GARDENING / Homeless in New York: Even those without a roof over their heads create their personal Edens. They may be swept away in a moment, but they are crafted with care and tended with love

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The Independent Culture

THE GARDENS shown here all belong to homeless people living in New York. In most cases, the sequence of development of these spaces is structure first, garden second. But in some cases dwelling and garden are built at the same time, and in at least one case (Jimmy's), the construction of the separate fish-pond garden preceded his settling on the site.

An assortment of stones and garbage bags, five tyres, an upholstered armchair, a wooden pallet, a refrigerator shelf, some ailanthus and goldfish, a wooden fence and metal post: these are hardly traditional ingredients for a garden, but Jimmy combined them to make exactly that.

A pond filled with water sits on Jimmy's plot, although there is no water supply there. A fire hydrant down the street is his source. He carries it through a hole in the chainlink fence at the back of the garden. In a corner of his fenced vegetable patch stand the few tools he uses for digging. Plastic garbage bags, securely held by rocks, line the hole; the rocks create a stony bank, such as that on a creek. The green garbage bags are carefully turned inside out so that their black side is upright on the bottom of the pond. This positioning lends more reflectivity to the surface and an illusion of depth greater than the pond's actual six inches. Six or seven orange goldfish are suspended, like golden sunspots, against the dark bottom. Towards the street side, a low wooden fence borders the front of the pond. The pallet and the refrigerator shelf form two ramps up from the water's edge. At the top of the pallet ramp, it engages with an upholstered, red velveteen chair. In it sits Jimmy, legs crossed, enjoying his garden.

The power of this small pool of water to transform the site is remarkable. It introduces reflection, mirroring both the sky and the fronds of the ailanthus by the fence, highlighting the golden orange fish against the dark background of the plastic bags.

This is a carefully defined, edged, collected space in which fence, chair, pallet, and stones combine in one composition. It is a 'place', made by Jimmy for himself, a landscape in which his own pose of ease completes the picture. Ease, a sense of well-being, has been traditionally sought by garden makers, and it is what lies hidden in the Edenic image.

Not one of the components of Jimmy's garden is permanent. There are no underground pipes running into the pool; no concrete has been poured to make its basin. The pool, in fact, is but one example of the impermanence of nearly everything here. Teenage boys come into the lot and steal the goldfish; at other times, for cruel sport, they take them out of the water and leave them to die. Jimmy always finds a way to obtain money to replace the fish.

At the back of his garden, near the tent where he lives, Jimmy grows vegetables. He shows off his tall corn and points to a hole he has begun to dig for a new fish pond in a safer, enclosed location. The hole is larger and deeper than that of the existing pool, and it has been lined with bricks. Jimmy says that he plans to work on it for the next few days. Clearly, the survival of his goldfish is important enough for him to recreate his pond completely.

Jimmy's garden was bulldozed about eight days after this photo was taken, and he has disappeared from the area. But the moment in the garden that this picture captured remains.


TWO SMALL toy gardens (left and above), as Angelo calls them, are carefully composed with granite paving stones taken from an old pier on the Hudson River. One is barely larger than a shoebox. The bigger one is fenced with chicken wire, through which a branch with a snake head is intertwined. Both gardens include flags, dolls, and stuffed animals. The flags are their main feature. The menagerie spills out of the garden into Angelo's backyard, where it settles on his table, and into the area behind his dwelling. A regulation size American flag stands right by his house. It doubles the height of the dwelling and crowns the gardens. The fenced garden has flags at waist height.

The small dwelling acknowledges the view. Angelo has arranged his house so that he can look on to the water from his bed. This is a site with no edges.

'Outside my house I have two gardens. It's not garden actually, no flowers or tomatoes or eggplants. It's a toy garden. I got a gorilla, Godzilla, a Barbie doll, and lotsa, lotsa toys. A lot of people come by over here. They just play with a bunch of knick-knacks. They come over here and say, where did you get all this stuff? I say, I didn't buy them. The people that came over here they put them in there. It's like a museum. They come and say: 'Do you still want the little toy, I give it to you?' And . . . nobody touches it. The garden, it's got a snake fence, snake take care of things, see I found that. And I found stones to make an edge for the garden.

