Unity Gardens is one of the many parcels of land that was converted from vacant lots into vest pocket parks. In the wake of the urban unrest of 1965, Mayor Robert F. Wagner (mayor from 1954 to 1965) and his successor Mayor John V. Lindsay (mayor from 1966 to 1973) established the Vest Pocket Park program. Through this program, land seized by the City for delinquent taxes could be leased to community organizations, which would then be responsible for the upkeep of the land. Small vacant lots wedged between buildings were transformed into beautiful escapes from the crowded city.
With the help of Parks’ GreenThumb program, citizen groups receive landscaping advice as well as planting materials. In some cases, properties can then be transferred from other city agencies to Parks, which protects the community land in perpetuity while maintenance is remains largely the responsibility of community groups.
Prior to its designation as a public garden, Unity Gardens housed a tenement building, which was seized by the City for unpaid taxes. The abandoned building was demolished and the small lot was reclaimed by the neighbors who planted small, individual gardens. This open space was proposed for development in the early 1990s. On July 15, 1997, the area was designated parkland and transferred to the protection of Parks.
Residents of this East Harlem neighborhood gave this garden its name to celebrate the ethnic mix of their community, which includes Hispanics, African Americans, and recent immigrants from the Caribbean. The land is maintained by volunteers with the assistance of the Trust for Public Land and the 128th Street Block Association. There are two long rows of planting boxes for vegetables, flowers, and spices, and in warm weather colorful annuals line the entrance on 128th Street. The gardens are used as a neighborhood meeting place, and community members sponsor clean-up and flower planting events twice a year.