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

MoRUS, the museum of reclaimed urban space

A very exciting project is underway in Loisaida – a new living history museum that will focus on how the community came together to reclaim abandoned buildings and empty lots and created homes, cultural spaces and lush gardens in what was known as the “Take Back the Land Movement” of the late 70s and 80s. Check out the fantastic video and donate if you wish to get the museum up and running.

My daughter Camelia appears in the beginning of the video when she was little. She is the girl in the pink jacket with purple wings in the Jardin del Paraiso community garden.

Camelia’s tattoo. The girl has roots.

These previous posts have more information on the history. The Start of the Homestead and Pigeon Wars.

stucco veneziano part one

We’re going bold and complimentary to the brick with a teal venetian plaster. I love to create and apply the plaster. The art is ancient, from before the Romans, who as usual, copied it from the Greeks. The mixing is time consuming and meditative. I mix the plaster by hand in the same bucket I was given as an apprentice when we first stucco’d our building’s hallways in the early 1990’s. I’ve kept that stucco bucket all these years and I carefully scrap and clean it and put it away after each use. It is stained with the patina of all the colors I’ve ever mixed in it starting with the first butter yellow of our hallways.

I don’t know where this recipe originated. I’m sure that if venetian plaster artisans ever saw  it, they would either snicker or groan. The ancient recipes include lime and marble dust. This is the recipe that was taught me so that I could help do our building’s hallways and it is the recipe that I have always used. It works, it holds up. The hallway stucco is twenty years old and it has only been refreshed once.

stucco veneziano in our hallway 1996

Here is the recipe: Mix 1 part flat paint and 1 part water. Add a dollop of wallpaper paste (the natural kind, called wheat paste). Mix in plaster of paris little by little as if you were mixing cake batter till smooth. Finish by adding a splash of milk to keep the plaster from hardening too quickly. Only mix a little at a time at first till you get the hang of the time it takes to harden and how fast you can get it up. Use a real stucco knife imported from Italy. You will not be able to get it smooth enough with any other tool. If you want to repost this recipe, please link back to this post. 

It’s really hard to find the old-fashioned wallpaper paste that was made out of wheat. Now what they sell is full of chemicals. I had to make my own. I found this recipe. It was very easy and it is a good recipe to have if you ever need to make papier mache.

adding the plaster to the paint mixture

it feels like a cake batter

add a splash of milk to keep it from hardening too quickly

applying the plaster with a stucco knife

Next up will be the finishing touches and the “after photos”. Stay tuned.

venetian plaster in my hallway

The hallways in our building are welcoming and warm. The walls are butter yellow venetian plaster and we have bluish grey apartment doors. When we were rebuilding, one of my fellow homesteaders made apprentices of a few of us and taught us the ancient technique of venetian plaster so that we could help her to do the hallways. She called it Stucco Veneziano and gave us all “stucco knives” imported from Italy. We “stucco’ed” all six stories of our building’s halls in this happy yellow. Our hallway stucco is 20 years old and it looks new. We’ve only refreshed it once in all that time. I will use Stucco Veneziano in my own entryway and share the plaster recipe that you can make yourself.