'In the summertime I go swimming a lot. In the 11 years I've been living on the pier over here, I've saved 11 lives and lost two. A little Puerto Rican girl, seven years old, fell in three weeks ago. I jump in the water and saved her. But thank God, she spoke English. I said, 'Honey, put your arm around my neck, and don't let go.' Her father, he's a junkie, they were doing drugs. They didn't even stop to say thank you. But the little girl last week, seven years old, she come over here by herself . . . and she brought me a little Barbie doll. See, it's in the garden. In the last week of Christmastime, I bought a tiger. It's six foot long, and a foot and a half high. I paid dollars 50. Of course, they give me a deal, because I told them what I was going to do with it. But it's a big, big one, and so far nobody's stole it yet. The reason I came up to Pier 84 was when I was on Social Security from 1983 to 1990 I was getting dollars 510 a month, and I was paying dollars 115 a week for a hotel in Coney Island. So that left me to eat dollars 5 a day. By the time I paid my medicine and the hotel, I had nothing. I met a friend who said: 'Come down to Pier 84 in Manhattan.' I'm from Naples. I came when I was 18, work as a cook for a while. Worked in lots of things, had my own restaurant, little place for a while. Then from age 55, nobody wants to give me a job. Who is going to hire me? I was married, had three kids, sent them over to my mother in Italy. They are in Italy in the US Navy. Rosanna, she's a Lieutenant MD. Rosa, she's a helicopter pilot, and Jeffrey . . . is going to be a dental doctor and is going to graduate this September in Naples . . . At Bryant Park Library I got my certificate from Mayor Koch and Mayor Dinkins. It's not (that) I'm brave, I am just a human being. I love people.

They make me smile and I make them smile. I'm an alcoholic.'

Two months later, the tattered flag standing in the background had been replaced by a brand new one.

'It's beautiful here, quiet. At night it's really beautiful. In the morning you can see the helicopter from the news station flying over. I'm putting in a big window to look out, got myself this one here, put it in next week. You'll see it, next time you come.'


NATHANIEL is nicknamed the Mayor because he often served as representative of the hundred or so homeless residents of Tompkins Square Park. His space in the park makes one directly confront any preconception about what constitutes a garden. This one consists of a large mound of earth, leaves, sundry objects and an area edged at the front by a metal strip, which sets a clear limit to the whole. There are found objects here, but they have been drawn into the overall arrangement. This array, built up with pots, plants, branches, and dead leaves, makes the whole site feel more settled. A sense exists of something composed, not just haphazardly piled, and this reduces the makeshift effect of the tent structure. It is clear that necessity did not drive the making of this garden.

'I built the tent around a park bench. I had a garden outside. I've got a place, I've got a garden. It came from things growing, actually. Two or three big sunflowers came up there from seeds. I had a praying mantis there. I found it on the other side of the fence, caught him, and put him in a cage. I would bring him out to play in the garden in the daytime. At night I would put him on a stick and put him back in his cage. People would come by and ask to leave something in the garden: an earring, a flower. Some people wanted to add to it. Some would want to take away from it. Some of my friends would add something to the garden and come back and see if it was still there a week or two later.'

The composition has a hierarchy. The concrete planter with shrubs in it is flanked by two figures and has a metal mat in front of it. The planter marks the entrance, while the arrangement of the garden replicates the shape of the tent, though it is much smaller.

The Mayor acquired the earth for the mound from beds in three or four sections of Tompkins Square Park; seeds went into the mound, some plants grew on it, and the many objects were added as he described.

The Mayor's garden is a personal landscape in the purest form. There are no useful elements here: no productive vegetable garden, no place for sitting. It is a composition made for its own sake and for its owner's enjoyment although it has a certain public face, since it is set out as a front garden. The front garden is the face to be shown to the world, and it is one that elicits a response. In this tiny space, we see the desire to interact with the world.

Before this photograph was taken, the Mayor carefully swept the area around the garden and the tent. Clearly, he cared about how his composition looked and wanted his work to appear in the best possible light. But the Mayor's sweeping was also undoubtedly motivated by the unstated hope that if his place were seen as being clean and in good order, he could stave off eviction.

At 5.30 one winter morning, the police expelled the residents of Tompkins Square Park. While the sanitation trucks ground up the remnants of their dwellings, the unprepared residents left the park with whatever they could carry. The Mayor soon moved back into the park, only to be evicted again. At that time, he was relocated to the Dry Docks on East Tenth Street and given a job with the city's Parks Department.


THIS garden was on a city-owned vacant lot. James made a dwelling there in 1988 but left for Tompkins Square Park when his tent was burnt to the ground by an outsider. After the eviction of park residents, James built another tent house on the original site and simultaneously began a new garden, using rocks that he found on the lot and bricks from a nearby construction site. He obtained paint from the trash of a nearby automobile body shop.

James expanded his house to accommodate three additional people, and at the same time he added to his garden a representation of a head on a pole and an arm with a rifle. During this expansion, the chairs overlooking the garden disappeared, and with their removal the garden lost its welcoming atmosphere. It took on the look of a place that would ward off strangers and protect those who were in the tent. The changes in the garden coincided with the increase in dwellings on the vacant lot from the original six to about 20. Many objects were added to the garden; small, playful pieces were found and placed carefully on each brick. Children from a nearby daycare centre passed by on their way to East River Park, and James encouraged them to take a toy from his garden.

