7 Walks in 7 Days: A Garden in the Middle of the City

The garden in normal times. Photo by Mildred Alpern.

By Marjorie Cohen

The fourth in our 7 Walks in 7 Days around the Upper West Side heads to a community garden.

West Side Community Garden/89th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues

A plot of vacant land that was once a repository for urban trash — refrigerators, car parts, etc. — has been transformed into a beautiful community garden that stretches from West 89th to West 90th Streets. The stewards of the garden are the members of the West Side Community Garden, a not-for-profit group with about 150 members, including 100 who actually do the gardening.

In normal times, this is definitely a community garden and is open to all. But these aren’t normal times, so the gates of the garden have had to be locked and the only people who can go inside these days are four members of the Board.

The West 89th Street half of the garden was created in 1987 by a landscape architect who designed benches and paths and leveled flower beds with plantings that reflect the seasons. The West 90th half is reserved for West Siders who want to tend their own plots.

Spring is probably the garden’s most anticipated time, a time when the 15,000 or so tulips burst into flower in an eye-popping display of color that makes it impossible for passers-by not to stop and stare. The group’s website has some gorgeous photos of the garden, well worth a look.

Besides being beautiful to look at, the garden organizes a number of warm-weather events, also open to all. Judith Robinson, president of the garden’s board, said that as of now, it is impossible to know what, if any, of these will take place this season.

Their tulip festival couldn’t happen, the live music concerts scheduled for May and June have been cancelled, and whether the July potluck and barbecue and Shakespeare series can stay on the calendar is all up in the air. Right now, Robinson says that “everything needs to be reimagined.”

This is the time, right after the tulip bonanza, that the gardeners usually plant the perennials but that’s another thing that’s not happening this year. The greenhouse the group uses to grow their plants is located at St. John the Divine and is in lockdown. “We’re longing for the time we can open the garden again, to fulfill its mission of being a green oasis of peaceful relaxation and community for the entire neighborhood. But for now, doing our part to help keep everyone safe has to come first.”

In spite of all of that somewhat depressing news, the garden is still there to be seen from the sidewalk and will certainly be restored as soon as the gardeners can get back in and do what they love to do.

COLUMNS | 3 comments | permalink
    1. ST says:

      Have lived on the West side long enough to remember that the WSC garden was never a repository for trash. It was once a part of a much larger community garden that filled at least two entire blocks along Columbus Avenue from 89th St. northward. With gentrification came development and those large plots of cultivated land were lost to buildings. The current WSC garden came about as a negotiated settlement with developers to leave a small plot of land to the community by those original cultivators of the much much larger space. So the oasis that is WSC garden came about due to community activism, but I am always reminded of the blocks of cultivated space that once were.

      • Suzie E says:

        ST, how long have you lived here? Because I moved in around 1982 and remember serious trash, etc. My memories are hazy, but what I recall is that there was one lone brick building standing on the NW corner of 89th & Columbus that was used as a movie set for the Eddie Murphy movie “Trading Places” and later, obviously, torn down. I seem to recall also that there was a lot of scattered brick and other detritus left behind, and a huge mound of dirt, which an African American man cleared in order to plant, I think, a vegetable garden. (It looked rather sad to a newly arrived young person from Wisconsin but the man definitely impressed me with his commitment!) That garden was close to Columbus Ave.

        And again, if I recall correctly, much later there was a tug of war about the site, because that garden grew into (hazy about this) a sort of community garden. There came a time when the city was going to plow it all under to reclaim and use the site to build housing, but the community fought back. They got the city to preserve the space that is now the community garden, and less housing was built. Thanks are definitely due to the people who fought that fight…and to the man who created that first garden!

        Corrections expected and welcome.

    2. Madge Rosenberg says:

      The garden is a marvel of color, beauty and community. Thanks, gardeners.