the back bedroom

The back bedroom has always been the children’s room. When our building got its certificate of occupancy and we were cleared to move in, Camelia was a toddler. I’d just learned how to do stucco veneziano (venetian plaster) and the room was one of my first projects in the apartment. The first color for Camelia’s brand new bedroom was a beautiful peachy pink, very soft and not all at sugary. A perfect color for a little girl. The walls gave off a rosy light at night. In the morning, the room glowed golden from the sunlight coming in from the eastern facing window.

When we were homesteading our building in the 1980’s, there was a lot of drug dealing in the neighborhood (see my Pigeon Wars post for the backstory). Junkies broke into the squatter’s buildings and stole tools and pipes and anything that they could rip out to sell. It was near impossible to completely fortify the entire building against theft, there were too many spots where crumbling brick or boards could be pried loose. All you could do was to make it harder for them. During that time, the back bedroom became our tool room. We framed it out and created temporary walls of double thick plywood. The door was locked with a fat metal chain. That was the secure room, the place where we kept anything the junkies might want to walk off with.

Homesteader Jay Goodson at the tool room which became our back bedroom

Homesteader Jay Goodson at the tool room which became our back bedroom

The room grew up with the girls. After the babyish pink came a sophisticated light royal blue when the girls were in  elementary school. Then came a rich green right before Camelia left for college. Now, at the time of Oona’s going to college, I decided to re-do the stucco in a pale greyish lavender. Oona said “Mom, you always want to re-do the room when we are leaving for college”. Maybe it is my way of trying to entice them to stay home.

Oona applying stucco veneziano

Oona applying stucco veneziano

The old green being covered

The old green being covered

StuccoVeneziano3

This is a work-in-progress, stay tuned for updates.

entryway progress

It’s slow going to fix up your house unless you’ve got a fat purse and a lot of time. Sometimes I feel like I’m buried in the bureaucracy of life admin. Sign an online petition and your email inbox mushrooms with doomsday scenarios. Buy something online and you are attacked daily by 20% off coupons. We now have digital clutter to clear and speak with robots on the phone.

We recently put another dent in the slow moving entryway project. What happens to me is that when we make an improvement, I exhale and exclaim “it looks great”. And so we live with the partially finished project while absorbed in work to put food on the table and tend to our family and friendships.  After the blue venetian plaster work and the teardrop chandeliers went up, I was happy opening the front door and walking into my house for awhile.

Then the novelty of the last phase wore off and so it was time for the next. The doors leading to the girl’s room and the bathroom were filmsy hollow doors. I never liked them. I like the feeling of opening and closing a solid wood door. I shopped around for wooden doors and they were too extravagant for my purse. In New York City, we have a great resource. Build it Green! NYC is a recycling project, a place where contractors can donate excess stuff from construction/renovation projects and others can buy it. I snapped up the two paneled wooden doors for 60 bucks! Then we got molding to frame the new doors with. That was always the vision, a posh entryway with elegant molding. As my friend Linda says “molding brings the eye up and up and up”. It gives the illusion of higher ceilings, a welcome thing in a narrow hallway.

carpenters installing doors and molding

carpenters installing doors and molding

heavy paneled wooden recycled door and molding on my blue venetian plaster walls

heavy paneled wooden recycled door and molding on my blue venetian plaster walls

What’s next? Molding along the juncture of the plaster wall and the ceiling and a good looking and useful spot for hanging up coats and setting down boots now that winter is almost upon us.

the garden in winter

In the most urban of cities, I look out my window and see a meadow. The meadow is there because of urban blight gone good. From the empty lots sprung the meadows. We call it the garden and it is one of the many community gardens in Loisaida.

The past weekend’s snowstorm brought out the neighborhood children in droves on a sunny Saturday morning when the garden was a winter wonderland of fluffy new snow – the kind that’s perfect for snowmen, the building of forts and snowball fights. It was lovely to hear the children’s laughter all day long until the snow turned blue as dusk fell. I was reminded of my girls when they were little and played in the garden in winter.

All the photos are by David Schmidlapp.

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blindness is another way of seeing

One recent morning as I walked the dogs down my block, a man smiled at me and said “Is that the sleeping beauty?” I was taken by surprise, but then I recognized him as a gentleman from the neighborhood that had asked after Millie in the summer just after her operation. He was concerned then and now he asked me tenderly “How’s she doing?”. Many people have written me and asked “How’s she doing?” So here is the update. For those of you who don’t know her, Millie is a three year old Toy Fox Terrier weighing 6 pounds. Last spring she suffered a detachment of the lens of her eyes, which caused glaucoma. The pain of the glaucoma could not be controlled with medication and so three weeks after her sudden blindness, the decision was made to remove both of her eyes. I wrote her story here: The Sleeping Beauty.

