Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Aresh Javadi

Friday, August 30, 2013

By Erica Cooperberg, NY4P Communications Intern

From around the corner of the massive chain link fence that protects the Children’s Magical Garden on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a little girl in pink pants appeared on a recent afternoon. She stopped in front of a gap in the fence: before her lay a cement-free patch of dirt, a rarity in Manhattan, and a jungle of greenery.

“Come in! We’re open!” two voices called from a bench within the garden.

A smile slowly spread across her face and she eagerly skipped inside, bounding toward a large, colorful see-saw. She sat on one side and looked around, from the enormous wall mural to the blue bathtub planter to, finally, Aresh Javadi and his wife, Kate Temple-West. Temple-West, the Garden’s president, indulged the little girl – though, from the sound of her laughter, she was enjoying herself too – and Javadi grinned.

“Bring kids to a park, and they know what to do. It’s in their blood,” he said.

Javadi would know. Some of his most vivid memories of his childhood in Iran involve being outside in a garden: climbing trees, admiring jasmine flowers and watering plants with his grandfather.

“Gardens are important in Iran,” he said. “There is a natural inclination toward greenery and socialization in the culture.”

Add art to the mix, and you have Javadi in a nutshell. Since moving to New York City in 1989 to pursue art through further education and a career as an artist, Javadi has made his mark by creatively combining his passions.

Javadi has earned a reputation for his unusual advocacy tactics on behalf of community gardens.

His activism began in late 1998 when he learned that, under the leadership of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Cherry Tree Garden, a green space in the South Bronx that he frequented, was on the auction block.

“Cherry Tree Community Garden got attacked,” but it wasn’t the only garden in jeopardy, Javadi recalled. “There were over 100 gardens set to be auctioned off.”

Javadi knew that while gardens were important to him, not everyone felt the same. Thus, the fight became multi-faceted: impart the importance of gardens to New Yorkers, save the green spaces from being developed, motivate others to get involved and, of course, thread the arts throughout the process.

“It was about getting everyday people to understand the need for gardens in a fun and colorful way,” Javadi said. “We made puppets, performed street theater. We even created a bulldozer – made of a carriage! – that pulled apart and became a toolshed. It expressed the idea of transformation.”

The battle to save the threatened community gardens made clear to Javadi the need for more green space throughout New York City and, in 1999, he partnered with five others to create More Gardens!, an advocacy group of community gardeners and activists promoting the preservation and creation of community gardens.

The animated protests and community outreach resulted in the preservation of all the gardens slated for auction, a great victory that made gardeners realize that “the power is in our hands,” Javadi said.

But it wasn’t long before Javadi was introduced to another threatened green space, Esperanza Community Garden on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which was targeted as a site for new construction. Using the same tactics as before – eye-catching artwork paired with the cultivation of enthusiastic advocates – Javadi and his fellow organizers once again galvanized troops of supporters.

“It brought the community garden together in a way they never would have otherwise; we realized that any challenge can bring people together.”

Advocates were further brought together (literally) in a giant coqui sculpture erected in the garden. Modeled on the tiny frog that provides Puerto Rico’s nocturnal soundtrack,  the canvas structure was large enough to fit six people and drew the attention of many more.

Recalling the February day in 2000 when the garden was demolished, Javadi said, “There was red fabric in the frog’s eye, so it looked like blood pouring out when the artwork was jackhammered,” he said. “It was all about creating drama and connecting human hearts with the issue at hand.”

Today, Javadi advocates to make all community gardens permanent, having seen how vulnerable they can be if City Hall is not sympathetic to their value. His current focus is Children’s Magical Garden, which has been the subject of a contentious battle over the past few months.  The gardeners won a significant victory when the City agreed to preserve the publicly-owned portion of the garden, which is about 2/3 of the total area, as a garden, transferring it to GreenThumb, the Parks Department’s community gardening program.  However, in mid-May, the owner of the remaining third of the garden unexpectedly constructed a chain-link fence separating it from the publicly-owned part; less than two months later, the chain-linked fence was covered with tall pieces of plywood, restricting the garden from public view.

But, sitting on a bench in the middle of the garden, Javadi saw the positive in his latest advocacy effort.

“We can see the power of youth,” he said, pointing to the hand-painted signs hung around the garden that boast uplifting messages encouraging its survival. “The kids are making banners, wearing costumes.” He held up a snake head and a butterfly outfit worn by children just a night prior.

“They come to Children’s Magical garden and find their own way of expressing themselves.”

For Javadi, advocating for the city’s community gardens is much more than a job:  it’s a passion that pervades every aspect of his life.  The first thing he and Temple-West did upon returning from their honeymoon in France was attend New Yorkers for Parks’ August 15th Rally for Parks and Gardens. The couple entered City Hall plaza festooned with flowers and surrounded by friends, handing out vegetables to other participants to emphasize the bounty of New York City’s community gardens. As the rally culminated, the two stood together on the steps, Temple-West clasping four sunflowers and Javadi waving a “Save Children’s Magical Garden” sign – and an eggplant – in his right hand, and a fresh bunch of red radishes, aloft, in his left. 


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