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Elegy for a Garden, by Andrew Light

by Andrew Light

On the morning of February 15, 2000, I watched as the New York City Police Department and a city construction company demolished Esperanza Garden (fully named, “El Jardin de la Esperanza,” “The Garden of Hope”), a narrow lot at the corner of East 7th and Avenue C on the Lower East Side. Esperanza was established as a community garden by local resident Alicia Torres in this Puerto Rican neighborhood over twenty-two years ago. 31 protestors were arrested following a prolonged direct action campaign to save the garden, once a part of the city’s official Green Thumb program which had encouraged the preservation and creation of some 600 gardens throughout the city.

Tellingly, the scene at the destruction of Esperanza, and the struggle put up to defend it, was highly reminiscent of the sites of conflict to defend old growth forests throughout the North American west. Recently known as the focal point of ongoing protests against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s decision in the spring of 1999 to sell off community garden plots to developers (ostensibly to create low and middle-income housing), Esperanza, in its final stages, was a site to behold. Environmentalists, especially the group “More Gardens!,” along with community activists, had constructed a giant coqui over the front entrance of the garden six months before, looking out over the front wall of the garden and protecting it from bulldozers. The coqui is a thumb-sized frog important in Puerto Rican mythology as the symbolic defender of the forest—in one story its loud croak scares off a demon threatening to destroy a rain forest. In this guise it became both a symbol for community pride and a focal point for environmentalist and pro-garden organizers in the city.

But the creators of this coqui had more than symbolic significance in mind. Activists had loaded the structure with civil disobedience equipment—bike locks, chains, and huge cement blocks to lock themselves into the structure and on the site should the need arise. A high tripod in the shape of a sunflower (the same sort used in forest “sit-ins” in Oregon and Idaho) was erected to house a lookout chair 26 feet above the ground where a defender could lock down. Even during the coldest parts of the winter, the garden housed a full time environmental encampment, with tents, a kitchen, and bonfire for those keeping a twenty-four hour vigil on the garden. Here, one could see a powerful connection between humans and nature. The garden served as a strong enough moral motivator to protect green space against short-term economic gain to inspire acts of self-sacrifice and civil disobedience.

Painter.To me, observing the arrests from a nearby corner, it was striking that the tactics used to protect the garden were reminiscent of similar struggles in the American wilderness that I had seen years previous when I had taught environmental ethics at the University of Montana. I finally felt that I understood a passage from Aldo Leopold, the 1940s godfather of much contemporary environmental thinking, which had eluded me before: “The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods. . . . Perception . . . cannot be purchased with either learned degrees or dollars; it grows at home as well as abroad, and he who has a little may use it to as good advantage as he who has much.” That day it seemed as if Leopold was right: the smallest city plot really could be as inspiring as the most treasured old growth.

But strangely, some of the contemporary heirs to Leopold, especially philosophers working on environmental issues, do not seem ready to take this message seriously even in light of experiences like those at Esperanza garden. An old standby of today’s environmental ethics is that achievement of true environmental sustainability is to be found only in the creation of a non-human centered (“nonanthropocentric”) ethic. Much of contemporary environmental ethics distinguishes itself from more traditional ethics by setting for itself the goal of articulation of the value of nature in terms independent of the human attribution of that value. Accordingly, environmental philosophers have spent the last thirty or so years pursuing various forms of nonanthropocentrism, including biocentrism and ecocentrism. Most, especially those in the wilderness rich areas of North America and Australia, have in common a unified belief that the inspiration for extending moral consideration beyond the boundaries of the human community will come from connection with those spaces unsullied by humans, especially wild areas, or at least vast tracks of otherwise protected land. Accordingly, the vast majority of environmental philosophers, and I believe, the majority of environmentalists, assume some kind of opposition between culture and nature, city and countryside, urbanity and wilderness.

For example, Holmes Rolston III, the dean of this burgeoning subfield of philosophy in the U. S., argues that the future of environmental responsibility lies in the creation of what he calls an “Earth-centered ethic.” In a recent polemical essay, Rolston reasserts this claim by arguing that in contrast to previous centuries, where we worried primarily about destroying ourselves through inter-human conflict, the overriding cause for distress for the next century is that we will destroy the planet itself. “The challenge of the next millennium is to contain those [human] cultures within the carrying capacity of the larger community of life in our biosphere. (. . .) If we humans are true to our species epithet, ‘the wise species’ needs an Earth ethics, one that discovers a global sense of obligation to this whole inhabited planet.” For Rolston, this ethic should not focus on the way that the Earth is valuable from an anthropocentric perspective, which may entail seeing it only as a resource, as a means to human ends. This is not to say however that there is no role for human value and experience in the creation of such an ethic. Rolston also argues that humans must actively become an integral part of a place as one necessary condition, or perhaps, even literally as a living foundation, for such an ethic.

