I’m not sure where to begin, there is so much I found interesting in this image. So I’ll start big picture, so to speak.
First, I found the mural interesting, but I am trying to rely less upon just photographing someone else’s public art, whether an official mural or graffiti. I am also fascinated by bicycles as subjects, so I wanted to get the mural and the bicycle chained to the garden fence as the two anchors to the image.
That caused a problem, as the graffiti on the pull-down metal door had a nasty vulgar word that added nothing to the image. I’m not completely opposed to including such words in my images, and I’ve been known even to say some of them myself, but this one just took over the entire picture by virtue of its placement and other factors. So I removed it, which may or may not bother some people, but I think the disclosure is adequate.
Next, the community garden is of interest, in that the Lower East Side is filled with them, and their history is deeply tied into the history of this neighborhood in the last quarter of the 20th Century at least. New York in the 1970s had a lot of truly abandoned and seemingly abandoned properties. The former were properties that the owner truly walked away from because he or she saw no way to revive it economically and the cost of maintaining it outweighed the benefits of any potential improvement. The latter were properties that the owner leaves empty, unimproved and undeveloped, but continues to pay real estate taxes and maintains some minimum upkeep to avoid condemnation.
The were a lot of both in the Lower East Side, and more so than in other neighborhoods various people tried to assert their own claims to the properties. For the most part, it appears the community gardens were the most successful at holding on to their claims. You can see why when you think about it. If a lot has an abandoned building on it, people can move in but they will have immediate trouble adding gas, water and electric service. The Department of Buildings might want to evict them for safety reasons. And as squatters, they cannot really improve the building themselves. In addition to their own likely lack of funds, it makes little economic sense to invest substantially in a building or plot of land which you do not legally own. So with a few exceptions, one of which I will get to in a later image, the people who squatted in empty buildings rarely got anywhere.
But those who took over vacant lots sometimes had better luck. Again, they weren’t able to build, but it often was possible to improve the empty unused lot into a garden. This created a clearly visible improvement at limited cost to those who engineered the transformations. They often managed to leverage this perception of a clear improvement from a rubble strewn lot into a garden into an eventual grant from the city to continued rights to maintain the space as a limited access public garden.
While many see this as a community victory, I don’t favor them. For one thing, they are not true public spaces. As this page currently indicates, “For access to the garden inquire next door at Mama’s Restaurant.” Which I did not even know when I decided to put both in the image, instead of creating separate and more complete image of both. In addition, most of them are run by groups of people who end up with as much control as private owners would have, except perhaps for the ability to sell their interest. It seems to me in many ways a negative combination of public and private land use. A simple playground, freely open and accessible to all would be better, as would a new building privately owned and providing some combination of housing, retail space, employment opportunities and paying taxes.
Finally, (and public policy discussion fortunately over), the last thing that really drew me to this scene is the handwritten, somewhat low key graffiti on “Mama’s” forehead – “Lou Reed.” I have no idea if it is related to the same text graffiti on The Lion of St. Mark’s: is it the same hand, part of a campaign or trend, or just random chance.