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

pigeon wars

The pigeon boys on the rooftop of the tenement building on the corner of Avenue C and East Fourth Street unfurled a red flag over the edge of the parapet. Immediately the cries of “bajando” rose from the lookouts on the street. This meant that a squad car had been spotted and was a warning to the drug dealers to move along. If the pigeon boys had displayed a green flag, the shouts would have been “tato bien” short for “everything is good”, more often than not shortened even more to just “tato”. The pigeon boys bred and trained the birds and kept them in cages on the rooftops. They were kids twelve or thirteen years old. They staged pigeon wars where it was hoped that your lead bird would be strong enough to lead other flocks to your roof and that meant you won the battle. The owner of the hostage flock would have to pay to get his birds back. It was common to see a knot of pigeons swirling in a circular dance lower and lower, hypnotized and lured by a primeval force to land against their will on an alien rooftop. This pigeon dance was so lyrical that I always stopped to watch it. Because the pigeon boys were on the rooftops so much, the drug dealers liked to employ them as lookouts using the flag system. Down below, the squad car would make its way slowly through streets of crumbling burned buildings and empty lots full of broken glass, never stopping, but scattering the junkies like roaches in the light.

Photograph of East Fourth Street in 1984 by my dear friend Marlis Momber. See more of her work at vivaloisaida.org and read more about her here.