Plant a Spectacular Garden at Ground Zero

In all the ideas for rebuilding Lower Manhattan's disaster zone, there is one that appeals to the human spirit rather than the mandates of high finance. A local group calling itself the New York Psychogeographical Association has proposed that a giant community garden be established at Ground Zero in place of new office towers. Under the only slightly tongue-in-cheek proposal, development would be overseen by Adam Purple - the creator and principle cultivator of the Garden of Eden in the Lower East Side. An "earthwork" of concentric circles forming a giant Tao symbol of flowers, trees and corn, the Garden of Eden expanded to reclaim an entire empty lot before it was bulldozed by the city to make way for a housing project in 1986.

Purple's creation - like many "unofficial" gardens around the city - represented a radically different development model than those proffered by the bureaucracy. The Garden of Eden was in neither the "public" (government) nor the private sector, nor under the auspices of hybrid entities such as the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. It was built directly by the community, under the initiative of a nearby resident, Adam Purple. It revived the idea that unused private or government lands must return to the commons, to be worked and shaped by the local inhabitants. It was also circular, a conscious effort to start breaking down the grid system in favor of a more humane environment.

When I contacted him at the Lower East Side Mexican restaurant where he now hangs out, Adam Purple, who has recently become homeless, responded to the idea. "I'll work for free - a dollar a year to be head gardener," he said. "I don't need $100,000 a year to do what I did on Eldridge Street."

One of the few parallels to this idea is Berkeley's People's Park, started by anti-war protesters on unused University of California land in 1969, and now officially under a policy of "user development." But the recent deal under which Lower East Side squatters - who 20 years ago started reclaiming abandoned city-owned buildings - have become legal home-owners indicates that the institutionalization of development-from-below can work in no-nonsense New York as well as flaky California.

Another example is the Socrates Sculpture Park on the Queens waterfront, which was an abandoned landfill and illegal dumpsite until 1986, when a coalition of local artists and community members led by Mark di Suvero transformed it into an open studio and exhibition space. Today it is officially a city park, but still serves as a community-run outdoor museum and artist residency program. It is an oasis of greenery and creativity that contrasts vividly with the impersonal and alienating Citicorp office tower just to the south - the first skyscraper to jump the East River to Queens.

To commemmorate the World Trade Center disaster, I wish to join the call for a user-developed community garden on the site of the Twin Towers, under the direction of Adam Purple, who has already demonstrated his vision, dedication and ability. This is the only model that honors the dead by creating a peaceful and contemplative environment, and out-maneuvers any future terrorist designs on the site by rejecting the hubris of a new monument to American power. Who ever heard of terrorists targeting a garden?

The greening of the WTC site can be seen as a continuation of the work spontaneously undertaken by city residents at Union Square in the immediate aftermath of the attack. For weeks after Sept. 11, New Yorkers gathered daily at Union Square, erecting myriad shrines and memorials. The park became an ongoing vigil, forum and sanctuary for the citizens, tolerated - but not controlled - by city authorities.

Then, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani decided enough was enough, and had the shrines and memorials cleared out, returning the park to "normal." But the episode points to the potential for redevelopment of the WTC site to make a real statement about world peace - and what democracy might look like in a city (and planet) returned to the human scale.

I understand the concerns of environmentalists who have acceded to development of new office towers at the site because they fear that expanding open space in Lower Manhattan will mean new skyscrapers going up elsewhere in Queens and Brooklyn. But those battles will have to be fought anyway. And any new skyscraper development - whether in Manhattan or the larger boroughs - will accelerate gentrification and displacement. We should reject all such calls. Instead, let's demand that Ground Zero be redeveloped on three principles: permanent open space, user development and a sense of contemplative [sic] dignity befitting hallowed ground.

(By Bill Weinberg, the editor of World War 3 Report, a weekly electronic newsletter based in New York City. Published in the 18 September 2002 issue of Newsday. Note that the original proposal was explicitly against making the WTC memorial a place for "contemplation.")