This continues the blog series The Out There Side. This post celebrates the reopening of a public space on the Upper West Side.

© Robin Langsdorf

The flowers have been liberated! When my family and I returned to New York City from a July vacation at an upstate lake, one pleasant surprise was the reopening of a venue near our apartment: the West Side Community Garden.

The garden — which combines flower plots in the public area with vegetable plots in a private section — had been shuttered since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in mid-March, after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s orders to close small parks, playgrounds and other public gathering spaces.

“Of course we were not going to flout the governor’s order,” says Judy Robinson, president of the West Side Community Garden (WSCG). “But also, we felt a sense of responsibility to not make the garden a place that was causing our community to get sick.”

Photo by the author (jackcrager.com)

Thus one of the most glorious natural sights on the Upper West Side — the annual WSCG Tulip Festival — this year gave way to shuttered gates, with its iridescent crop of spring flowers behind bars as neighbors peered in. (Planted each year in November, the tulips roared into full bloom in springtime, despite the dearth of human gardeners.)

One of the few people allowed in the garden during April was professional photographer Robin Langsdorf, tasked with shooting this year’s tulip crop for the WSCG website and Instagram feed. “My goal was to try to capture the essence of the garden during the tulip festival,” Langsdorf says. “There were a lot of disappointed people who couldn’t come in. And I know how hard it was for members who have worked so hard to create such exceptional beauty.”

This spring Langsdorf was herself recovering from a Covid infection, which she believes she picked up at an event in Colorado. “I had contracted Covid pneumonia, and I was convalescing,” she says, adding that photographing the garden was “a very healing gift, for someone who loves nature and who had been suffering. What could be better than sharing beauty?”

© Robin Langsdorf

The WSCG is a grass-roots entity, founded in 1976 on an unsightly vacant lot after a group of neighbors banded together to gain access to the land and clean it up. Unlike many NYC gardens owned by the city or by private firms, the WSCG is owned and run by a 501 c(3) nonprofit corporation, whose board controls its fate. Since Covid-19 hit, Robinson says, the board has tried to balance competing concerns: “to keep the community safe — by not allowing the garden to contribute to the spread of infection — and to provide the community with a peaceful green open space, as we have for many years.”

She says the board agonized over the pros and cons of reopening. “We’ve had many discussions: When do we open, and is it dangerous? On the one hand we feel a great responsibility because we are a community-based organization; our mission is to be a resource for the community. And we were getting a lot of messages — I wish I could be in the garden, when is it going to open? — and we wanted people to be here, because that’s who we are. We’re proud of being an open garden.

“However, balancing that was the fear that, you know, once it was open you would see people congregate, that they would not wear masks, and that we would be responsible for people starting to get sick, in our space. So we’re constantly balancing these concerns.”

© Robin Langsdorf

In mid-May, after the New York State restrictions on smaller parks and public spaces were eased in preparation for Phase 2 of the Covid response, the WSCG entered an “in-between stage” in which it allowed key-holding members to enter and work in the garden. As Robinson relates: “To the members who are responsible for specific plots — either flower plots or vegetable plots in the back — we said they can come in with their keys and do what they need to do to take care of their plots—while wearing masks and keeping social distance.”

This year many of the flower plots were modified. “Usually we remove the tulips when they are finished in mid-May, and we bring in annual plants,” Robinson explains. “The Cathedral of St. John the Divine has a greenhouse that they allow us to use to grow annuals before they’re planted in our garden. But of course St. John had to close down their whole campus when all this stuff happened, so we couldn’t grow annuals.

“So when the flower gardeners came in to take out the tulip bulbs, we said you have choices: You can purchase your own annuals to fill in the space, which some people did. There are perennials in many beds — they come up every year by themselves. And we suggested that some people might want to grow vegetables in the flower gardens to donate. So you will see tomato plants and Swiss chard and beets and so on in what are usually flower plots, and they will be donated to the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.”

During this interim phase, Covid infection and death rates in New York City had been steadily waning, outdoor food and beverage service had finally resumed throughout the city, and city-owned green spaces such as the Brooklyn Botanical Garden had partially reopened with their own restrictions.

But unlike many of those places, the WSCG does not have staff members to supervise visiting patrons. “We really don’t have the capacity to enforce,” Robinson says, “and we don’t want to get into confrontations with people about who is wearing a mask and who isn’t, or about social distancing.”

© Robin Langsdorf

On August 6, the WSGC finally unlocked its gates to the public — with limited hours, noon to 7 p.m. each day. For Covid protocols (visitors must wear masks and keep social distance), it relies on signage, common sense, and an honor system. “We decided to have spot checks,” Robinson notes. “People will be there to observe how things are going for an hour or two on this day or that day, and that will give us a snapshot of what’s going on. We’re relying on our community to cooperate and keep everyone safe.”

She adds that soon the board will meet again to reassess the situation. “We’ll discuss, What have we learned? How is this going? And then, if it really seems dangerous, we will consider closing it down — or keeping it the same, or opening for more hours, or whatever.”

Like much of the city, the nation and the world, the WSCG is in a state of limbo: a balancing act between lockdown and liberation, crisis mode and new normalcy, enforced restrictions and trust in humans to use common sense. The usual summertime music and drama events are all on hold. The tulips have given way to Black-eyed Susans. The winds of autumn are gathering.

To make a tax-deductible donation to the WSCG:
• click “donate” at
westsidecommunitygarden.org
• use a phone to click the QR code on the Garden’s 89th Street bulletin board
• mail a check to WSCG, Box 20301, Park West Station, New York, NY 10025

Jack Crager is a writer and editor based in New York City (jackcrager.com).

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