Photo: Christopher Bonanos
St. Vartan Park, a two-and-three-quarter-acre slice of Murray Hill that’s bordered on one side by the entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, is not exactly what you would call bucolic. It’s well loved and lively, but it’s mostly paved, with basketball and handball courts and a busy playground. But locked behind a high iron fence at the First Avenue edge of the park is what the Parks Department website calls a “secret garden”: a pretty, grassy greensward planted with mature magnolia trees, tulips, irises, and rose bushes. In truth, it is not so much secret — anyone can peer in — as it is private. It’s off-limits to all but the children and parents of St. Vartan Preschool, a small playgroup that meets there on weekday mornings under the guidance of Stefanie Soichet. She’s a Parks Department employee who has presided over the preschool, and the garden, for more than two decades.
And the secret is out. In the coming weeks, the Parks Department is expected to open the garden to the general public, and that has divided the community: Those who believe the neighborhood’s only green public space should be public are squared up against (as one supporter put it) “Team Stefanie,” which insists that opening the garden will destroy it. “That’s like her home,” said a dismayed mother whose child attended St. Vartan Preschool.
Kevin O’Keefe is the chair of Community Board 6’s Environment and Parks Committee, and when he was appointed to the job in November of last year, he started trying to figure out the story behind the locked garden. “If you look at the map, Midtown Manhattan is starved for green space between First and Tenth Avenue,” he said. “I talked to a lot of people, and they told me there was this understanding between Stefanie and the city and that it couldn’t be changed. St. Vartan Preschool had access to it, but not the community.” On its website, the school boasted of a “pristine” and “private” garden “where the children can run freely.” But the school served a tiny number of students — perhaps a dozen at a time — and admissions, as far as O’Keefe could tell, seem to be based on Soichet’s whims and the requirement that parents attend with their children, ruling out families in which both parents work. (Grandparents are allowed as substitutes, although that doesn’t make the rule much less exclusionary.)
The more he learned, the more frustrated O’Keefe became. During the Depression and World War II, he learned, the plot had served as a vegetable garden, which at the time was as much about boosting morale as producing food. It isn’t clear when access was restricted, but the Parks Department said that “to our knowledge, the area has always been closed.” O’Keefe said that a pack of local Cub Scouts used to work in the garden, picking up trash and pulling weeds, and although their labor was welcome twice a year, that was the only time they were.
And then there was the thing with Tom Brady’s son. In June, a local mother, Erica Rand Silverman, spoke at a Parks committee meeting and noted that she and her 8-year-old had walked past the garden a few weeks earlier and spotted what looked like a private picnic. “My son was like, ‘Oh, my God, how do we get in there?’ and I was like, ‘We can’t,’ ” Silverman said. O’Keefe said that when he brought it up with Soichet, she’d responded, “Oh, well, that was Tom Brady’s son.”
“It needs to be open to the community — we started out with that in mind,” said O’Keefe. “But this so-called preschool took this space that was supposed to be for the public good and turned it into a bastion of inequity.” Which brings up a question: If you tend a neglected asset and take better care of it than the city would, does that somehow give you a claim on it?
“Everyone thinks that my mother magically built this gate,” sighed Antonella Sturniolo, Soichet’s daughter, a 24-year-old Johns Hopkins medical student. “That garden space has been gated since the 1930s.” (Possibly earlier; some records suggest that it has never been open since the park was built in 1904.) Sturniolo says she’s presenting her mother’s case to me because Soichet, as a Parks Department employee, can’t speak without Parks’ permission. (That permission was not forthcoming, especially after a Patch article, published earlier this month, quoted Soichet calling the public “greedy” for wanting access and claiming that “most of the community loves looking through the gates … it’s just a handful of pushy people who want to be on the grass, and I’m worried for the grass.”)
Sturniolo described her mother as something of an unworldly sprite — “she’s like this very pure, compassionate, trusting, and light, fairylike person. She’s like the fairy godmother of the garden,” said Sturniolo. She uses little technology and doesn’t own a computer, though she speaks six languages fluently. “Before she took over the space, it was just, like, a grass plot. There was nothing there. She planted everything in that garden,” said Sturniolo. “That’s why when she says ‘mine,’ it may not have been completely interpreted right. It’s like her office, but obviously you don’t own your office.” (“Every petal, I kiss. I speak to every flower,” Soichet told Patch.)
During World War II, local kids raised vegetables in a victory garden in St. Vartan Park, then known as St. Gabriel’s Park.