Now you can see how she’s doing in this video I titled Blind Dog Fetching.

marlis momber – is ours

I have known Marlis since I started working on the homestead. Her building which is across the street from ours, was the first homestead building to be completed and occupied on our block. They were all moved in when we were just getting started pulling out the burnt beams. Their building was the proof that it could be done and it shone like a beacon for us. They gave us electricity and smiles of encouragement. I watched Marlis’s son grow up and she saw my daughters born and raised. It is unusual in New York to be so rooted to a place, to a particular block and also to be surrounded by people who are just as rooted. Long-time neighbors. Most New Yorkers move around. It is as though we are living the small village life even though we are in the middle of a giant metropolis – the so-called concrete jungle.

Marlis was born in the bombed out city of Berlin WWII so when she came to Loisaida in the 1970′s this was a familiar landscape. Marlis Momber’s photographs are full of soul. Yes, they have good composition and are well-crafted and her prints are exquisite. But aside from being an artful photograph, they reek of the soul. She is not a mere documentarian or onlooker – Marlis captures her subjects down to the essence. We are hers and Marlis is ours.

Below is a 10 minute clip of her 1978 film Viva Loisaida. To purchase the full DVD or prints contact her via her photography website, to see more photos go to www.vivaloisaida.org.

I have been very lucky that Marlis has photographed my family for many years.

the homestead – 1984

the homestead occupied

Marlis’s photo of my daughter Camelia with Loisaida poet Jorge Brandon, El Coco Que Habla

Here is my portrait of the artist taken this past spring at one of her exhibitions.

Marlis Momber by Ileana

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

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.

the dove’s tale – a mother’s day story

May 11, 2003, on the anniversary of my mother’s birth in the year of her death, I was walking home with my daughter Camelia in the late afternoon sun. The street trees in front of the apartment building were heavy with brand new leaves. They cast dappled shadows on the sidewalk in front of our door, so that at first we did not see the little dove standing there. We approached her slowly and she did not move. We were surprised that she let us get so close. Suddenly, she flew up like a helicopter into the tree. She was clumsy and it was clear she was not used to flying. She then soared off the tree and slammed into the garden fence. This stunned her and she fell to the ground. I was able to pick her up. I cupped her in my hands and brought her inside. While Camelia unlocked our front door, the little dove’s pupils dilated wildly with fear and her head turned all the way around like Regan in the Exorcist. I told Camelia to go fetch the dog kennel from the basement to put her in. The dove was home.

My mother had a ringneck dove she named Cucu. She and my father found the dove sitting on the hood of their car in the garage one cold morning in late autumn. They could see that it was not a wild animal and it would not make it through the coming winter outdoors. Like mine, it was an escaped pet. The dove allowed them to capture him and cup him in their hands and bring him inside. Cucu became a beloved pet who had free range of my parent’s house. When my mother died, a friend of hers who lived alone promised us that she would let Cucu fly free in her house and so she took him in. At the time, it seemed for the best. But I secretly regretted not having taken Cucu myself.

At the time of our dove’s arrival, it was the first mother’s day I would experience without my mother. The dove is a presence. A gift. She is a balm to my heart.

the brick

The brick wall in the hallway looks different now just from the coat of the stucco veneziano in bluish teal. It is as though the brick has come alive. Oona, ever the artist, said “Of course it has come alive, that is the magic of a complementary color”. I see the brick in all its glory for the first time. Every color in every brick and every stroke of the blue plaster pops.  I can see nuance in the brick colors that before were in shadow. I see russet colors, greys, creams and even lavenders. This brick was probably laid between the mid-1800’s to the late 1800’s during the boom time in the Lower East Side of New York. As homesteaders in the early 1980s, we unearthed this brick in the interior walls. It was covered in a century’s worth of plaster and wallpaper. We chipped the layers away by hand with a hammer and chisel for a long time till we got to the pure brick. We didn’t work on our individual apartments, we worked collectively, so we were on plaster chipping duties on these walls for months.

I was shitty carpenter. I was bad at measuring and I wasted wood, so I was put on mortar duty. Mortar is more forgiving. The mortar crew was headed up by Smitty, who was an experienced construction worker and he trained a small team of us. We did all of the brickwork in the building. In the warm weather, homesteaders with older kids would bring them in and corral them in a safe part of the building while they worked. I kept an eye on them while I mixed cement. Then they started helping me mix. They made a game of it. We kept the mortar crew supplied with bucket after bucket of cement.

All around us buildings were coming down, victims of the criminal neglect of the landlords who had abandoned them. When a building was torn down, the homesteaders in the vicinity would spread the word and we would all head over there to rescue the brick. We had an enormous canvas mail cart that had been confiscated from a post office. The mortar crew would wheel this cart out and head over to the fallen building. We would find other homesteaders, squatters and gardeners there also rescuing the brick and the stone. We would pick through the rubble to find intact bricks and then stack them on the first floor like cordwood. Our building was restored with the bones of other buildings that didn’t make it.

homesteader, photo by David Schmidlapp. www.lapphoto.com