RIOC Seeks to Relocate Living Library

May 27, 2017

For the last eight years, Bonnie Ora Sherk has run the Roosevelt Island Living Library & Think Park Gardens in an L-shaped plot just south of 504 Main Street, the future site of the new public library space. When the program is in session, Sherk says the 150 students she currently serves learn about garden design, create journals, and plant – learning about insects, pollination, and healthy soil along the way.


But it looks as though her garden will soon be in need of a new home. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) announced that they are closing the space currently used by the Roosevelt Island Living Library (RILL) to make way for a new playground. RIOC is looking to relocate RILL to a plot near the Octagon. 

The garden is currently located next to 504 Main Street. 


Sherk and RILL teacher Premilla Dixit Nag urged the families who use their program to join them at Thursday’s RIOC meeting to speak up on their behalf. They do not want their plot moved away, but rather, to remain adjacent to the library’s new site. 


In remarks during the public session of the meeting, Dixit Nag said, “Please do not remove that garden.The children love it. It’s very accessible. The grandparents love it. The kids study ecology. They get to experience what they learn in books. As a garden teacher, I would highly recommend you keep a garden outside the doors of the new library.”


Island Work


Sherk is an artist, landscape architect, educator, and the founder and director of Life Frames, Inc., the non-profit sponsor of A Living Library. Sherk developed Life Frames with the goal of creating a systemic approach to environmental transformation and education. Although her work is primarily based in San Francisco, CA, she has been creating and implementing designed spaces for sites around the country for over 25 years. Her dream is to have Living Libraries all over the world, linked through live interactive broadcasts.


In a phone interview from San Francisco, Sherk says she began her first project on Roosevelt Island shortly after 9/11. “I met on 9/12 with Sheri Gregory, then principal of the school [PS/IS 217]. We were determined to create a life-affirming program on Roosevelt Island.” She built a garden in the PS/IS 217 schoolyard, planted and maintained by the students. Sherk says her programming incorporates standards-based Common Core curricula.


When the garden opened at 504 Main Street, Sherk says, kids would come in during the school day or after school as part of the Beacon program, and patients from Coler and Goldwater Hospitals would come, too. 


She says her garden has been a resource for many others in the community and in nearby Roosevelt Landings. “There’s a long history of involvement,” she says. “Virginia Granata [founder of the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association] would wheel in and get her herbs: oregano and basil and mints. She was very much involved as well.”


The 504 Location


In her view, the garden’s current location, next to the future library branch, is important to the group’s mission. “Our branch Living Library & Think Park on Roosevelt Island is positioned to participate in this great opportunity, in addition to being a powerful green center for the whole community.” Also, she says, “I like [the location], it is in the center of town.” 


She argues that relocating the garden would disconnect it from the community. “This is an opportunity to grow something unique and fabulous for Roosevelt Island and the larger community,” Sherk says, of keeping RILL where it currently sits. “What better place than to be next to the library, bring the inside of the library outside and connect it to the world? This is a perfect location for it to bring in the local community.”


RILL partnered with the Roosevelt Island branch of the New York Public Library in past years. Sherk calls it the “abc’s of gardening,” and adds that this first program was developed, “with the idea that we’d develop additional programs, particularly as they open next door.”


Sherk says that plans to relocate her garden came as a surprise. At a meeting with RIOC President Susan Rosenthal and other board members, Sherk says that Rosenthal told her that RIOC was considering giving the group a three-year lease for the land. So, Sherk says, “I planned an orchard. The history of Roosevelt Island was orchards so it would be fitting. It needs benches, it needs seating, international gardens. There should not be a playground next to an orchard, it’s noisy. And there should be tables and chairs outside for people to read books.”


Roosevelt Island Garden Club President, Neil Weissman, says his group was approached about the possibility of providing space for RILL. 


“RIOC was looking for a new home for the Living Library (and their 25 families) and did approach our Garden Club in early May,” says Weissman. “Our club is fully booked with 132 plot-holding families and a dozen more associates, along with a waitlist of over 50 people. It quickly became apparent to RIOC that this was not a serious option.” 


He sympathizes with RILL’s situation. The Garden Club landed in its current location past the Octagon Soccer Field after being relocated from behind the subway station. “I can appreciate Bonnie Sherk’s disappointment. Neither of our gardens are central in comparison to the Living Library’s current location.”


He does believe there is an upside, however. “The Octagon gardens [where RIOC wants to move RILL] do have one additional advantage, and that is people can reach it and return from it, by using the Red Bus to the Octagon, unlike our club which has a bus stop in only one direction.” 


The Biennale


Sherk recently returned from Venice, Italy, where she was invited to create and show Evolution of Life Frames: Past, Present, Future at the Venice Biennale, one of the most prestigious arts and cultural institutions in the world. Her work with the Roosevelt Island Living Library & Think Park was part of her installation. Sherk says, “This has the potential to be very big for Roosevelt Island. It’s important and it’s being recognized on the world stage.” She says that folks came up to her from all over Europe, Cuba, and Costa Rica to say they want a Living Library branch. “In fact, we’re going to do one in space,” she adds. 


The Bottom Line


When it comes down to it, Sherk says, “I am interested in a positive outcome. I want RIOC proud and happy. I am interested in doing good work. The world is saying, ‘these are some good solutions, let’s take a look at this. We need places to connect in positive ways.’” 


Islanders interested in supporting Sherk and maintaining the garden’s current location can sign a petition. Sherk says there are also hard copies at the library. 




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