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Kill the Zombie Park Already Part III: The Hidden Problem

By Alec Pruchnicki

When I started writing about the Elizabeth Street Garden last year, I made about a dozen trips there and to the surrounding parks, playgrounds, and gardens and became aware of an aspect of this controversy that has been unmentioned: race. This year, to confirm or refute my suspicions, I completed a very unofficial survey of these places.

Over the last few months, I’ve made five or six visits to the Elizabeth Street Garden and to the surrounding parks (Petrosino Square, the DeSalvio Playground, the Liz Christy Garden, First Park, and Sara D. Roosevelt Park, north of Grand Street, including the M’Finda Kalunga Garden). By simple observation, I noted who at that site appeared White, Black, Hispanic, or Asian. I also counted children and elderly/disabled persons (anyone with a cane, walker, or wheelchair). The visits were made on clear Sundays and Saturdays from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., with one on Saturday from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. and one on Friday from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. (The Elizabeth Street Garden and Liz Christy Garden were both closed during that Friday.) I observed over 2,000 individuals in all.

In the Elizabeth Street Garden, I counted a total of 178 Whites (82%), 7 Blacks (3%), 6 Hispanics (3%), and 27 Asians (12%). There were 14 children (6%) of various races, and only 1 elderly person (0.5%). By contrast, the combined numbers for the other parks were 884 Whites (47%), 336 Blacks (18%), 313 Hispanics (17%), and 332 Asians (18%), with 223 children (12%) and 14 elderly/disabled people (0.8%). Petrosino Square had 73% White clientele and the Liz Christy Garden had 74% White clientele; the others had higher minority numbers.

Then, to compare this apparent imbalance to the neighborhoods they served, I juxtaposed my findings against the racial makeup of the surrounding area, as determined by the 2000 U.S. Census (maps.nyc.gov/census/). Manhattan Census Tract 43, in which the Elizabeth Street Garden is located, (Bowery to Broadway, Spring Street to Houston Street) was 60% White, 2% Black, 13% Hispanic, and 25% Asian (other groups and rounding errors account for the missing 3%). The surrounding tracts, with numbers unadjusted for population, average 55% Whites, 4% Blacks, 12% Hispanics, and 27% Asians.

Within the limits of this observational study and the 17-year-old census numbers, it appears that the Elizabeth Street Garden serves a clientele which is disproportionally White when compared to other neighborhood parks or the immediate or extended neighborhood in which it lies.

Is this due to racism, prejudice, or intentional discrimination? No. The Elizabeth Street Garden is understandably designed to be attractive and high-end, keeping with Allan Reiver’s Elizabeth Gallery business interests, and that is exactly what it has achieved. But, when you aim for high-income customers you attract a disproportionately White population, given the U.S. economic system.

So what? Business interests and even parkland can’t be expected to appeal to a completely diverse population all the time. So, why is this a problem?

First, there is a housing crisis in this City. The lottery selection process is much more likely to produce beneficiaries who reflect the demographics of Little Italy and the City as a whole than the present individuals who enjoy the luxury of the Elizabeth Street Garden. Second, if housing is killed on this site, what message does this send to the rest of the City? Since the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, communities in the outer boroughs have complained that Manhattanites, who are often more affluent, organized, and White, have received better treatment from the City government than the poorer, less politically-connected minority communities throughout the City. This actually could foster feelings of targeted discrimination, even if it is unintentional.

Build housing on Elizabeth Street already.

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