ON a recent Saturday, Kim Mulcahey was bent over a flower bed, in scruffy shorts and a T-shirt. Like many other Americans, no doubt. But not many were in neighborhoods like this stretch of New York's Bowery, better known for flophouses and dealers in used restaurant fixtures.
Here, on a corner lot, old tires and weeds have given way to a landscaped oasis of curving footpaths and carefully tended beds. It is called Christy Garden, and for volunteers like Mr. Mulcahey, it is a refuge from a hard and crowded city. ``There are not too many places on the Bowery where you can listen to bullfrogs on a summer night,'' says Sandi Anderson, an organizer with the Green Guerrillas, a city-wide gardening group.
On the contentious Lower East Side, however, even gardens can be a source of controversy. The problem stems from an inescapable syllogism: The Lower East Side desperately needs low-income housing. Housing requires land. And land is what the gardens are on. As developers set their eyes on the neighborhood's ripe real estate, and advocates of low-income housing press their claims, Christy Garden and others like it are under siege.
So far, the controversy has been civil, with pledges of cooperation on both sides. ``We think a middle ground can be found,'' says Val Orselli of the Cooper Square Committee, a housing-advocacy group.
But as condominiums creep into this diverse, historic neighborhood, the symbolic stakes have become high. ``You can't imagine how delicate it is around here,'' says Ann Boster, a community gardener who has lived on the Lower East Side since 1970.
Until the early 70s, the neighborhood had been a poor but lively area of rent-controlled tenements and high-rise projects - a blend of urban poverty and counterculture funk. On summer nights, the streets of ``Alphabet City'' - the area between Avenue A and the East River - teemed with Latin music, cuchifritos, and men playing dominoes on wire milk crates.
It was a fragile richness, always hovering on the edge of decline. The city's fiscal crisis of the '70s tipped the balance. Police and fire protection dropped 30 percent. Community leaders accused the city of deliberately forcing out the poor to free up land for developers - ``triage,'' they called it. Within a few years, Alphabet City and the blocks south of Houston had become a Dresden of abandoned buildings and vacant lots.
In 1973, a young woman named Liz Christy marched onto a vacant lot near what is now the Christy Garden, and started clearing. At the time it was an act of defiance - beauty from ashes of the city's neglect. Soon a gardening movement was sweeping across the Lower East Side and the whole city (see story in box). Vacant lots turned into tomato beds and mini-parks. Eventually there would be close to 40, with bucolic names like ``Parque de Tranquilidad'' and ``Creative Little Garden.'' Visitors to the area in the early '80s could well be torn between deploring the destruction and admiring what these gardeners had wrought from it.
Unfortunately, something else was blooming around this time: new cars and leather briefcases outside old tenements. Residents who had struggled against arson and crime suddenly saw danger on a new front.
Gentrification became a call to arms. There was a bitter battle over proposed artist housing that residents saw as a ``wedge'' for yuppie invaders. Some began to see the gardeners playing, unwittingly, a similar role.
Tension grew as the city finally delivered on funds for low-income housing, slated for land now occupied by gardens. An eccentric artist named Adam Purple gardened one such site on Eldridge Street. He called it ``Garden of Eden'' and fertilized it with horse manure from Central Park.
Eventually, the city took it back for senior-citizen housing. But not before it became a cause c'el`ebre. Gardeners still call the action barbaric. Mr. Orselli, on the other hand, shakes his head over Mr. Purple's proposal to bury the seniors housing under his garden.
``At times, gardeners have lost the original vision,'' he says, ``that they were there to beautify a neighborhood that needed beauty for lack of housing,'' He invokes Liz Christy, the patron saint of New York gardeners, who died several years ago. There was ``no question in her mind that housing was first,'' he says.
GARDENERS bristle at the suggestion that they are agents of gentrification.
Ann Boster, for example, is the guiding force behind Parque de Tranquilidad on East 4th Street between B and C. She teaches at a Friends' school and is an ``urban homesteader'' in the tenement next to the garden. She cleared the lot with her neighbors eight years ago.
Now it is just short of magnificent, with winding paths and benches and a picnic table in the rear. It's also a possible site for housing.
Ms. Boster talks about the garden's role as a community center. There's been a marriage, a baptism, community barbecues. ``People who would not normally mix come together here,'' she says. ``We never used to have birds around here. Now we have cardinals, hummingbirds, finches,'' and the like.
``It's right in the middle of homestead land, to be used by homesteaders, not for profit,'' Boster says, attuned to the nuances of politically correct gardening. ``Quality of life is always forgotten in low-income neighborhoods.''
Maintaining an urban garden isn't easy. Boster and her colleagues pay $200 a year to the city, and another $350 for insurance. They contend not just with weeds, but also with loud radios and rambunctious kids. In winter they tried putting wire net across the fence to keep out trash. But people would steal it for pigeon coops on tenement roofs.
``A lot of people have invested a lot of time and life in this place,'' Boster says, speaking for gardeners throughout the city.
A few blocks away, at 6th Street and Avenue B is another type of community garden, in which individuals maintain their own vegetable plots. Many Lower East Side residents - Puerto Ricans in particular - have rural backgrounds, and waiting lists for such plots are common. ``People crawl out of their apartment windows to plant green beans,'' says Ms. Anderson of the Green Guerrillas.
Tuli Macibuko was just leaving the 6th Street garden when a visitor arrived. Without prompting, he offered a guided tour. The gardens promote a neighborliness not common on these streets.
Mr. Macibuko is a black South African and electrical engineer who came to America in the '60s. There are a hundred or so plots in the garden, and he seems familiar with every one. He's especially proud of one the gardeners built at knee level for a senior-citizen building. ``They don't have to bend,'' he says.
There are communal fruit trees plus a grape arbor and a majestic junk sculpture, the work of a fellow named Eddie, who lives on 5th Street. In the rear is a hut with a shaded porch on which the gardeners meet. Rain barrels collect run-off from the roof. ``We are ready for the [drought] emergency,'' Macibuko says.
But whether they can save the garden is another matter. Even with compromise on both sides, some of the Lower East Side's gardens will probably go.
Gardeners are working with the Cooper Square Committee to include Christy Garden in housing plans for the site. There will be similar negotiations throughout the Lower East Side.
``We hear good and bad things,'' says Mulcahey, noting that according to one estimate the sliver of land is worth $4 million.
Though the outlook is hazy, his enthusiasm isn't. ``It's paradise,'' he says of the garden. ``The whole world walks through every weekend. It's so interesting.''
``I'm really here all the time,'' Mulcahey says, ``when I'm not working or doing the laundry.''