el jardin del paraiso – the middle years

In the middle of New York City, I can hear bullfrogs and see fireflies at night in the summer from the community garden next to our building. Until the kabosh came down, for many years we woke to the sound of roosters crowing. The garden had been a rubble-strewn lot that was reclaimed by the community and became a park (click here for early history and photos). As soon as the green took hold, children flocked to the garden. It was a good place for playing tag and red rover and climbing trees. The mulberry tree feeds neighborhood kids every June with organic berries. They perch on the branches like birds focused on berry picking with their mouths and fingers stained purple.

Oona – Rites of Spring celebration. Photo: David Schmidlapp.

Oona – Rites of Spring celebration. Photo: David Schmidlapp

The elementary school on the block holds classes in the garden. One year the students constructed a weather station that I thought was brilliant and I would watch from the window as they measured the wind and humidity and jotted down data in their notebooks. The children identify plants and test soil and study in the sun.

Photo: David Schmidlapp

Children have always helped with the work in the garden, because they like the dirt and moving rocks around.

Photo: David Schmidlapp

Photo: David Schmidlapp

Camelia and Julie on a garden workday

By the year 2000, the garden had turned the corner. It became lush and wild. The dirt was soil and not brick dust. Things grew by themselves. Wild birds and firefiles came. You can smell the dirt and the green as soon as you approach El Jardin. You can hear crickets in the middle of Manhattan.

Pirates in the wilderness at a birthday party.

A lovingly handmade pinata at the mulberry tree

All photos thanks to David Schmidlapp – www.lapphoto.com

woolly pockets for the bathroom wall

I’m putting the finishing touches on the bathroom and I wanted to hang Woolly Pockets for an indoor garden to add drama to the stark white walls. The only visual pop in my bathroom are the Cuban tiles on the floor, the rest is clean white subway tile (see more here). My neighbor Brad gave me the idea. Our bathroom window faces the community garden adjacent to the homestead and the weeping willows can be seen as you are taking a shower. Brad said he wanted plants in his bathroom in order to extend the green into the room. I liked that thought, but our bathroom is tiny so the walls had to come into play. An extension of the outside garden in the form of a hanging garden was the vision and Woolly Pockets Wallys are perfect. I like that they are made of recycled plastic bottles. Being a lover of yarn, I like that they are felt. Felted plastic bottles that are soft and feel like wool. Beautiful.

Plants were procured from the farmer’s market. I got a Bird’s Nest fern, a Rabbit’s Foot fern, Jasmine, various Coleus plants and others. I used cuttings from old Philodendron plants that had been my mothers and grandmothers.

plants at the ready

I was very surprised at how easy it was to hang the Woolly Pockets. They give you all of the hardware, all you need is to drill a hole in the wall. You don’t even have to find a stud, the anchors that are included sit right in the sheetrock wherever you want to place the pocket.

Now, to care for them so that they flourish.

el jardin del paraiso – in the beginning

It is said that ten tenement buildings stood where El Jardin del Paraiso now grows. When I first saw it, El Jardin was called an empty lot and it was a desolate place. It was clear to the eye that anything that once existed here had been razed and pulverized in a brutal fashion. The ground was nothing but fine brick colored dust.

Photos by Marlis Momber – http://www.vivaloisaida.org

The first twinkling of reclamation came in the form of a wooden platform where homesteaders sat in the sun to eat lunch and drink a cold beer after a hard day’s work in the warm summer months. There was also a primitive swing set for children that was two wood boxes that held a frame for the swing. Medieval-like wooden structures in a sea of tenement dust. One of my  favorite memories is the sight of Camelia at three years old in the early garden barechested and clad in a pink lace skirt working hard with a tiny rake.

Photo by Marlis Momber – http://www.vivaloisaida.org

Once the reclamation began there was no stopping it. Raised garden beds arose in a corner of the lot. A teepee was built. It spread. People dug, watered and planted. The roots of weeping willows drank from the underground springs you saw bubble up when you dug deep enough.

