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IT BEGAN when my daughter moved into a Prospect Heights brownstone with a struggling pine tree in a barrel out front. Each time I visited, I eyed the dead branches, wishing I could take a pruner to the thing and tidy it up. One day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told her, “I’m going to prune that pine. If your landlord says anything, tell him your mother is an itinerant urban gardener who goes around pruning people’s shrubs unbidden.”
While my East Hampton house is rented out, I’ve been getting my gardening jollies catching up on maintenance in the yards of my buildings in Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill. I ride around with a wooden box of garden tools in the back of my car — a hand rake, lopper, pruner, shovel, gloves, trash bags. When the urge to garden strikes, I’m ready. But I can see how this could get out of hand. Last week, I was walking along a Park Slope sidewalk and saw a lovely Japanese maple in a cobalt pot in someone’s front yard. It was full of weeds. My fingers itched to reach over the iron fence and pull them out, but I restrained myself. One recent morning, in Philadelphia to visit my son, I went out in my pajamas at 7AM and pulled 2-foot-tall weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk in front of his building … and the building next door.
Soon, I’ll have my half-acre to play with. In the meantime, I stealth-garden on other people’s property and enjoy what they’re doing with their window boxes, tree pits and containers. They’re doing a lot; it’s an encouraging sign of the times.
Below: March of the pots, a trend I’ve spotted this year for the first time. This is good news. In decades past, they might well have been stolen.
Above: Window box explosion in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood. Below: Ivy and seasonal containers decorate a carriage house in Old Kensington.
Below: Orange cosmos and white gaura have burst through the iron fence around this apartment building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, seeding themselves in cracks in the sidewalk.
Below: A proudly tended Brooklyn tree pit with petunias and variegated hosta.
Comment on this post by Sunday, December 8, for a chance to win this vintage copy of You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Own a Brownstone by Joy and Paul Wilkes.
A FRIEND recently gifted me with this relic, published in 1973 by Quadrangle/New York Times Co. According to the jacket copy, the book “puts to rest the myth that only the rich or super-rich can buy and renovate a city house.”
Today, of course, that myth is the sad truth, but 40 years ago, a person could indeed pick up one of many unrenovated houses going begging in Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods for a mere $30,000 or $50,000, with just a few thousand down.
That’s what the authors of this how-to did: they bought a house in 1970 (488 Second Street in Park Slope) with a pair of friends , renovated the lower duplex for themselves, by themselves, and survived to tell the tale.
Having read the book and re-lived those heady days of rubble and plaster dust, I’ve decided to pass the book along. To be entered in a random drawing to win it (which I will carry out using random.org), just comment on this post by Sunday December 8. Say anything: tell us if you are kicking yourself for not having bought a brownstone or three in the 1970s, or if you’re too young to have had the opportunity to blow, or just say “count me in.”
The book is well-written — one of its authors, Paul Wilkes, is a professional journalist who went on to write many books about spirituality, and the other is Joy Carol Haupt, an inspirational speaker; the two of them were co-founders of CHIPS, Christian Help in Park Slope, a soup kitchen and shelter on Fourth Avenue that’s still going strong. (They divorced shortly after completing their renovation and publishing the book.) It’s illustrated with black-and-white photos of their renovation and a few others, all displaying hallmarks of the era like exposed brick and tin ceilings. Their co-homeowners and upstairs neighbors were Lou and Jane Gropp; Lou went on to become editor-in-chief of Elle Decor and House Beautiful, and here you can see where it all began.
Some parts of the book are laughably outdated, but much still rings true and even helpful, in sections like Assessing what you can do, Step by step planning for a renovation, and Hints for living in a house under renovation. There are descriptions of architecture and wince-inducing house prices in brownstone neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and some references to other U.S. cities as well. Even today, the litany of a brownstone’s negative attributes sounds all too familiar: too many walls, not enough closets, a bathroom “so narrow you had to slip into it sideways,” water-stained floors, cracking and falling plaster, ancient appliances, ‘modernized’ mantels, and acoustical tile ceilings. All that can often still be found, for a handsome price.
The book brings back the earliest stages of gentrification, when the Dime and the Williamsburgh refused to lend money in the brownstone neighborhoods. And there’s a revealing reprint of an 1971 article by Paul Goldberger for the Wall Street Journal which describes Park Slope as a “dense inner-city neighborhood where raucous black and Puerto Rican children play in the streets, where several drug-rehabilitation centers treat area addicts” and where the “neighborhood’s main commercial stretch, Seventh Avenue, had become a sleazy stretch of failing shops and a promenade for prostitutes.” Meanwhile, the 3,000 or so “affluent young families” who had moved into the area by the early ’70s were busy “slaving away every night and weekend,” restoring gaslight chandeliers, stained glass windows and marble mantels, and holding block parties, even as they stepped over drunks in the gutters.
Comment for a chance to win the book…then read it and weep!
FOR A CLIENT who wanted a ‘Mediterranean look’ on her Brooklyn apartment-house rooftop, designer Glenn Smithbuilt a shade structure with a bridge, and even a small pond, surrounded by an eclectic assortment of grasses, succulents, and conifers. To read all about it in my Brownstoner column today, click here.
LURKING ATOP a rooftop in Park Slope, unseen from the street, are 1,500 square feet of edible and ornamental plants — including many which are both — arrayed in zig-zag formation by Brooklyn-based garden designer Cynthia Gillis. It’s an impressive garden, written up today in my weekly garden column, The Outsider, for Brownstoner.com. Go here to read more and see lots of photos.
THE CENTRAL FEATURE of this Brooklyn backyard is a circular structure made of copper-colored steel, which serves two functions: it acts as a retaining wall to support soil for plantings and also provides seating for a group. The unusual design is by Sasha Newman of Little Miracles Designs, and it’s the latest in my series of Sunday garden columns for Brownstoner.
Click here to read the whole story.