Urban streetscape.While I appreciate Rolston’s sentiments, and similar such views of some my other colleagues in environmental ethics, I think that to fully realize the goal of global environmental protection we need to seriously consider a different form of environmental thinking bound to a similar sense of responsibility, though one also grounded in humanly produced environments such as Esperanza garden. For all of Rolston’s emphasis in this essay, and in most of his work on the importance of human attachment to place, it seems that only certain kinds of places count as acceptable spaces for forming moral bonds with nature. It turns out that the built world, for example, is not part of the “Earth” for Rolston, and so presumably will not play as vital a role in our new ethic of environmental responsibility. Says Rolston, “In finding our place in the built environment, we have tended to get displaced from our natural environment.” When it comes to the sort of relationship we should have to a place, it is one that focuses on our connection to “biotic” communities, “tracks of nature,” and Rolston’s version of “natural kinds.” To prevent ourselves from destroying the planet we must somehow reject, or at least reassess, the world we have made and instead embrace the fecund ground of our existence—the natural world, or at least, the realm of nature as Rolston envisions it can be separated from human culture.

Is this right? Is the correct context for environmental thinking to be found in connecting ourselves to nature in a deeper way and leaving behind our culture, or indeed in accepting this controversial distinction between nature and culture? In its most egregious forms (not Rolston’s), such ethics require us to go native in a sometime romantic dream of the noble savage who was part of the world instead of apart from it. But is this the only option, and more prosaically, is it the most realistic option? Can we imagine a more harmonious world where we all re-embrace a “native” attachment to place? I don’t think so. True, if our species is fortunate enough to survive it will come from recognizing our relationship with nature as residents of the natural world. But this sense of relationship need not only come from the wild places that Rolston loves.

Here in my home, New York City, I see an environment well worth engagement and deserving of responsibility. I don’t mean just the “green space” of the city, such as the large urban parks, but also the “brown space” of the sidewalks, the buildings, and the myriad places in between. I see a landscape alive with multiple senses of value, multiple relations to place, obvious to anyone who has spent any time in it. This city is not just the background that urban inhabitants move through, it is the foreground of most everyday conversations. Live in a city that is alive as a place, where inhabitants actively conceive of having a sense of it as a place, and you will experience the phenomenon of the city as the object of most discussion. It is a character in everyday life akin to a member of one’s extended family. Though no doubt often mistreated, it cannot be ignored. Perhaps though, we only see this connection most clearly when the urban environment is threatened. In the destruction of Esperanza, I re-experienced the importance of the city as a ground for strong environmental responsibilities.

The need for the elaborate civil disobedience precautions at the garden described above, came all too soon. Late on the night of February 14th a call went out from the local residents and environmentalists encamped at the garden for sympathizers to come to stay over and help defend Esperanza, after activists spotted tale-tell signs of heavy police activity scheduled for the next day. The timing was not coincidental. Lawyers for the New York State Attorney General’s office were scheduled to appear the next day before Justice Richard D. Huttner of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn to seek an injunction against plans to demolish the site. According to State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Esperanza, and the other Green Thumb gardens, should be considered legally as parks, which can only be sold after a state environmental review or act of the Legislature. But by the time the hearing had finished in the early afternoon of the 15th, as the city attorneys pointed out to Judge Huttner, the garden had already been destroyed. For Esperanza at least, the argument between the Mayor and the State Attorney General was moot.

