One of the East Village’s most beautiful community gardens, La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, celebrates its 40th anniversary on Saturday with a free outdoor party featuring some neighborhood legends.
Bringing back what he calls the “spirit of punk, rebellion and anarchy” of La Plaza’s early years, Eli Epstein-Deutsch, a garden member and one of the main organizers, has invited radical ’80s industrial act Missing Foundation and no-wave favorites James Chance and Lydia Lunch to rock the garden.
But it’s not just about the good old days.
FOLD, Epstein’s Brooklyn-based ensemble, has produced “Birth,” an experimental performance that he says is inspired by the garden’s “sense of Eden,” with its pond and large trees. FOLD’s retelling of the story of Adam and Eve will call up “our sense of sexuality and political struggle,” but also “cosmic creation and an understanding of ecology,” Epstein promises.
After the performance there will be DJ sets from Sal P of ‘80s dance act Liquid Liquid (they were responsible for the bass line that became Grandmaster + Melle Mel’s “White Lines”) and FOLD artistic director Etienne Pierre Duguay. “We just want to have a party,” says Ross Martin, executive director of La Plaza.
“Back in the days, we would have been afraid that the police would come and shut it down,” Sarah Ferguson says of Saturday’s lineup. The former Village Voice journalist has been involved in La Plaza since the late ‘90s, but covered the neighborhood’s turbulent history for much longer.
Latino gang members turned activists founded the garden in 1976. “Instead of channeling their energy and anger into violence and crime, they wanted to take back and rebuild the neighborhood,” explains Martin, a soft-spoken landscape architect.
Since then, activists and volunteers defended the squatted city lot against many attempts to develop the site – even against other community activities or plans to create affordable housing.
“We had to fight very hard to make them see that poor people don’t just need housing, they need gardens, too,” Ferguson says.
In the last 40 years, this East Village gem has gone through many a metamorphosis: It was used as a soup kitchen, community and activist space; it hosted concerts, theater and art, but also many homeless people and drug addicts.
In the mid-’90s “things were out of control,” recalls Martin. When he got involved in 1995, the activists had just managed to take the garden back and make it a place where everybody could feel welcome. Ironically, they had to put a fence around it to keep it open.
To Martin, La Plaza is central to the neighborhood as a space for people to meet and interact with each other. “I wouldn’t live in the city if this garden didn’t exist,” he says.
The community garden is still all-volunteer, with a democratic structure and a membership that fluctuates between 60 and 100 members of differing ages, says Martin. Many more frequent the garden, especially young families from the neighborhood.
In recent years, the focus has shifted towards making the garden a model of sustainability in an urban setting, says board member Marga Snyder. “It has become much more of an education center.” Decorated with hundreds of little pieces of art made of recycled materials, even the fence carries the message of sustainability.
Given that La Plaza has been recognized as a landmark and operates under the city’s Green Thumb program, members say they are optimistic about its future: Martin is already looking forward to harvesting fruit when fruit trees will be big enough in a couple of years. Snyder plans to develop the permaculture gardening and Epstein sees art and artistic activities expanding in La Plaza.
But what about the activist heritage? Even though they have become much more institutionalized, Martin stresses: “We’re born of chaos and that’s not going to change.”
“Birth of the Garden” at La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, 9th Street and Avenue C, June 18, 5-9.30 p.m. General public hours: Saturday, Sunday 10-7 p.m. and when the gate is open and members are present.