Thursday, September 23, 2010

Garden of Paradise

From the late 1950s through October of 1971, a rather expansive and diverse garden bloomed on the northwest corner of West 231st Street and Tibbett Avenue in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. My grandfather—and eventually my father—planted it in concert with a few locals. There were fruit trees (fig, peach, and apple), vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants), and plenty of herbs (parsley, basil, and oregano). Marigolds, begonias, and sunflowers, to name just a few, added complementary colors to this vast field of green in a borough of mostly brick and asphalt. And courtesy of a makeshift well that tapped into Tibbetts Brook, which flowed undaunted beneath several feet of city landfill, the place never went dry. Employing a fifty-gallon drum with its bottom cut out, my grandfather knew exactly how to dig such a thing and make it work. These old timers from the old country knew how to do all sorts of things.

This sprawling "victory garden" actually sprang to life on somebody else’s property—land that was up for sale. A local realtor gave my grandfather and company the green light to plant on it with one proviso: keep the place neat and clean. This sort of informal handshake wouldn't and couldn’t possibly cut it today. In essence, the garden’s days were numbered from the outset. Its demise could have come at any moment, without warning, and it subsequently did. Still, we somehow assumed it would endure forever. It was so much a part our lives—a neighborhood fixture. Big parties were regularly thrown in the garden during summertime holidays and on weekends, while games of horseshoes were regularly played on a makeshift horseshoe pit. The conscientious caretakers of this piece of earth not only converted a vacant parcel of urban terra firma into an oasis of green for more than a decade, but they also drank a brewery’s worth of beer within its confines.

When, in the name of progress, the garden was plowed under in 1971, it was a body blow to an awful lot of people, including the nine-year-old me. Written by neighbors, a short obituary even appeared in the local paper, the Riverdale Press. It was headlined: “Bulldozers Plow Under Garden of Paradise…Last Kingsbridge Farm.”

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the abiding garden ambiance even more. The mere fact that it survived for as long as it did, relatively undisturbed during the tumultuous 1960s, is remarkable in and of itself. Only a patchwork fence surrounded the place. And, too, empty lot after empty lot in the area were being developed.

I have mostly piecemeal memories of the garden and some pictures. But the photographers back then weren’t especially interested in posterity. They weren’t, for example, zeroing in on the well, the garden’s underground water source, nor were they snapping shots of the various shacks that were haphazardly constructed to accommodate tools, seeds, and such. In retrospect, these were all rather incredible things in a Bronx neighborhood.

On occasion, certain odors resurrect memories of the old garden. Smell memory. A combination of high summertime humidity, tomato plants, and the scent of marigolds do the trick every time. Talk about atmosphere! What I wouldn’t give to chow down on a couple of hot dogs and sample a few cold ones at a weekend barbecue amidst this leafy, aromatic sea of Bronx green, an oasis that is no more and will never be seen again. The bulldozers did indeed plow under a garden of paradise.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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