By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo New Editor
EAST VILLAGE — Rats usually aren't the kind of critters that inspire art.
But for the residents of small co-op building on East First Street, their rodent neighbors have done just that.
A group of tenants on the block have been increasing their efforts to transform a vacant, city-owned lot near Second Avenue into a community sculpture garden as a way to enliven the derelict property — and run out the rats that have made their home there.
Their project, called First Street Green, aims to convert the abandoned site into a community-based cultural space by exploring ways to reclaim the property that has sat dormant for decades and become a haven for the unsightly vermin.
The plan grew out of frustration among co-op tenants over having to deal with the rat nuisance and the accompanying city violations that wound up on their doorstep, despite the fact that the lot is owned by the city Parks Department.
“About two years ago, fed up with the whole process, we came up with an idea to turn it into a garden or a park — to shoot high,” said Scott Pfaffman, 55, a former resident of the co-op at 35 E. First St., who owned an art gallery on the ground floor that closed after 9/11.
When that same storefront recently became vacant, the co-op reopened it as a community art gallery and began selling donated works to help fund the project.
A June 25 benefit — which saw members of the Lower Eastside Girls Club decorate the fence in front of the lot with colorful rat cutouts — raised more than $2,000, Pfaffman said.
“We had something to rally around,” he noted of the fundraiser. “It really lifted everybody’s spirits. Frankly, that may be the major benefit of a project like this. We have to keep our morale up, especially these days.”
The project’s main proponents, including nearly all the tenants of the 10-unit co-op building, also received help from a pair of local architects who donated design plans for how the space could function.
A preliminary rendering of the site features a community center at street level, with an above-ground sculpture garden and green space running along its roof — an ambitious plan that supporters say would take many years and millions of dollars.
“We have to be open-minded, the ideas could change,” said Ann Shostrom, 59, an artist who’s lived in the co-op since 1986. “It’s been nice to be kind of casual and have people who have energy and expertise” contribute to the project.
The Parks Department has been receptive to the idea so far, and is even working to renovate a rundown ribbon of parkland along the north side of Houston Street that connects to the vacant lot, Shostrom said.
“We understand that the community is currently raising funds and further developing their proposal,” Parks Department spokesman Phil Abramson said. “We look forward to reviewing it once it is submitted to us.”
But before the group’s grand vision can be realized, the main issue remains removing the “rat warren” that has developed in the rubble beneath the paved-over lot.
“If you had some sort of a building there taking up the space below, it would be better for the rat situation,” Shostrom said.
The group is next planning to certify First Street Green as a nonprofit organization, and will host poetry readings and screenings at the gallery space to further outreach and fundraising efforts.
Until then, the group is hoping that some art-minded benefactors may get behind the project.
“New York is full of civic-minded people who love art and love parks, and we might get lucky,” Shostrom said.
“It can happen. It takes time and it takes a lot of effort, but it’s possible.”