Photo: ClassicStock / Alamy Stock Photo
Though she receives a salary of just under $50,000 a year as a “recreation specialist,” she is described on the school’s website as “a liaison to The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Friends of St. Vartan Park.” The site also says that family members may rent the school on weekends for private birthday parties. One parent remembers that the playgroup’s tuition was a relatively modest $600 or $700 per semester, and Sturniolo said that it goes to the program, not to her mother. (Although when I asked about that, Parks seemed surprised to hear that tuition was being charged at all. “NYC Parks has not charged tuition or fees for this programming. We are actively looking into this matter,” its representative wrote.) A Parks Department gardener helps to maintain the garden, but Soichet maintains an unusual level of involvement: the irises and hundreds of Dutch tulips were gifts from friends of hers. One area is known as the ‘Stefanie rosebushes.’ “Whenever a plant or flower or tree has died, my mother has replaced it,” Sturniolo said. “It’s this magical oasis in New York City.”
As for the Tom Brady business, that was one more example, Sturniolo says, of people trying to twist her mother’s love and care of the garden into something nefarious. Through a family friend, Tom Brady heard about the garden. “His wife” — Gisele Bündchen — “is super into nature and donating trees,” and they sent their son over to check it out. “He went there to scout the space to see if his mom would like to donate some trees,” said Sturniolo. “It had nothing to do with Tom Brady — it had to do with trees.”
Soichet is, by all accounts, fantastic at leading the playgroup. (The Parks department emphasized that it’s “not Pre-K, 3K, or Kindergarten instruction” — in other words, not a private school.) “We loved it,” said Amy Sticco, who attended for four years with her daughter. When I visited the park, Sticco was picnicking with a group of mothers, many of whom had gone through the program with their children as well. They described raking and gardening, story time and playing in the snow. Soichet was “quirky,” said the mothers, who admitted that the sessions, three hours long, could sometimes “feel like a lifetime,” but no one was more dedicated to the garden. “If it’s open to the public, it wouldn’t be maintained,” said Sticco. “And that’s her selling point.” Another mother, Erin Malina, nodded. “It wouldn’t be attended to like she would take care of it,” she said. If the garden were open to the public, they suggested, it would become a hangout for homeless people, as the plaza in front of a nearby building has.
“There is a concern about the garden becoming littered and homeless people using it as a place to live,” said David Sall, a neighbor whose two children attended the St. Vartan playgroup when they were young. “But that’s a Parks and Police Department issue, and we have every reason to expect that Parks would handle upkeep like they would at any other park.” His younger child now goes to the public River School, directly across the street. “Stefanie is a wonderful person with a following of wonderful parents,” said Sall. “And they will support Stefanie, and I support Stefanie as well — but we need this green space. The local leaders have given us no other place to go. We hope they see how starved we are for green space.” Nor does the public’s use of the lawn preclude the playgroup from using it; the two could coexist just fine, as they do in other parks around the city.
Sturniolo turns that logic around, arguing that people don’t need to visit this one little garden when they have access to other areas — like, say, Bryant Park, about a 20-minute walk away. She also, perhaps disingenuously, points to the giant vacant development site between St. Vartan and the United Nations, a four-block-long parcel that developer Sheldon Solow purchased in 2000 with plans for a $4 billion megadevelopment and five acres of public parkland. Solow, who died last year, finished only one tower and sold off a few small chunks. The rest of it is “just sitting there,” she said. “The parents who are interested in green space should definitely look into it.” (“Community Board 6 chair Kyle Athyde and I have been addressing possibilities for this space before and after Sheldon’s passing,” said O’Keefe. “But the big difference between its status and that of St. Vartan Park — one is private space, and St. Vartan is of course public.”) It also seems extremely unlikely that the Parks Department will somehow buy the Solow site, which could now cost upwards of a billion dollars.
It comes down, as you’d expect, to control. The St. Vartan garden, Sturniolo said, “needs to be monitored. If it’s not monitored, it would be damaged. And right now my mother is the only one who is monitoring it. She knows where every flower is planted, where to step, where not to step, what to weed out, what not to weed out. When people say, ‘We only want the grass, not the flowers,’ maybe this is not the space—” by which she seems to mean that if you just want to sit on a lawn, you should go find one elsewhere.
Parks doesn’t yet have a date for when the garden will open, but there will be a trial period this fall, probably starting this month. It will be accessible five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with medium-height fencing around the flowers and plantings to protect them. It will be for “passive recreation” only — no sports, no pets. For the most part, it will be up to the public to take care of it. Which is how public space, for better and worse, works. As beautifully as Soichet has kept the garden, it was never hers. There’s a difference between feeling a sense of ownership and actual ownership.
When it does open, it will be the first time in many months that anyone besides Soichet, her family, and her occasional child-of-a-supermodel-and-a-quarterback guests will have passed beyond the gates. The playgroup hasn’t been meeting during the pandemic, nor have the Scouts been in. Kim Salvo, the assistant cubmaster of the Cub Scout pack, said the kids have really been looking forward to resuming their visits. “City kids don’t usually do that stuff — using a rake or planting seeds,” she said. “Every time we’re there, people in the neighborhood will be like, ‘Oh my God, the gates are open!’ That’s how we always thought of it, too — that it was just this elusive gated space, a showpiece just for viewing pleasure. I never thought of it any differently, just that I was privileged for getting to go in there twice a year.”