'I'm a painter, and I got a garden, a nice little garden in the front, and we draw pictures, we paint pictures. But it keeps us busy, and we pick out all kinds of toys to put in the garden. We keep ourselves busy with drawing. It's all right and, like I say, we gotta make the garden look more better. If there's no rain we work on it every day. Right now our rock (supply) is low, and the paint's low, and we cannot do nothing now. Four of us work in the garden, most of the time (just) me. I keep it clean. If we don't have it clean, they'll start complaining, and mostly everybody right now, they say, your garden look very clean and don't look like the rest of that yard over here.

'I don't pick any colours. If it don't look right, we take it off, and after that it come out so beautiful, and I say well, I'm going to keep it like that. We have the number one tent and the number one garden, and anybody tell you that, anybody, even those people in the school.

Our tent, the cleanest tent in that lot, the whole lot, and we proud of that, you understand. We proud and that why every morning we clean and rake our yard up. Every time you walk by there you see it clean. We got proud. Every day I come by there - ain't junky, ain't dirty. It clean. Man, you understand, we are homeless, we are not helpless.

'And we have all kinds of things in the garden, and the garden looks very nice, and we have like a lady head with a knife in it with a gun pointing at her. That for a reason and because a lot of people know that means trouble. Even the cop knows what it means. That for a meaning: away, away, folks. And we leave it outside at night time, nobody no touch it. And we got a black arm in the back. That rock is heavy. If they could pick it up, it would have been gone too. After looking around, we find out we missing lot of things. We missing a lot. We missing the trophy. We're missing some cars, some animals.

'Yeah, I came down from the South, South Carolina, Charleston, and my mother and my father, they taught me how to do that (to garden). Oh God, I used to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, all that, beautiful flowers, squash. I used to do all that. I was about 18 when I came to New York. I came 1968.

'I pick out bottles and cans, you understand, and I be cashing (them in) to buy food, and I don't harm nobody. I don't want nobody hurt me. Like I say, I'm homeless, I'm not helpless. People who come around, most like that garden. Most people, we don't let take pictures of that garden. We don't. Like yesterday, a dude came by yesterday. He was coming in and taking pictures of the lot. He don't understand. You're supposed to ask people when you want to do that. Happened yesterday. He like a big shot, and I tell him, hold it, hold it man. He say, he on the sidewalk. I don't care. You on the sidewalk, let somebody see you taking pictures on that lot, and see what happens. They tell you one time, and if you don't listen, they take your camera and they throw a brick at you.

'You don't know where your pictures might go. You understand what I'm saying? We have people come in cars, sneak up on us. That's wrong. Ask] That's all you've gotta do. There ain't nothing wrong with 'Excuse me, can I take a picture or something?' And I say, 'What a nice way that he has, go ahead.' You don't like people sneaking up. Like Sunday, they come in a car, taking pictures and going around the corner, and I saw them and I say, don't do that, and they came back the second time. I pick up the rock, and I miss them. And the car was right there, taking pictures, and then just imagine, my sister and brother see that picture on TV or in the paper. That's wrong.

'You can see into the back if you want to but come close. Right now you look in the back, you don't have nothing back there, you see. You don't. And like I say, I got to bring it out. And what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna add on see. Make a big difference next time you come by. It will be different, a whole lot different, see. And when you see you gonna be like, oh Jimmy, how you do that - that when I gonna want you to take the picture. That when you take the picture, I tell you right now. That when I gonna let you take it.'

At five o'clock in the morning of 15 October 1991, a fire broke out in a vacant lot on Eighth Street between Avenues B and C. The lot had about 50 people on it. Several of the dwellings were destroyed by the fire, and the residents fled with whatever they could salvage. Most of them went to the Ninth Street lot where James lived. The Eighth Street lot was bulldozed by the Sanitation Department, sending even more of the residents to the Ninth Street lot. The police followed and evicted everyone living on the Ninth Street lot (above). The residents took what they could carry, but the painted rocks that James had laboured over were much too heavy for him to transport.

'I had a beautiful garden. My garden was so beautiful. You got a choice. Homeless is nothin' to play with. It gettin' cold now, and you got to see how it feel. Like I say, I had a beautiful tent, I had a beautiful garden.'-

Extracted from TRANSITORY GARDENS, UPROOTED LIVES by Diana Balmori and Margaret Morton, published on 25 November by Yale University Press, at pounds 20

(Photographs omitted)