Bus, bridge, and city.Though the garden defenders’ original plan was for only 12 people to be arrested, many more people who answered the late night call volunteered for arrest as well. By 7:00 a.m. the crowd of protesters had grown to 150. By 10:00 a.m. police began cutting protesters loose from their locks, hacking away at the coqui with metal-cutting chain saws until one last activist, entrenched within the right eye socket portal of the frog, was left. In the mean-time, 50 or so chanting protestors supporting the resisters from a nearby corner were cleared from the sidewalk and forcibly moved by riot police across the street to an “official viewing area,” conveniently out of view of the garden. By 11:45 the giant frog had been replaced by a giant backhoe and the garden was leveled. Only a few stragglers remained by noon, myself included, watching as construction workers, still guarded by up to a hundred police, busily erected a plywood fence to hide the further destruction from passers-by. While spirits ran high that so many had turned out to protect the garden, most people appeared plainly in shock to see the efforts of their long labors—for some months, for many years—destroyed in an hour. One local resident put it bluntly: “There is nothing to live for here if you don’t have any green.”

At the end of the day Mayor Giuliani held a press conference, again restating his reasons for selling off the garden, focusing on the need for more affordable housing in the city. Giuliani did not discuss the disregard he had shown for the judicial process by circumventing an imminent decision by a State magistrate and proceeding with the destruction of Esperanza. He was quick however to lampoon the protestors: “If you live in an unrealistic world then you can say everything should be a community garden.” The Mayor hoped to sell the property to a developer planning to build a 75 unit “80-20” apartment complex on the site, with 80 percent of the apartments going at market rate (renting monthly at approximately $1,500 - $2,000 per bedroom) and 20 percent going to low income families for a limited period of ten years. Apparently, somewhere in-between resisting the supposed desire to put gardens everywhere and instead create affordable housing, the Mayor sacrificed Esperanza for dubious low-income housing gains.

One cannot help but think that more was lost here than simply a symbol of urban green space and community empowerment, attributions that even the most wilderness-oriented environmental ethicist would admit to this garden. For Alicia Torres and her family and neighbors who had worked for months in the late 1970s to clear the land that eventually became this garden, something much more important had been lost. Four generations worked the soil over the ensuing decades at Esperanza—the latest were Alicia’s great grandchildren. The garden contained flowers, vegetables, and also medicinal plants used by local residents. This garden was not just a patch of green on a brown landscape or a clever bit of utopian protest art. It was a schoolhouse for this particular community where elders could teach the young something about their environmental traditions, their past, and also their aspirations for the future. The land, in this case, as has been true in so many other places, became the literal ground for intergenerational community and the sort of environmental responsibility which writers such as Rolston see as coming more from wilderness than tiny urban plots like this one. But the value of this garden was unique to this locale; it was tended by these residents because it was where it was and not somewhere else. It was worth the sacrifice of defending it because it was local, rather than remote. There was no “unrealistic” desire here to create gardens everywhere, as the Mayor contended, but to maintain this one in this particular place. If plans go forward to build on this site, then the unique set of environmental and social values embodied in this location cannot easily be replaced. The garden helped to make this community a site for local environmental responsibility even as it eventually came to stand for the larger environmental community’s dream of a greener city.

Construction workers.Reflecting on the name, “Esperanza,” one cannot help but feel that a small part of this city lost a source of its hope that day in February—the precious and ephemeral connection, which Rolston and other environmental ethicists seek, that sometimes arises between local residents and the land they inhabit and come to care for. Such connections are a necessary condition for long-term environmental sustainability even if they are made to such humanly produced landscapes. These small plots connect us to our everyday environment in a tangible, rather than abstract, way. The point is not that we can therefore disregard the wilderness, but more that we must pay serious attention to the power of all environments to draw us in as a partner worthy of protection.

Inhabited places are not opposed to those relatively less so through any natural order of things. It is only we who drive conceptual wedges in the world. A fully “environmental” ethic ought to include all environments, not for theoretical reasons, but because urban spaces like Esperanza can and do represent an important connection between humans and the natural world. To paraphrase, and possibly extend Leopold’s intuitions, we will only have a complete environmental ethic when we turn our attention to the preservation of richly textured urban spaces as often as we do to old growth forests.


Andrew Light is Assistant Professor of Environmental Philosophy and Director of the Graduate Program in Environmental Conservation Education at New York University. Author of numerous works in environmental ethics, including thirteen edited volumes, such as Environmental Pragmatism (Routledge, 1996), Philosophies of Place (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), Technology and the Good Life? (Chicago, 2000), Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (Blackwell 2003), and Moral and Political Reasoning in Environmental Practice (MIT, 2003), he lives in Manhattan and is currently working on a book on the ethical dimensions of restoration ecology. He also edits the interdisciplinary journal Philosophy and Geography.
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