Call Any Vegetable

The weatherman threatened the city with rain on Saturday but there seems little menace in the featherweight clouds shuffling across the pale May sky. Eventually, the growing heat of the afternoon sun coerces me into Tompkins Square Park, where I sprawl out on a newborn patch of green amid the usual splay of warm-weather humanity: gutter punks rolling cheap tobacco under the trees; neo-folkies twiddling guitars, drums, and Hacky Sacks; rambunctious schoolgirls practicing for dance squad; old men playing chess; young men playing Frisbee; dog walkers of every shape, size, color, and temperament; and sallow street prophets murmuring stories about abduction, redemption, and psoriasis. Before I am able to lament the absence of my favorite one-man band, a giant sunflower lopes across the park, followed by a bright pink faerie carrying a hula hoop, and a large brown-and-red pinstriped bird on a skateboard.

"What's that?" asks an eager young parent, pointing at a large gray insect with long papier-mâché pincers.

"A bug," sniffs two-year-old Katlin Sasoma, immediately returning her attention to the wide-mouth bottle she is filling with dirt.

New growth at Tompkins Square Park
photo: Tod Seelie
New growth at Tompkins Square Park

Despite her wholehearted lack of interest, a notable crowd begins to gather in the sylvan shade of Tompkins Square: people draped in springtime hues of pink, yellow, blue, lilac, and green, with garlands of flowers in their hair or animal masks on their heads. A stilt walker, dressed like a stripling bird, stretches out and does a precarious little jig. A few pedicabs roll up bearing hand-painted signs and swaths of cloth silk-screened with the Time's Up emblem: A fist growing out of the earth like a tree characterizes the 15-year-old environmental activist group. The pastel wings of a giant gossamer bird are unfurled, revealing the words "More Gardens!," the name of a support group committed to cultivating fallow land in urban environments.

A loose-limbed man with sunlight in his eyes hands me a flyer that reads, "It's a roving garden party! A musical, dancing parade to celebrate our gardens!"

As if on cue, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra strikes up a song, and the people in the growing garden party bob their flowery heads. From amid the throng, Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping smiles beatifically.

"We are here to celebrate," explains Time's Up member Ben Shepard as he inadvertently strafes people with his giant cardboard sunflower petals. "Saving half the city's community gardens from development is a victory. There are still more than 60 gardens in danger of development, but today, we can celebrate what we've accomplished."

"Garden-elujah!" bellows Reverend Billy, cutting a dazzling image in his snow-white suit and shellacked blond pompadour.

"Garden-elujah!" the crowd replies, lifting hands in jubilation.

Quick introductory speeches are given by activists, with pleas to support local plots in peril, especially the Harlem community garden encampment currently protecting the Nuevo Esperanza Community Garden, from bulldozers. Despite knowing nods and furrowed brows, the Tompkins Square congregation remains festive.

"Please spare us from being arrested!" entreats Reverend Billy in his high-flying churchly cadence as the crowd begins its procession out of the park, gathering revelers as it goes.

"Seems like a nice way to spend the afternoon," says 21-year-old Simon Wagreich,grabbing his skateboard and his best friend off a nearby bench.

"It's important," says 46-year-old Sonya Peña, a striking Dominican woman in a long blue dress and matching sun hat wrapped from head to hem in fresh flowers. "The gardens help those of us who are far from home to feel connected. . . . Being there helps me to feel alive so I want to support the city garden community, to celebrate my love of the city."

Sprites, woodland animals, and an elf in an orange fun-fur vest follow the marching band onto 9th Street. By the time we pass Trinity Garden on Avenue B, the police have arrived.

"If you don't get back on the side-walk you are risking arrest," warns Chuck Reinhardt, whose friendly demeanor and orange-felt armband (marked "Lawyer") provide him with enough authority to gently shunt partygoers out of the street. On the sidewalk, a large cardboard tractor wielded by 29-year-old Daniel Gillmor chases down a human flower.

"There's a lot of power in being the evil guy," snickers Gillmor.

When we reach La Plaza Cultural Armando Perez, the mood is nothing short of jubilant. As at all the gardens, a volunteer offers historical information about the garden and other remarks, giving us time to admire the outdoor sculptures and ample performance space used during La Plaza's much lauded Springfest. We move on, stopping at 7th Street to pay tribute to the fallen Esperanza Garden, which was bulldozed in February 2000 after 31 protesters were arrested.

"There's green space in my soul," sings the heavenly Stop Shopping Choir under the window of the garden's founder, Alicia Torres. After a time, a small Puerto Rican woman with a gold-trimmed tooth leans out of the window.

"Happy Mother's Day!" shouts the crowd.

"I love all of you," says Torres, her eyes glittering. "You are my people. You have to fight. Always."

"Viva Esperanza!" shouts the crowd.

We move past the L.E.S. Ecology Garden Center with its community compost buckets and the Creative Little Garden on 6th and B, where cool, pebble-lined walkways and ivy-covered walls create a jewel-like harbor.

"This garden was established by Françoise Cachelin," explains a garden volunteer. "She was a member of the French Resistance during World War II and she ran an underground abortion clinic in New York before abortion was legalized. Protecting and establishing community gardens were her final acts of activism."

"She was also a pioneering squatter in the Lower East Side," adds a man in a crown of flowers. "She homesteaded in a building not far from here until she died."

"La lutte continue," shouts the crowd, repeating her favored phrase, "The struggle continues."

Rude Mechanical Orchestra launches into a marching-band treatment of "The Tide Is High" as we make our way to the endangered Children's Magical Garden on Norfolk and Stanton.

Under the sweet-smelling trees, amid piles of toys and a fleet of Big Wheels, members of the Stop Shopping Choir amuse themselves on teeter-totters while everyone else partakes of free ice cream offered by a bicycle-driven mobile refrigerator.

At the Peach Tree Garden, Aresh Javadi, founder of More Gardens,lifts his wolf's mask and reminds us to "hydrate our heads." Our water break is accompanied by a riotous dance routine by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Happily watered, we make our way to Le Petit Versailles and Orchard Alley, where we are invited to fruity tea amid fruit trees.

At El Jardín de Paradiso, we flop down in a sea of tall grass, relishing the musky odor of mushrooms and a full day of arboreal delights. Children young and old leap into the trees, perching in branches and holding court on a tree house platform that overlooks the garden.

"The weatherman told us there would be rain," shouts Reverend Billy, "but the sky decided to bless us and our carnival of gardens with sunlight and a little shade, and at the end of the day, this consoling wind. We are grateful for the mystery and the wisdom of the sky . . . Sky-elujah!"

"Sky-elujah!" shouts the crowd, joining hands for a spiral dance while three police officers stare from the asphalt outside.

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