The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Friday, September 17, 2021

Allan Reiver, who built a little urban oasis in New York, dies at 78
The Elizabeth Street Garden in New York on June 19, 2016. Allan Reiver, who in 1990 salvaged an abandoned lot in Little Italy and transformed it into the tiny urban oasis now called the Elizabeth Street Garden, which for nearly a decade has been locked in a contentious battle with the city for its survival, died on May 17, 2021, at a rehabilitation facility in Manhattan. He was 78. His son, Joseph Reiver, said the cause was cardiac arrest. Aaron Zebrook/The New York Times.

by Alex Vadukul

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Allan Reiver, who in 1990 salvaged an abandoned lot in the New York City neighborhood of Little Italy and transformed it into the tiny urban oasis now called Elizabeth Street Garden, which for nearly a decade has been locked in a contentious battle with the city for its survival, died May 17 at a rehabilitation facility in Manhattan. He was 78.

His son, Joseph, said the cause was cardiac arrest. His death was not widely reported at the time.

Well before Reiver became the long-white-haired steward of Elizabeth Street Garden, he was known for having an eye that saw things others couldn’t.

In the 1970s, he was an antiques dealer in Denver who specialized in collecting artifacts such as gargoyles and stained-glass windows from historic buildings that were set to be demolished. He then became a real estate developer and made a name for himself for his ability to spot opportunities in run-down neighborhoods. In his 40s, Reiver headed to New York to open an antiques gallery, and he started salvaging treasures from abandoned Gold Coast mansions on Long Island. In 1989, he moved into a loft on Elizabeth Street.

As he settled into his apartment, he noticed a destitute lot across the street. It had once housed a public school’s playground, but it was now an image of ruin, filled with trash.

“Here’s a vacant lot full of overgrown grass, a couple of old cars, and it had been sitting there for 10 years just going to waste,” Reiver said in a 2019 interview with the Cultural Landscape Foundation. “I thought I could make something beautiful out of it.”

Reiver approached the local community board to express his interest in renting the lot, which was owned by the city. An agreement was brokered stipulating that he could rent it for $4,000 a month as long as he maintained it as a parklike environment. Thus, Reiver became the garden’s caretaker, and he spent a year converting it into the quirky marvel of do-it-yourself, urban landscaping that it is today.

He applied sod, laid gravel walkways, put up a fence and planted two pear trees. He filled the space with sculptures, rows of columns and a grandiose stone balustrade. He also installed an iron gazebo designed by the Olmsted Brothers that he obtained from a Gilded Age estate. Today, poetry readings are held there on summer afternoons.

Throughout the 1990s, Reiver used the space as an outdoor showroom for his gallery and the park was not open to the public. As time passed, the little garden’s idyll blossomed, but the neighborhood began to change.

Little Italy started to shrink, and people began to call the area Nolita. In 2005, when Reiver bought the firehouse abutting the garden as his new home and relocated his business onto its ground floor, the garden became accessible to those who wished to enter through his gallery.

In 2013, Reiver learned that the city wanted to build affordable housing on the garden’s site. The battle for the park’s survival was ignited.

The resulting proposal, known as Haven Green, would be a seven-story building offering 123 units to older residents, and the plan has pitted advocates of open space against those of affordable housing.

The garden’s defenders say that green spaces are vital to the city and insist that an alternative site for the building could be found. The other camp says that providing housing for low-income seniors who need it takes precedence, and that the garden shouldn’t get special treatment.

In response to the news about the city’s plan, Reiver opened the park as a full-fledged community garden, and volunteers started running it year-round. By 2019, the fate of Elizabeth Street Garden had become an impassioned local cause, and a lawsuit was filed against the city to stop the proposed building’s development. The park’s future remains in legal limbo, with a decision awaited from New York State Supreme Court.

“I did what I did as a developer, which was change the character of the neighborhood, improve the character of the neighborhood and do something that no one had thought of doing,” Reiver told The Daily News in 2018. “All of a sudden the neighborhood changed.”

Allan Shelton Reiver was born Dec. 4, 1942, in Washington, D.C. His father, Oscar, ran a pizza parlor and a liquor store. His mother, Mary (Wishnia) Reiver, worked with her husband. As a boy, he liked to collect ornate doorknobs from old buildings in his neighborhood, and he’d try selling them.

He graduated from the University of Maryland and the University of Houston Law Center. In 1970, he settled in Denver, where he started an architectural salvage business that also operated as an antiques dealership. He later expanded the company into a real estate development firm called Realities and began finding success with projects in depressed areas.

In the 1980s, he helmed a multimillion-dollar luxury retail and office development project called Broadway Plaza that planned to revitalize a Denver neighborhood. But the project ended in catastrophe and failed to gain traction. Reiver and his business were named in more than 30 lawsuits. He then headed to New York for a fresh start.

“My father was a private man, and most people didn’t even know he built the garden,” said Joseph Reiver, executive director of the nonprofit that manages the park. “When he first came to New York, he was rough around the edges, and this neighborhood was also rough around the edges. I think how the neighborhood changed is reflective of how he changed. He built himself up here just like this abandoned lot.”

In addition to his son, Reiver's survivors include a daughter, Jackie.

As he grew older, Reiver was troubled by the park’s undetermined fate.

“This is my soul,” he said in a 2019 interview for the website 6sqft. “This was supposed to be my legacy to the city.”

But he found peace in the garden.

He eagerly awaited the figs each summer from a tree his son planted years ago. And just like the stone lions that guard the park, he could dependably be seen sitting on the same bench most afternoons. Occasionally a visitor enchanted by the garden would approach him.

“Who built this place?” the visitor would ask.

“I built it,” he would reply.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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