It was a Sunday morning when I first came across the First Street Garden. It had snowed the night before, and I was trudging through the cold after a particularly sumptuous brunch at Cornerstone Cafe in the East Village. I was walking along First Street, between First and Second Avenues, when I stopped in my tracks, after seeing a riot of color in the middle of two nondescript buildings and, of course, all that snow.
A rather crude sign told me that the place I was looking at was the First Street Garden, although it didn’t look like much of a garden to me. The ground was covered in a blanket of snow, a huge crane was parked in the middle, and yellow “Caution” tape hung on the gate. But the murals I was looking at were, still, very inviting.
Now while that piece of yellow tape (and the presence of that heavy piece of equipment) should have kept me from entering the First Street Garden, the vibrancy of the colors I was seeing caused me to side-step that cautionary tape. Besides, I told myself, it was hanging rather low—maybe it wasn’t meant to keep people out; someone must have just forgotten to remove it.
I stepped in, and that’s when I saw the mural on my left. On a colorful, rainbow-like background were the following words, in a pretty, cursive font: “The Lower East Side Girls Club presents Women Who Change the World.” A quick search on my phone allowed me to learn more about the Lower East Side Girls Club. Founded in 1996, the club was created as a haven for girls and young women in the neighborhood, a place where they can come together to learn, grow and enjoy themselves.
As I gingerly walked around the snow-laden ground, charismatic depictions of people like Dorothy Day, Ella Baker, Shirley Chisholm and others were staring at me from the First Street Garden’s walls. I counted 19 women on the walls, all of whom had made significant contributions to society. They were not all historic activists though—I spotted the first Supreme Court Hispanic Justice Sonia Sotomayor, grinning against a bright Latina background, as well as Nydia Velazquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, whose face shone underneath bold letters that spelled out Atrevete: “Dare Yourself.”
From Alice Paul to Susan Anthony and Jeanette Rankin to Grace Paley, the walls of the First Street Garden were covered with women whose places in history can never be forgotten. While all of the murals were striking in their own right, my favorite of the lot was the mural of Rosa Parks, who was painted in a way that I hadn’t really seen before. Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus remains one of the most enduring symbols of the American civil rights movement, was, in this garden, a smiling, care-free woman, playfully winking at all who looked at her.
By now, I had done sufficient research on my mobile phone to know a little more about the makings of this colorful garden. The Lower East Side Girls Club had teamed up with 17 artists in 2011 to paint these murals as a way to celebrate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which occurs on November 25th every year. The murals were a collaboration between the artists and the teenage members of the Lower East Side Girls Club, and the result was this fantastic explosion of color on First Street, right next to Justus Schwab’s former saloon.
Unfortunately, at this point, my snooping around the First Street Garden had gotten noticed, and a man called me out of the garden, pointing at the yellow caution tape accusingly. He, however, did tell me that the garden was closed only for the winter, and that it will be open again in the spring. Until then, he said, the First Street Garden was off-limits just so as to prevent any accidents with all the snow and machinery in the garden. Once I stepped out, he pulled up the yellow tape on the gate, so as to make sure that no one else gets the same ideas as I did.
“Wait till spring,” he said, after seeing me still trying to snap pictures from outside the gate.
I nodded. The First Street Garden definitely warrants a revisit in the spring-time.
Get in touch with the author @thisisaby.