Rudy Deflowers New York

Across the City, Communities Fight the Mayor's Garden Auction

Gardeners have not planted on Patchen Avenue this season, anxious about the auction's outcome. But in summer, the garden's yield is generous. "We give food away, we share it," says Winslow. "We don't have many selfish people around here but Giuliani," she chides.

Winslow also admits that she voted for the mayor in 1997— "I liked what he did in his first term"— but regrets her ballot now. "He's become a spoiled brat, like, 'This city is mine,' like he owns it. There's nobody else living here, you know; we're just tenants here."

Winslow has been aggressive about making phone calls, sending letters, and generally agitating to save her garden, but, unlike some gardeners, she won't risk civil disobedience for the cause. "That's for the beatniks and the yuppies, and I did enough of it with Martin Luther King," says the Alabama native. "I shouldn't have to do it for this. Rudy Giuliani should have enough compassion without us having to lay down in the street for a garden."

Four-year-old Irwin and his three-year-old sister, Araleidis, in the Sherman Avenue Garden in the South Bronx
Andrew Goldberg
Four-year-old Irwin and his three-year-old sister, Araleidis, in the Sherman Avenue Garden in the South Bronx

La Perla
Manhattan Valley

La Perla Community Garden is one of the city's most beautiful. Three-time winner of the Dress Up Your Neighborhood award, the spacious lot teems not only with bulbs and bushes; it sprouts murals, portraits, sculpture, and poetry. La Perla is also a winner in all three standards that make real estate appealing: location, location, location. Situated on a three-lot spread along West 105th near Columbus Avenue, La Perla is one of the most vulnerable gardens in the auction.

The city owns one of LaPerla's three lots, but the 1700-square-foot slice runs right up the middle of the 5000-square-foot garden; the owners of the two lots that flank it allow neighbors to plant on the land, but La Perla gardener Robert José says the owners are also willing to sell the spot. Says José, "The auction for the middle strip is just an invitation to take the rest."

Sandy Walker, who has lived in the neighborhood for 19 years and who helped start La Perla with Green Thumb in 1992, says she can't even think about how much money the lot could draw (the city's minimum price is $13,500). "I'm trying to remain positive," says Walker. "Maybe the mayor will back down." La Perla's location just above the Upper West Side draws a variety of neighbors— working-class blacks and Latinos, Columbia students and trendy youngsters driven uptown in search of cheaper rents, medical staff from nearby hospitals and, says Walker, a young Orthodox Jewish woman who hails from Scarsdale. "Her mother was terrified of her daughter living in the city, but after she visited us in the garden, she said she wasn't worried anymore." Seniors from a local rest home visit La Perla, and adults from a nearby facility for the mentally disabled plant in one of the garden's 26 beds.

Before it was cleaned up, the garden was a haven for drug users and sex workers who set up shop on couches along a concrete slab that is now a stage for music and art. Now, one flower bed is an AIDS memorial garden to remember neighbors who have died. Gardeners decorate their plots with statues— a reclining nude, a kitsch friar, the Virgin Mary— or architectural remnants. In one corner, school children are building a totem pole, and 10 paintings by gardeners hang on a trellis, part of what Walker calls the La Perla Museum.

Another decoration— new and somewhat ad hoc— is the pastel ribbons tied along the wrought-iron fence at La Perla's entrance. Each was placed by someone hoping the garden will be saved; dozens fluttered in the breeze at a La Perla rally May 1.

"When you see the city brought together by community gardens, especially ones like this that win awards, I don't understand it," says Walker, who has abandoned her instinctive dislike of politics to fight for La Perla. "When someone is trying to take something away from you that you worked so hard on and that means so much, you just have to get involved."

Sherman Avenue Garden
South Bronx

"Mira! Gallinos!" shrieks a gaggle of grade-school girls who, on a fine spring day, tumble into the Sherman Avenue Garden, just up the street from Yankee Stadium. Chasing the two roosters around the pleasantly chaotic garden, the children's delight is obvious.

That joy is what Melanie Rodriguez works so hard for. Since 1987, she's been in charge of this 4800-square-foot garden. "The kids come here and that's exactly what I want," says 72-year-old Rodriguez. "They plant; I teach them about the trees, the flowers. But I also teach them manners: I tell them, don't touch the flowers, they will break. You can look at them, you can sing to them, but don't touch them, or they will cry."

Tears come to Rodriguez's own eyes when she talks about the upcoming auction that will put the Sherman Avenue Garden up for sale for a minimum $18,000. "My heart is so broked after 15 years of working here," says Rodriguez. "If they sell it, I will be so depressed. Not just for me but for these kids. They have nothing to look at but walls around here, and they are the ones who suffer the consequences."

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