Elizabeth Street Garden Creator, and Gallerist, Allan Reiver Dies at 78

Posted on: June 1st, 2021 at 5:05 am by

Photo: Eddie Panta

The start of the holiday weekend came with sad news for residents of Little Italy and supporters of Elizabeth Street Garden. Late Friday, ESG Inc., the nonprofit that runs and maintains the garden, announced the passing of Allan Reiver in a newsletter to its members and advocates.

Cause and date of death are not yet known. Reiver was 78.

While the fate of the garden remains uncertain, Allan Reiver’s contribution to the neighborhood can’t be underestimated.

The Denver transplant took an immediate liking to the stretch of Elizabeth Street between Prince and Spring Streets upon moving to the city in 1990. Specifically because it was both historic and industrial. And he had called that block home ever since.

Before leasing the garden site from the city, Reiver rented and renovated a duplex that overlooked what was then a trash-strewn lot that the city had all but abandoned. As archival photos from the city’s tax department prove, the half-acre, block-through lot had been empty since at least the mid-1930s, and was at that time used by the public for recreational purposes.

Photo: Eddie Panta

Two years later, Reiver secured a beautification style lease arrangement with the city through the local Community Board. The deal required him to clean and maintain the lot and pay a monthly rental. Residents at the time actually feared that the land would be turned into either a municipal or commercial parking lot.

These days, it’s difficult to imagine just how risky of an endeavor this was; the area was still shrouded in mob activity, drugs deals, and petty crime which collectively stymied any recovery from the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s. But the venture would ultimately pave the way for the resurgence of the historic neighborhood.

While today the idea of “placemaking” and “open space” in urban environments are the stuff of TedTalks, Reiver was simply taking pride in an historic district and returning a sense of place to a street that the city had long forgotten. He rescued orphaned statues and architectural artifacts that private estates had discarded and installed the eclectic array of art pieces in the lot he transformed into a garden.

Photo: Eddie Panta

Within three years of Reiver’s clean-up, the neighborhood Little Italy underwent a massive transformation. Restaurateurs were among the first to see opportunity, and within short time, the neighborhood began to rebound. (And rebrand … as Nolita.)

In 2005, Reiver purchased the 1850 firehouse adjacent to the lot (complete with fire pole) that was then part of the La Rosa & Son Bread Co., and used for their office and storage of flour. Reiver restored the facade and kept intact the original signage. Yet, in a nod to his friend Jay Maisel, whose bank building at 190 Bowery became a graffiti magnet, he also tolerated the scrawls and street art on the cast iron exterior. The remaining parts of the La Rosa bakery, however, were razed and converted to luxury condos.

Reiver opened up a gallery on the ground floor of the horse-drawn fire department building in 2005.

209 Elizabeth in 2001, Photo: Eddie Panta

Known for possessing an interest in turn-of-the-century industrial artifacts, outsider art, and native American Art, Reiver was an instinctive collector who relied on his eye more than any formal education. He once said that he had always envisioned the lot as a public place, but wasn’t able to fully realize the idea until 2012. Today, the lot that the city abandoned has become one of its crown jewels. Internationally known and visited by thousands of people each year, the urban sanctuary continues its fight to be part of the city’s past, present, and future.

Allan Reiver gifted the statues and antiquities installed in the garden to the nonprofit ESG Inc. prior to his passing at the age 78.

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