people, got permission to do it and then it was a lot of blood sweat and tears in terms of digging. They started from nothing, just dirt,” said Julie Wallin, the current President of the Garden People, Inc. – a non-profit organization that operates the garden. Wallin was not an original member of the group, she joined just over 12 years ago. “Living in New York City, I realized I would love to be outside and enjoy some quiet time sitting in nature. I happened to walk by one afternoon when the volunteers were out and there was a sign up looking for volunteers. That’s all it took,” said Wallin.

Both Smith and Wallin pointed out that Riverside Park was quite different in 1981 than it is today.  “It was not as safe” said Smith. People rarely went to the park in the evenings in those days. She believes that the garden helped to bring positive change in the neighborhood. “People felt safer watching us work, they would come to the park, sit on benches and tell their friends about us.”


Photo by Joe Bly of the garden in 1982.

She said that vandalism was a regular concern in the early days. “Mother’s Day was particularly bad…flowers would go missing on the sneak.” Smith remembered a story where in the 1980’s, someone got caught selling flowers, allegedly stolen from the garden, at the Queens Midtown Tunnel entrance. “Members reported to the police a robbery of flowers after discovering a large empty hole where flowers were missing. The man was caught selling freshly potted plants at the entrance of the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the police picked him up,”  Smith recalled. “We had already reported the robbery, upon discovering the big holes.  Some gardeners had to go down to the station house and identify their plants before they could be returned.”

The garden today is divided into two parts: an Octagon, which was the first to be developed, and a rectangle, which was later added. It is operated entirely by volunteers — there are approximately 55 members of the Garden People and an additional 20 volunteers each season.

The organization is also responsible for paying maintenance dues and other expenses. The garden is made up of about 80% perennials, said Wallin. She explained that each member is assigned to a certain plot within the garden to tend and to manage. “It is up to each member who tends a section to determine what to plant in that section.” She noted that members are part of a community and that “part of the idea of the community is that if you are tending a section yourself you don’t want to adversely affect your adjacent neighbor.”

The members of The Garden People vary in age and interest. “We have members who are close to 30 years old and up to 90 years old,” said Wallin. “Some members are more interested in native plants, others are interested in woodlands and wildflowers while others favor spring bulbs like tulips and daffodils and others love roses.” Each section has a different feel but all complement one another. There is a section that looks like a rock garden where different rocks have been brought in from other sections of the park, according to Wallin. There is a brick path which runs in the center of the rectangle and around the perimeter of the Octagon. There is a gate around the garden but it is never locked, allowing community members to walk on the pathways and enjoy the flowers up close.

Volunteers to help work in the garden are both welcome and needed. Every Saturday from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. volunteers may show up and members will be there to teach the volunteers how to maintain and care for the plants. The members of The Garden People will provide tools, gloves, and instruction to all volunteers. “You do not need to know anything about gardening, just show up and be willing to work.” said Wallin.


Photo by Katherine Weber.

Gardening tools are kept in a shed near the Hippo Playground to which members have the key. “We get a number of Morning Glories… people who sign up in the spring with enthusiasm and then slowly lose interest and stop showing up,” said Smith. Wallin added that the organization would like to attract new members and volunteers. “We want to see the next generation find joy in the city and not feel like they have to leave to see beauty.” A scene from the movie You’ve Got Mail took place in the garden, and sometimes people walk by and stop to ask if this is where the movie took place, said Wallin.

“For me, the Garden offered an opportunity to slow down and be more relaxed,” said Wallin. “It is like having a country house 10 blocks from my apartment.” Smith said that the conditions for the plants and flowers are far better in Riverside Park than in the initial space on Broadway. “The surprising thing is that the garden hasn’t changed a great deal. The enthusiasm and enterprise are still there, and the variety of the membership. Although the group became more organized, it kept much of the openness and the original spirit of its impromptu beginnings.”

Joseph Bly, a neighbor of the garden and a photographer who is interested in nature, has been photographing the garden since it moved to Riverside Park. The photos, including those of the very early days, can be found on his website www.joebly.com

For more information about the 91st Community Garden visit www.thegardenpeople.org.

Top photos by Lisa Kava.

HISTORY, OUTDOORS | 7 comments | permalink
    1. Bill says:

      Great article, thx WSR. People, a few bucks will help keep this jewel for all to enjoy. Plse lend your support to the wonderful volunteers. Thx

    2. LK says:

      Good article. Their website is:http://www.thegardenpeople.org/

      instead of .com

    3. Lois says:

      Wonderful story. Makes me want to visit and, perhaps, dig in. Thanks for showcasing!

    4. Annette Johnson, Branford, Ct says:

      My brother Joe Bly has brought me to the gardens and they are really beautiful. He tells me what a special place it is and so are the people. They are as beautiful as the flowers.

    5. Mindy Lewis says:

      The article fails to mention Patricia Madden, who designed the garden’s original layout. Patricia, then my neighbor, was a former opera singer who studied landscape design at the NY Botanical Gardens.