BY PENELOPE GREEN; 2011 New York Times News Service; Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate; Photos © 2011 Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
NEW YORK – From the roof of a loft building on East 14th Street, you can peer into a deep brick-lined canyon where the sweet tang of lilies mixes with a base note of French fries. There’s a meadow of bright green AstroTurf, a hedgerow of bushy tomato plants and two teenage maples.
Despite its leafy cover, the temperature here at midday can top 110 degrees, as it did on a recent scorcher. This garden may not win any beauty contests, but it is nonetheless a champion, one of many scrappy green spaces still blooming on roofs all over New York City, despite decades of fierce challenges by buffeting winds, searing heat, covetous landlords and evolving civic policies.
These doughty survivors tell stories of a time when “green roof” wasn’t a buzz term or a reason for a tax credit and when Brooklyn hipsters weren’t farming hectares of kale on tops of warehouses. Herewith, four urban pastorals.
The rent on Susan Doukas’ third-floor loft was US$114 in 1979, the year she moved in. That fee came with no heat, no hope of repair if a window broke or the ceiling fell in and no possibility of an audience with the landlord, though he did suggest when she signed her lease that should someone from the fire or buildings departments show up, she ought to consider “spreading a little grease”—greasing their palms—“and you’ll slide better.”
“Or something like that,” said Doukas, now 65. “It sounded better in Yiddish.”
That year was the middle chapter in a love story. She had met Robert Brady, an acting coach, casting director and mime, in the late 1960s, when she took one of the acting classes he taught out of his studio on the ground floor of the building. She was a writer and an actress, married at the time, and working as a waitress; he was charismatic, also married and 15 years her senior. Theirs was an on-again-off-again affair until 1979, when she found herself living on the building’s top floor and cast by Brady in the indie cult film Liquid Sky. From then on, she said, they were inseparable.
On winter nights, she and Brady harvested wood from neighborhood dumpsters to fuel the wood-burning stove she had bought from a friend and hooked up to a flue she unearthed in a wall. One day she climbed the vertiginous ladder to her skylight and began prying the tar off the huge window. That’s when the rooftop became hers and she became a gardener.
Trash from the street below yielded half-dead ficus trees, yuccas, cacti and other discarded plant life, which she nursed back to health. She rigged a garden hose from her kitchen sink and strung a nylon tarp to protect her crops from the sun. She learned which plants could withstand the fiery temperatures and, through trial and error, the mechanics of a roof garden.
In 1991, Brady learned he had multiple myeloma, a disease of the plasma cells. On a blazing August day that year, he and Doukas were married on the roof. By early 2008, Brady was gone. Doukas scattered his ashes among the plants. He has good company. The ashes of their two dogs, which had died a few years earlier, are spread between the magnolia tree and the lilac bush.
WEST 23RD STREET
More than two years ago, Gerald DeCock, a gentle 52-year-old hairstylist and artist who has been living for the past 18 years in one of the Chelsea Hotel’s top-floor studio apartments, came home from a morning yoga class to find his roof garden destroyed: Its planters and vines had been chainsawed into arm-size sections and set out on 23rd Street. His was one of seven or eight gardens that had bloomed between the brick parapets of this fractious bohemian ecosystem, some for decades. And it was, perhaps, the most modest: two outdoor “rooms” bounded by slim planters, from which honeysuckle, Virginia creepers and trumpet vines erupted.
Like the huge roof forest, also razed, that had grown outside the slate-roofed “pyramid” apartment behind him DeCock’s garden was collateral damage in the war that had been going on between the hotel’s management and its unique tenant body since the ouster of the longtime manager Stanley Bard in 2007. Or so it seemed to the tenants.
“When they chainsawed my planters, it was devastating,” DeCock said. “But I tried to accept it.” It was only in June that he began rebuilding and replanting, albeit tentatively. “My thought was to do stuff that was less permanent,” he said.
“I wanted to proceed with caution, to be resourceful and use what I had,” he said. “Nothing is forever. I need to be open to the idea of change and creating another environment, and to remember to be grateful and thankful for what I have had here.”
On summer nights when his garden lived on the top of a brownstone on East 10th Street, Marco Guerra, 45, a Chilean photographer, used to tip boxes of crickets he would buy at pet stores over the edge into the street-level gardens below. He liked to listen to their singing while he had dinner.
“Just not too close,” he said.
Guerra was 30 when he moved into that apartment, a lofty space with a back terrace he layered in potted plants, imagining a Moroccan garden. He lined the floor with moss and added pine trees, Japanese maples and wisteria, until the terrace was walled in with greenery.
A decade ago, Guerra fell in love with a young Moroccan artist, Yasmina Alaoui, who felt so at home in his Moroccan garden that she moved in. Guerra said he fell for her perfume.
Four years ago, the town house was sold, and Alaoui spent months looking for a top-floor apartment with access to an empty roof.
“I have a little garden,” Guerra told their new landlord, somewhat disingenuously, when they finally found a place.
It took two 18-wheelers to move the 200 or so pots to their new home. As he packed them up, Guerra spoke to each plant, introducing it to the movers, letting it know a transition was afoot.
What did he say? “Just stay tight,” he recalled. “Also, I promised the movers a big tip. I made sure they became very personal with the plants, so it wasn’t just another job.”
Michael Goldstein was a young father with a two-year-old daughter in 1972, the year he moved into the top floor of a loft on Broome Street (rent: $350). Looking for a spot where his daughter could play, he climbed up to the roof, rolled out a square of AstroTurf and anchored it with a sandbox, a wading pool and some potted plants. A few years later, when Goldstein, once a publicist for Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, started The SoHo Weekly News in what is now his bedroom. The garden grew steadily over the years, among planters made from olive barrels that an importer used to throw out on Mercer Street and wood used for water towers.
Early on, Goldstein, now 73, married Nancy Arnold, a children’s-book publicist, and they had two daughters. They planted cherry trees, apple trees and three kinds of peaches. There is also an arbor of grapes, kiwi plants, roses and a swathe of honeysuckle that grew from a sprig plucked decades ago.
Two years ago, when the building’s new owners lost it to a bank, Goldstein was told by building inspectors that he would have to disassemble the garden, then in its fourth decade, because it was too heavy. He hired an engineer to test the roof and sent the results to the bank. He has heard no word since, though as of June the building has another owner.
“I always wonder what our life might have been like without the garden,” his wife said. “Where we would have gone or who we might have become.” A garden, she noted, is an anchor, which, depending on your point of view, can be either a support or a tether.