When I arrived, I could not find them. Eventually I did and was surprised. The garden was tucked away in a back corner of the lot in plain sight, but it was surrounded by parked cars and other common distractions that kept passersby oblivious to it's existence.
It was exhilarating to find a spot in the midst of all that concrete that I would have an opportunity to shape, even if it was a small piece. And to think that I had found a small shred of life-affirming new community to build it with.
Over the weekend, I was asked to behave as a participant: to show up ready to work, to do some heavy lifting, to shovel and sort and cart and shape. I am not used to doing this physical work and it felt incredible.
This morning, it feels sore and painful from my muscles down to my bones, but it is a reminder of the work I had the opportunity to do, the effort I had the advantage to give.
So often in this city we are only invited to do one thing: to consume. The consumption takes many forms. We can consume a meal at a restaurant, we can consume a curated setting, we can consume an event or a film or a concert, we can consume an identity by buying certain clothes.
So very few times are we asked to truly build, shape and participate in the construction of something. I would venture to say there are some people out there who have never had the chance to experience that.
This is especially true in a place like New York City, where property is expensive and tightly controlled. I know that during our economic crises of the 1970s many community gardens thrived, and we are lucky that we still have so many today.
Even so, to find a really quiet and alone place that we can carve out to be a special little oasis is a truly freeing and vital experience.
When I used to teach in after-school programs, I have a memory of taking a group of children to the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
In the garden we asked them to name a place where they felt truly free. Many could not think of a place that was not governed by someone else's rules or expectations, that had not been set up strictly and clearly to satisfy some established order.
I remember I told the children I felt most free on my bike. I still think about that daily when I ride, to feel the wind in my hair, to feel the ground passing under me at my own power, to smell the air and how it changes from space to space, to listen to the noises of the city.
But still, I felt sad that these children didn't have a truly open place to play. If they did have a space, it was a small and overlooked one. I think these small and overlooked spaces in our city are my most favorite.
I used to go crawl under a fence to sit by the East River in the industrial area. One time I stayed there all night and watched the sunrise. I didn't mean to, but it happened.
Sometimes you'd find others sitting there too, but you welcomed them. You could share that secret space, and it was a special intimate moment for those who were willing to seek it out.
Meeting in a space like that meant something; that you were both seekers and you understood there were many worlds and many cities within the one we all claimed.
Growing up, I lived near a drainage creek and there was a willow tree. I would climb up on that branch every afternoon and let my imagination take over. That branch took me to so many different time periods, locations, and experiences without leaving my neighborhood.
Ironically, I think one of the things I love the most about New York City is the insistence that you have to seek out and find these special places. You have to recognize when they appear and then rally to make it your own, even if you do not “own” it.
They are often ugly, dirty, and neglected. They are often extremely small, but calling out to be loved. Joining with friends to rebuild this area that was going to seed felt like being a child.
After our day's work, we made food together, danced, and played. Play and of wonder, those are the sensations that make being alive worth it. They are fleeting and exhilarating, like coasting down a hill on your bike. They are the moments when you're lit up with life.
Many will pass by this parking lot and this corner, barricaded off by cars and garbage. Many won't look twice. But behind the barricade is a secret garden for those willing to take charge of their little spot on this earth, to take something dusted with neglect and make it more beautiful.
This beauty is made by effort, by permission, by persistence, by vision, and by submission. They are the best places in New York City and truly it's heart. And the people who build these secret pocket-oases, well they are the New Yorkers I love the most.