Nine Local Community Gardens With Fascinating Backstories

Electric Ladybug Garden. Photograph by Madeline Bender.

By Lisa Kava

Summer is in full swing, and Upper West Siders looking for quiet outdoor spaces to relax, recharge, and soak in nature are fortunate to have options. While Central and Riverside Parks beckon, the Upper West Side is also home to many “community gardens,” which offer a chance to reflect and read among flowers and plants, to tend vegetables, or simply to sit outdoors chatting with neighbors in more intimate settings.

But these spaces were not always gardens; rather, at an earlier time, many were vacant lots resulting from New York City’s financial crisis in the 1970’s. In most cases, residents living near the abandoned lots organized themselves into groups, cleaned up garbage, and began to informally plant and garden. In 1978, GreenThumb, an urban gardening program that helps support community garden members, was established, “in response to the city’s financial crisis, which resulted in the abandonment of public and private land,” according to NYC Parks.

Today, the gardens are maintained by dedicated neighborhood volunteers and members, who are committed to and take pride in them. In fact, members of each garden seem to feel strongly that theirs is the most special of all. Many UWS community gardens are now recognized by the Parks Department as GreenThumb gardens.

The Rag compiled a sampling of Upper West Side community gardens for those looking for a burst of nature and outdoor calm in an urban setting. With one exception, they are all located north of 86th Street, and most are in Manhattan Valley. “Neighborhoods like Manhattan Valley suffered from neglect and abandonment in the 1970’s. Housing stock deteriorated so much that buildings had to be demolished,” said Council Member Mark Levine, who represents the 7th District and just won the Democratic Primary for Manhattan Borough President. “The community garden movement turned that tragedy into something beautiful and positive. The gardens are places for communities to come together in shared open spaces. They are a critical pillar of our park system.”

Here is a partial list of UWS community gardens from south to north. Pick a destination or take a tour — and let us know what you find (and may already know) in the comments.

The Septuagesimo Uno Park. Photograph by Lisa Kava.

On .04 percent of an acre, Septuagesimo Uno Park, a narrow garden on 71st Street between West End and Amsterdam, is frequently called the city’s smallest park, according to the NYC Parks Department website. It was “built in the late 1960’s as part of Mayor John V. Lindsay’s Vest Pocket Park campaign to bring green spaces to small lots between buildings.” This garden hosts a few benches and green leafy plants that bring shade.

The West 87th Street Community Garden. Photograph by Lisa Kava.

The West 87th Street Community Garden, between Columbus and Amsterdam, contains paths, plantings, benches, and donated playground equipment. The garden was founded in 1997 as a result of a series of informal meetings of Community Board 7, according to Tom Yager, one of the founding members. The meetings were “silently attended by representatives of the Parks Department who were looking for city-owned sites to take under their wing as community gardens,” Yager said. The garden is open to the public all day, seven days a week.

West Side Community Garden. Photograph by Lisa Kava.

West Side Community Garden (WSCG), located on 89th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus, is a one-and-one-quarter acre lot containing a flower garden in the front, and individually owned vegetable plots in the back. The vegetable-plot area is kept locked, and there is a 2-3 year wait list to own one. The front part of WSCG, which is open to the public from dawn to dusk, contains flowers, plants and benches. The garden is home to the famed yearly Tulip Festival, which takes place each spring. WSCG was incorporated as a not-for-profit in 1983, after a group of passionate neighborhood gardeners fought for the land to be protected from development.

The 91st Street Garden. Photograph by Lisa Kava.

The 91st Street Garden, a magnificently maintained flower garden divided into two parts, an octagon and a rectangle, is located in Riverside Park at 91st Street. It is maintained by members of the Garden People Inc, a non-profit organization. The garden’s original home was in a vacant lot on Broadway, between 96th and 97th. When construction of a condominium began on the block in 1981, the original 15 members, along with a group leader, searched for a new home for the garden, ultimately finding the spot in Riverside Park and applying to the Parks Dept. for the right to plant a garden.

The Lotus Garden. Photograph by Karen Gershenhorn.

The Lotus Garden, is located on the roof of a parking garage on 97th Street between Broadway and West End. It is divided into 28 plots, each tended to by a different gardener. Maintained by volunteers, it is open to the public on Sunday afternoons between April and November, and to members seven days a week from April to November during daylight hours.

The West 104th Street Garden. Photograph by Simone Nicholson.

