loisaida dressed in fall colors

It feels like fall has been deliciously drawn out this year. The days are bright and warm and the trees and bushes are dressed in autumn colors. Fall comes late in New York City. They say that the thousands of black tar rooftops create extra heat in Manhattan. Maybe that is why fall is so much later here than just a few miles away.

fence at la plaza cultural de armando perez community garden

fence at la plaza cultural de armando perez community garden

Everywhere I look there are leaves on the sidewalks. Many colors of leaves, plain large brown leaves from oak trees, maple leaves tinged in red, many small wispy yellow leaves. It seems that the weeping willow trees are the last to turn – they are still green. So many yellow gingko trees. When I see the golden canopy of those trees, I know that I will forever be reminded of Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011 when idealism itself was a golden thing as we listened to mic check under the bright yellow ginkgo trees. There is nothing as energizing as being around people who think they can change the world.

el jardin del paraiso

el jardin del paraiso


The turtle pond in El Jardin del Paraiso is still. The red-eared slider turtles, those abandoned Chinatown pets, released into the garden pond are already tucked in, burrowed deep into the mud for the winter, nowhere to be seen. The goldfish are moving slow, shining in the water like jewels. They will conquer the winter like they’ve done for years, sitting at the bottom of the pond in the mud till they wake and come alive again in spring.

turtle pond in el jardin del paraiso

turtle pond in el jardin del paraiso

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