On July 2, 1977, a seventeen-year-old boy set fire to an abandoned tenement building on New York City’s Lower East Side. This fire was just a flicker in an enormous mid-1970s arson wave that struck New York’s poorest neighborhoods; it is remembered today only because a young firefighter named Marty Celic fell to his death as the building collapsed.
Today the site, on East Eighth Street between Avenue C and Avenue D, is the home of a flourishing community garden named in Celic’s memory. A couple of dozen individual plots of flowers, herbs, and vegetables surround a large common green. The garden, which is maintained entirely by neighborhood residents, was born as a wildcat operation in the years after the arson; Ladder Company 18, where Celic served, has given substantial support. The project was given the city’s official blessing and protection, under a program called “Operation Green Thumb,” in 1988....
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