The West 104th Street Garden, on 104th between Manhattan Avenue and Central Park West, is divided into two sections: the East Garden which has a gazebo, peach trees and space for meetings and social events, and The West Garden, containing a communal herb garden, a patio for barbecuing as well as a rose garden. The garden has a membership of 50 households according to its website and  is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm from April until October. The West 104th Street Garden will be hosting a flea market on Saturday, July 10th from 11 am to 5 pm, according to Simone Nicholson, a member of the steering committee. Donations of items in good condition will be accepted.

La Perla Garden. Photograph by Andres Prada.

La Perla Garden, on West 105th Street, between Manhattan Avenue and Columbus, contains 20 vegetable plots, and many flowers and trees, Andres Prada, garden volunteer and artist told the Rag. The garden is open to the public from approximately 11 am to 5 pm, Prada said, and hosts musical performances and art events on a stage. Prada painted a mural in 2014 which remains in the garden. “The garden is a small paradise in the middle of Manhattan Valley.” Prada said. “It is a treasure. I have had great conversations in a beautiful space.”

The West 111th Street People’s Garden. Photograph by Nanette Melville.

The West 111th  Street People’s Garden, on the northwest corner of Amsterdam and 111th Street, contains an assortment of plants, flowers and fruit trees, according to Dan McSweeney, President of the West 111th Street Block Association. “The garden got its name as a reflection of the sensibilities of those who founded it. Many were squatters in the buildings around the garden,” McSweeney said. The garden is maintained by a steering committee. According to member Judy Elster, the garden is open to the public from sunrise to sunset seven days a week, and hosts educational events for local schools. “Half of the garden offers visitors the shade of silver maple and sycamore trees. Six wooden benches provide seating for meeting friends or sitting quietly taking in the natural sights of new flowers that change each season,” Elster described.  Volunteers meet on Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm.

The Electric Ladybug Garden. Photograph by Madeline Bender.

The Electric Ladybug Garden, at 237 West 111th Street, between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevards, contains vegetable plots, herb patches, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, wildflowers, a rose garden, and a pergola for shade according to Madeline Bender, an enthusiastic garden member. “The garden is full of birds, butterflies, honeybees, and ladybugs,” Bender said, and is open to the public on weekdays evenings from 5:30-7:30 pm and on weekends from 9am-1 pm and from 3-7 pm. The name was “just a whim of one of our founding members and it stuck for some reason,” Board member, Paul Whelan said. “Our garden is unusual in the high level of involvement of members and the incredible diversity represented,” Madeline Bender said. “You can walk into our garden at any given time and find a racially diverse group of neighbors gardening and chatting alongside each other.”

HISTORY, NEWS, OUTDOORS | 12 comments | permalink
    1. Andres Prada says:

      Where can I get the print version of the WSR ?

    2. dc says:

      So wonderful!

    3. SNY says:

      What a FABULOUS story. Thank you, West Side Rag!
      And what a testament to caring and civic minded Upper West Side residents! That even though we’re sandwiched between two glorious parks, Central Park and Riverside Park, UWS residents gave a damn enough to turn each of these neglected eyesores into a beautiful oasis. They just MADE IT HAPPEN.
      Contrast that positive attitude to this…
      Yesterday I walked along West 14th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues. There are two grossly neglected empty building lots on that block alone. Abandoned for years. You’d think that the community there would organize to create a community garden? A very different sensibility down there. Sadly…pitiful apathy. After all, look at the absolutely deplorable condition of the 14th Street & 7th Ave. subway station! Years and years of disgraceful and dehumanizing neglect…with multimillion dollar lofts and apartments all around just upstairs! How pathetic.
      So glad to be an Upper West Sider!

    4. Mah says:

      It would be nice if these lovely places were open more than just a very few hours a week to the public.

    5. Irene Packer says:

      Beautiful uplifting article! Our neighborhood is the best!

    6. Jeanne Farley says:

      I thought the uws meant up to 96 st?

    7. Ruthp Brennan says:

      How about featuring the community gardens on the uws above 125th st?

      • Josh says:

        In other words, Harlem? Above 125th is not the uws. Not a snobby notion, just factual. Northern border (as someone else pointed out) is 110th.

        • MaryC says:

          There are plenty of stories on the West Side Rag that don’t take the “official” boundaries too literally. See the ones about the “Night Market” and “Manhattanville Market” which are both above 125th st.

    8. MARY says:

      What about the garden at VERDI SQUARE at 72nd & Broadway
      Now with tables anDd chairs

      • Donna says:

        The West 104th Street Garden is also open any time a member is working inside. Visitors are always welcome whenever the gates of either the west or east gardens are open. Stop by to enjoy the peace and quiet 🌻