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Object of the Week: ‘Rites of Spring’ Procession Pamphlet

Alice Ridgway, Archivist

Last week I was surprised to see a pamphlet announcing ‘Rites of Spring’ flash past as I leafed through some American field notes in the Joy Larkcom archive. A further glance informed me of a ritual pageant of giant puppets and mobile sculptures. In this pageant, Gaia, the earth goddess, is kidnapped by New York developers. Her release depends on the butterfly angel guide and its nature spirits…

The modest black-and-white programme clearly needed further investigation. Reading through, I found it to be packed full of information about ‘Rites of Spring’ the 6th annual celebratory procession to protect over 50 New York community gardens. It seemed to be an exciting event:


SUNDAY MAY 26, 1996



Delving deeper online, I found photographs and interviews describing the esoteric occasion. Felicia Young, the pageants director and founder, speaks passionately about the procession and its symbolic representation of the struggle to survive in the big apple.

Young explains that the network of over 50 community gardens on the Lower East Side were an ecological wonder in New York City. The gardens were created out of rubble-strewn, vacant lots which were often crime dens in the 1970s. The hard work of small communities transformed these wastelands into oases of trees, ponds, and vegetable gardens.

Despite this, all of them were threatened by a proposed plan for market-rate development. Furthermore, New York refused to designate these community gardens on city maps. The pageant acted as a walking, ritualized map. Gardeners marked their plots on a giant scroll throughout the ceremony.

The day began with the ”Garden Spirits Initiation” at 10 am at the Forsyth Street Garden and Bird Sanctuary. There, 15-foot wildflower puppets would dance, as 20-foot grass puppets sprang forth. A roving pageant then commenced, in which Gaia was kidnapped by developers in gargoyle masks.

The costumed actors and musicians visited 25 gardens whilst performing to a strict schedule of events. The birth, marriage and abduction of Gaia were acted out at 1 pm and the flight of the butterfly angel, a gigantic sculpture at 3:30. At 4:30 pm, a mock battle of the ‘floral good guys’ vs ‘evil developers’ was staged in a small field along the way. People throw flour to create the illusion of smoke.

In a dramatic finale at 6 pm, the developers were turned into butterflies, and Gaia was freed. 60 live butterflies were released in the closing ceremony at the Green Oasis Garden on Eighth Street which symbolised the future protection of the gardens.

I have become accustomed to 1980s Japanese seed catalogues, photo slides of European gardens and detailed notes on vegetable cultivation in Joy Larkcom’s comprehensive and visually rich archive. However, Larkcom also visited many community gardens in New York and other American cities, making detailed notes of their designs and layout.

I found the diverse community groups within these small garden plots fascinating. In a Berkely community garden, Joy states that the majority of the gardeners were Chinese. Due to the tradition of farming in China and growing efficiently, many plots of limited space were grown entirely vertically with intricate gourd growing structures.

On Avenue C in New York, Joy mentions a Puerto Rican community garden where growers viewed gardening as a mystical experience. The plants grown across the community gardens range enormously, with okra, broccoli, melons, tobacco and peach trees all making appearances.

The annual Rites of Spring procession lasted 15 years, from 1991 – 2005, providing meaningful engagement for thousands in its earth celebration and raising awareness for the importance of green space in cities. Today, community gardens continue to crop up and New York now boasts over 600. They provide the city’s residents with a rare place to relax and connect with nature, serving as front porches and backyards where neighbours meet, play, grow produce, and gather.

Thanks to ephemeral gems in archives such as Joy Larkcoms, New York cultural memory and the ‘Rites of Spring’ spirit live on.