Cheers to Julia’s Garden
On Saturday, September 25th, the People’s Garden was rechristened The Julia Gabriel People’s Garden, in honor of Julia Gabriel, a well-loved garden leader who contributed from its inception until her passing in 2011. Present at the dedication was a guest of honor, George Gabriel, Julia’s husband since 1956, and with her an active participant in the fight, (long-since won), to save the garden’s adjoining apartment buildings, as well as the garden itself, from demolition and redevelopment in the 1960s and 70s. George can be seen in the photo above, adorned by a lei of orchid blossoms woven by his fellow Hawaiiana, Malia — like him, a native of the island of Oahu. He is 89 and proud of it — sharp, and affable, and happy to talk with all who came to the garden to celebrate its rededication in his late wife’s name. He lacked not for conversation. Upwards of 75 people attended including 69th district assemblyman Danny O’Donnell and city councilman-elect Shaun Abreu. The Café D Trio, a production of Happy Holidayopolis and consisting of Lisa Liu, Kristy Norter, and Ritt Henn, generously provided music for the event.
I knew I wanted to write about Julia herself, but since she passed before I had the chance to meet her, I had to talk with those who knew her personally to understand what she meant for the garden. I asked Marciel Lara, the garden’s current president, how she should be described. “What do you call someone who was the hardest worker of anyone?” he wondered. “Cornerstone?” I suggested. “Cornerstone,” he nodded, “that’s right.”
Judy Elster is the secretary of the garden’s steering committee and a stalwart of the institution in her own right. After a long Saturday of planting echinacea, doing battle with slugs, and trimming overgrown weeds from the garden paths, she sat on the garden’s benches and told me the reason she thought the new name was so apt: “The garden wasn’t named for Julia because she was a donor, or a hotshot. It was because she was someone we could relate to. She was defending her home,” she told me, referring to Julia’s work to prevent the garden and its adjoining apartments from being demolished and their tenants evicted. “They were going to knock down 100-year-old buildings to make a nursing home.” Turning her head to view the garden around us, she said “You and I would have been sitting in a nursing home. And people like her, they got the developers out — peacefully.”
It should be said that the nursing home was built in the end, and it still exists along with the garden, which its tenants enjoy along with other residents of the neighborhood. In fact, one of the guarden’s most generous and active contributors, Juanita, is herself a tenant of the nursing home. In this, the garden is a reminder that the maintenance of public space and the protection of tenants’ rights need not be in conflict with the need for new development. Maintaining the garden and its surrounding community has enriched the neighborhood for new-comers and old residents alike.