Monday, June 24, 2013

A Garden Grew in the Bronx

With another summer officially underway and everything green and in bloom, I am reminded of “The Garden.” That’s what everybody in the neighborhood called it, and it was a rather remarkable piece of earth. In fact, as time marches on this garden in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx seems more remarkable than ever to me. Like so many things from the past, we took it for granted. It was there and a part of our summers. I consider myself very fortunate that the place somehow endured from 1958 to 1971. After all, this was a period of time when empty lots were slowly but surely vanishing from the local landscape. I was just nine years old when the garden was plowed under to make way for one more building, but old enough to remember its incredible uniqueness and beauty on an otherwise urban landscape.
  
The garden flourished on a sprawling empty lot—multiple empty lots as a matter of fact—on the northwest corner of Tibbett Avenue and W232nd Street. My grandfather and three other men enclosed the space with a makeshift fence comprised of assorted woods and metals. The fence was utilitarian—esthetics weren’t factored into the equation. Built into it, too, were both front and back entrances—doors that opened with actual keys that magically slid pieces of wood over to unlock them. Our Gang couldn’t have devised anything better.

Coincidentally, the garden location was directly across the street from the three-family brick house my grandfather had purchased and, too, the one where I grew up. When he originally moved his family, including my father, into the neighborhood in 1947, he had his heart set on a garden. In stark contrast from where he came from—Manhattan’s Morningside Heights—parts of Kingsbridge were downright bucolic back then. But while my grandfather pined for property with garden space, he needed tenants to help pay the mortgage and settled for a cement backyard and a couple of garages instead.
  
A friend of my grandfather's—already living in the neighborhood—told him not to worry about a garden. There were ample empty lots in the area, he said, in which he could plant one. “Victory gardens”—holdovers from the war—still existed in the environs of Kingsbridge, and my grandfather found a workable plot just up the block between W232nd Street and W231st Street. His garden was one among many garden plots there. When all were evicted so that ground could be broken for buildings that would subsequently be called "Tibbett Towers," it was time to look for another location, even with the pickings slimmer than ever.
  
Before the garden that I came to know was planted, the realtor who had the property on the market gave the gardeners his blessing. His one proviso was that they keep the place clean. It was a different world altogether in the late 1950s. The New York City bureaucracy, for one, wasn’t nearly as intrusive as it is today. Imagine a contemporary realtor—even with the consent of a property owner—permitting strangers to build a makeshift fence around the land for sale. And, too, allowing the construction of tool sheds, an outhouse, a bocce court, and a horseshoe pit with bleachers. Utilizing a fifty-gallon drum, my grandfather even dug a well on the property, which tapped into the formerly aboveground Tibbetts Brook just beneath the surface. This supplied the garden with all the water needed. My grandfather knew there was water to be found there, because just to the south in his former garden space the builders of Tibbett Towers were very literally waterlogged. The tenacious Tibbetts Brook was causing unforeseen and overly expensive problems in laying the foundations, which caused the original builder to go bankrupt. This debacle is possibly why the garden across the street from me survived as long as it did. Prospective buyers of the property were perhaps gun shy—and with good reason.  (The owner of the garden space reportedly hoped that the NYPD would build its new 50th Precinct station house there and, of course, pay his not inconsiderable asking price of $1.2 million. It didn’t happen. They found a more reasonable spot a few blocks away.)
  
The garden nonetheless was amazingly fertile. Tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, peppers, beans, and onions were grown there. The tomato crop was so bountiful that my grandparents used to make a year’s worth of tomato sauce with garden tomatoes. My grandfather once planted 148 tomato plants, which he grew from seed in a garden hotbox. The Irish contingent of gardeners grew lots of hearty cabbages because they ate lots of cabbage. Potatoes may have been the only vegetable they tried to grow in the place without success. There was something with the soil.
  
The garden, too, had fig trees, peach trees, and an apple tree on the premises. Flowers were everywhere. Big, bushy marigolds were scattered about because they repelled bugs worth repelling. Tall sunflowers were bee havens. But what I remember most about the garden were the parties thrown during holidays and on summer weekends. Yes, on someone else’s property there were festive barbecues and, as I recall, lots of adult beverages being consumed. Somebody could have gotten hit on the head with a horseshoe, or fallen into the well and drowned. Just looking into the well scared me. But people weren’t conditioned to sue one another back then, so the realtor and the property owner had very little to worry about.

The garden was an oasis in a Bronx neighborhood in a tumultuous time for both New York City and the country at large. When my grandfather passed away in 1965, my father promptly filled his shoes. I always considered it my father’s garden and mine by extension. As a boy, I thought it would always be there, but that was not in the cards. From the perspectives of young and old alike, not only "The Garden" but an entire era was bulldozed on that sad day in October 1971.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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