My name is Maryanne Kuzniar. I was born and raised in the suburbs of New Jersey, and that's when I started gardening—helping out in the backyard with our vegetable garden and pruning flowers and things. And then, I traveled around a lot of in my early career as a hairstylist, and so I got to garden in England a bit, and California, and the most extensive gardening I did was when I lived in Italy for eight years. There's something really peaceful and restful about doing it (gardening), but it's hard work at the same time. It's mentally relaxing and it's lovely to see things, you know, either sprout from seed or from little seedlings to, you know, a full mature plant that's giving your tomatoes for example. I don't grow a lot of vegetables. I do mostly flowers. But, I always put basil in amongst my tomatoes. I like to mix it up a little bit, you know. I like it to have indigenous plants, but I also like to have some kind of color happening at some point. So if that means going to the farmer's market and picking up a perennial, just to add a little color, I'll do that.
This is my second stay in New York. My first stint was from 1987 to 2001. I moved here from California, which was all bright and sunny and peace and love. Leaving my building every day, I would see a small little garden on Second Street between Bowery and Second Avenue, Albert’s Garden, and wonder about it. And one day, I saw a woman in there and so I asked her and it turned out to be the head garden keeper, Louise Kruger, who also lived on the block. Albert was a friend of hers, and he helped turn the plot. It was basically one townhouse, one or two townhouses, that were torn down. And so the City, I believe in the sixties, maybe seventies, I don't know, made it into a basketball court, but it was really neglected and in poor conditions in a drug ravaged area.
So, I began to volunteer there. I was involved at Albert’s garden for about three or four years, from 1988 to 2003. By the time I moved in in 1987, the garden had been going for a good 15 years. I was very happy to help. The most amazing thing with these gardens is they are in the middle of dense metropolis. You walk through the gate and immediately feel the peace and quiet that green space gives us. And it's so essential I think, really, to so many urban dwellers to have that sense and have that green space nearby that you can go and visit.
At that time in the eighties, real estate was on the upswing. The city, trying to generate revenue, put many gardens on the auction block. It did not matter if the plot was a community garden with green thumb status, it went on the auction block anyway, and they were not telling people about this. There were a lot of speculators, especially in the East Village, that were buying these plots at auction, city auction. So, if you were not someone who picked up the newspaper every day and checked the auction block listing, then you could see your garden be bought out from under you, which happened to a lot of gardens in the East Village.
Louise Kruger was very vigilant in keeping the garden, and luckily she saw that Albert's Garden was on the auction block and so called everyone we knew. The 10 or 12 people that were active in the garden called everyone they knew, and they called everyone else that they knew. It was the early spring, maybe winter or early spring of 1989, and Ed Koch was in a heated primary with David Dinkins. So, someone got to his office and explained the situation and it just happened to be a Monday, which was my day off. And I'm in the garden and I see this black limo pull up and stop in front of the garden. The window goes down, this is all dark tinted glass. Ed Koch sticks his head out, looks around the garden, doesn't get out of the car, just sticks his head out and looks around, window goes up, car pulls away. By the end of the day the garden was off the auction block. They took it off. He called whoever he needed to call and took off the garden, and after that we applied for permanent park. And they, they got it.
(Laughs) It was pure luck that I was there to catch that and also to have looked up, you know, I could've been absorbed in a book or digging, my back to the thing, but I just happened to look up to see this limo pull up and see the whole transaction. (Laughs) It’s like, what is that French saying? L'esprit de l'escalier, the thought ascending the staircases, that you know, I wish I had jumped up and run to the thing and talk to him about it, but instead, it happened so quickly and I just kind of sat there and watched it. And it wasn't until after he pulled away that I thought, gee maybe that was somebody from the city checking to see, because I knew that we had been trying to contact whoever we could to save it, and sure enough it was Ed Koch.
So it's a lovely, lovely little garden, that sadly I rarely find it open anymore. I believe they have open hours, but it's hard for me to get over there during open hours. There's a lovely Koi pond there that Albert himself dug. He was a lover of fish. And, there was a peach tree there that we call Albert's tree because he was a lover of fruit and would often sit around the pond, and eat peaches and toss the nut. One of these nuts took hold, and a peach tree grew from, from his peach eating (Laughs).
-This story contributes to a larger project, Garden Memories: An Oral History of Urban Community Gardens, conducted by Elizabeth Eggimann. Elizabeth is an environmentalist and student researcher at Pace University.