The Not-So-Secret Gardens

by CLAIRE WILLETT · April 15, 2008

garden [Photo via PPS]

There's something about spring that lets down even the most guarded Manhattanite's barriers. When the sun's out, the way it is today, the city shrinks, and people smile at strangers, or at least don't frown. Yesterday, outside the garden behind St. Mark's church, a construction worker and an elderly head-scarved babushka leaned in silence against the fence, staring at the magnolias. Two little boys, holding 99-cent slices from 2 Bro's Pizza, join them. Suddenly I feel I'm in a small town....

I sort of love walking down the street and knowing nobody. I like the mystery, like that everyone has a story, and I haven't read any of them. I also love the ways these individual points converge. I live on the outskirts of Alphabet City, and when I first explored it, what I was most struck by was the presence of community gardens. In the 1970's, when Alphabet City leaked drugs and blood, some residents decided to plant gardens in abandoned lots. The city bulldozed a few, but many remain.

Today the garden at B between 5th and 6th boasted dreadlocks, houndshooth caps, baseball hats, all bent over various plots, dragging burlap sacks, having weeding competitions. Two young mothers chatted under an enormous elm as their toddlers pushed trucks around its roots. The garden at 5th and C has had its fence decorated with flowers made from old cans and soda-bottles. The weather has muted what originally must have been garish colors into a soft silver, though pink and blue whisper about. Many of the gardens contain sculptures in either bronze or clay, but this one has a soaring, almost ominous tower that resembles an engorged totem pole. The tower is made entirely of trash, but it doesn’t look like a concept, like, “oh cool a tower made of trash.”

The detritus has swirled and melded into a striking and fitting material. I can’t imagine the art would be prettier in a different form. Kids are playing tag here, while their mothers scold gently, in Spanish and English, as they water and weed. I stay for a while, even though I'm supposed to be in a class over a mile away. Living in this city has its challenges, but it's worth them.