People tapped into the electricity from the streetlights and connected amps for concerts and projectors for film screenings on warm summer nights. The renaissance had begun.

Photo Marlis Momber – http://www.vivaloisaida.org

Camelia with wings atop a good dirt delivery

For a chronology of El Jardin del Paraiso click here

Stay tuned for Part 2 and maybe 3

the sleeping beauty

I have been on a hiatus from my blog and I’ve been feeling guilty and unsettled about it. I have turned ideas for blog posts around in my head but they have felt half-hearted and incomplete. Then I realized I’ve been avoiding the reason for my hiatus. Millie, my three-year-old Toy Fox Terrier suddenly went blind on Mother’s Day. Of course, this has nothing to do with home improvement or Loisaida and I thought it had no place here. But it has everything to do with us, and so, I feel the story must be told.

Millie In Sheets – Feb 2012

Millie, the night before she lost her sight – May 11

Millie’s catastrophic blindness came quickly in a few stages, each one more terrible than the last. The first was the shock of seeing the dog suddenly bumping into things and with a growing horror realizing that she could not see. There was the frantic call to the vet on the weekend and the sickening research on the Internet while we waited for Monday to arrive. At her first exam, there was a glimmer of hope because she still had some sight in one eye. She would walk down the street kind of fine, only hesitating at the curbs and we said to each other, “This is not so bad, we can handle this”. Then a week later, her eyes literally broke and with that came the glaucoma with all of its pain. We tried to control the hurtful pressure of the eyes with drops, but it was to no avail. Millie became worse. When I picked her up, she would press her body into my chest as if to be absorbed. There was no hope of saving her remaining sight and very quickly it became clear that because of the pain, there would be no saving her eyes.

Millie underwent surgery for the removal of both her eyes three weeks ago. Some of our friends reacted in horror to the idea and thought we should put her down. People have a visceral response to the notion of a blind dog. Perfect strangers are visibly saddened by it. It is like when you pass by a child in a wheelchair, the sadness is almost physical like fingernails scrapping your skin.

Millie, post op – June 11

It never crossed my mind to put down a vital three-year-old dog. Sight is the third sense for dogs. Their sense of smell and hearing are primary. Millie’s vet at the ABC Animal Hospital kept reassuring me “In a month, you’ll forget the dog is blind”. My friend Raquel said, “don’t fret so much, it will make our hearts bigger”. It’s been only 10 days since she has been off pain meds and was cleared for normal activity post-surgery. Here is what Millie can do now:

- She walks down the noisy and smelly streets of Manhattan with her usual tough girl demeanor – head held high, prancing fast. Everyday, she is a little more confident and she now barely reacts when people walk too close to her.

- Millie can fetch! She is fetching toys that make noise and if you throw a ball, she can find it by the sound of the bounce. She is very quickly learning the commands “hot” and “cold” when she gets too excited and misses hearing where the ball landed.

- She went to the dog park and was not fazed by other dogs. Blind dogs can be intimidated because they cannot see the body language of other dogs.

- They say blind dogs shouldn’t swim because they rely so much on their sense of smell and the pads of their feet to feel out texture. In the water those tools are gone and it is distressing to feel themselves in nothingness. Well, Millie didn’t care, last weekend she jumped in the water and swam in our favorite swimming pond upstate.

Millie, fetching in the garden – July 1

Millie – the Sleeping Beauty

When people notice that she has no eyes, they express so much pity, that I worry the dog will pick up on this. They imagine a blind dog as crippled and sad. How deep and old is the relationship between humans and dogs that strangers react so strongly. But when they catch a glimpse of her spirit, they light up. Very soon, all we will see is her heart. When I see that tiny dog overcoming obstacles with such grace and verve, I think she is teaching me to look adversity in the face and bite it!

Millie,  you are one heroic kick-ass bitch!

*for a video update of Millie posted December 2012 go here.