Sunday, May 24, 2009

Gowanus Garden in Peril

Union Street beside the drawbridge, east side of the Gowanus Canal.

I'll say it again. This is my favourite garden in New York. Not one of my favourites, my favourite. I love it. I have taken spring pictures of it, and late summer pictures, and winter pictures. I have exported it to Cape Town and waxed lyrical about it.

It begs the questions: why?

I'd have to pick it to pieces to answer, and picked to pieces, rarities falter. My response is instinctive. Like love, when you know, you know.

So there's the canal. Context. In New York, for starters, with a drawbridge.

Then there's the wide concrete sidewalk on what is still a barren stretch of Union Street. Warehouses, low buildings, sun-baked, empty. Decrepit in a W.H. Auden way.

There are the old brick walls filled with graffiti...well, they used to be: they have been painted over in an unhumorous brown. That's the first loss.

There was the contradiction: cottage garden flowers like larkspurs, snapdragons and hollyhocks growing historied and tall against a canvas of urban vandalism. It was wonderful.

There are the eclectic perennials and the ten foot sunflowers. Lots of them.

So when I saw not only The Waterer there today, but his red-haired companion, I knew I'd struck gold. It was Kirstin, the Gowanus Garden Lady.

She told me how on Friday they had been informed that this Tuesday the city will be resurfacing the sidewalk, and that the part of the garden next to the road must go or be destroyed.

Just like that.

It gets complicated. Zoning laws, litigation issues, trip hazard, nice landlords, lack of ownership, fear of repercussions, Byzantine - as The Waterer put it - bureaucracy.

This little part of New York deserves a medal, a plaque, a prize, protective yellow police tape; Exceptional Status as an iconically urban garden, placing it beyond the reach of red tape. This garden IS New York. It is also living art. This is what the best of the city is: creative, beautiful opportunism.

On the one hand we have the Million Trees project, the Greenest Block in Brooklyn Contest and on the other we have, Oh, oops! This garden that graces the cesspool of the great, grey-green greasy Gowanus, in the way of our nice smooth heat-radiating trip-free concrete.

What to do?


  1. god, how frustrating is that??? ugh!
    i hope there's a better solution/outcome than paving over the garden?

  2. Paving has no reason. It just happens. No rhyme either, so little poetry to it. I for one like any gardener in a pale dress;) no need to be a dirty affair.

    This is NY of a different order. Its not the early years of who give a s*@t. It's post Giuliani, deep Bloomberg period of property rules and creativity IN ITS PLACE please.

    That strip is so little traversed...why bother? Oy, I reason, no rhyme.

  3. I'm so sorry that this wonderful little garden is in jeopardy. I hope there is a way to resolve the problem in favor of the garden. I, too, have had occasion to question paving decisions and was told that those decisions, regarding when and where to pave, are made often years in advance of the actual paving. Bureaucracies do not respond to real-time conditions and needs. Sad.


  4. 5 minutes ago, my brother emailed the obituary for Common Sense.
    Maybe I should forward it to The Gray Lady?

    I hope Kristin's many champions prevail.

  5. by the way marie, unrelated to this particular post but on my formal "to do" list this weekend is a note to tell you about a cocktail i read about in time out new york...consisting of mandarin vodka, amaretto, kumquats, and rosemary. something about the delicious-sounding pairing of kumquats and rosemary made me think of you!


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