On City Rooftops, Scrappy Green Spaces in Bloom
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Susan Doukas used to have a garden on top of her 14th Street loft; when the landlord built two stories above her, he gave her the use of the studio roof behind.
I love traveling to New York City in the summer. On the west coast, San Diego offers wonderful outdoor gardens, but I have always yearned for a rooftop city garden too. Enjoy these garden spaces that are blooming in New York despite decades of fierce challenges by buffeting winds, searing heat, covetous landlords and evolving civic policies.
By PENELOPE GREEN Published: June 22, 2011
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, when Brooklyn hipsters weren’t farming acres of kale on tops of warehouses and when the owners of multimillion-dollar SoHo penthouses weren’t laying in multimillion-dollar “instant” gardens, as one longtime SoHo renter and roof gardener put it. Herewith, four urban pastorals.
The rent on Susan Doukas’s third-floor loft was $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 (as happened from time to time) 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 Ms. 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 ’60s, 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 at Max’s Kansas City; 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 Mr. Brady in the indie cult film “Liquid Sky.” From then on, she said, they were inseparable.
On winter nights, she and Mr. 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. (Ms. Doukas has a knack for carpentry.) 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.
Fourteenth Street trash 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. An early blooper was the construction of a wooden deck, built with scavenged 2-by-4’s and nailed directly into the roof. When it rained, she said, “it was hopeless.” Water poured through her ceiling, which crumbled, exposing the lathe behind the plaster.
Ms. Doukas also built a proper staircase out of police barricades and sawhorses, and she and Mr. Brady had dinner parties among the ficuses, roses and lilies most summer nights.
In 1991, Mr. Brady learned he had multiple myeloma, a disease of the plasma cells. On a blazing August day that year, he and Ms. Doukas were married on the roof. It was so hot, the cake melted. Their two dogs wore flower garlands, and at the end of the ceremony Mr. Brady crushed a champagne glass made of plastic, so he wouldn’t cut himself.
Over the next decade, the building passed through a succession of owners who put in heat, new plumbing and new electrical wiring. In 1999, when the current landlord planned a two-story addition atop Ms. Doukas’s apartment, she suggested a compromise: would he build a terrace out of her kitchen window and allow her to use the roof of the one-story addition that stretched out behind the loft building? He agreed, and down came the roof garden. She tucked it into an urban canyon that is now swathed in AstroTurf and edged with tomato plants, lilies and hydrangeas, fennel, squash, raspberries and herbs. At its south end rises a metal structure, like something out of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” built to baffle the vent noise from the Wendy’s and the Taco Bell below. It sort of works.
As Mr. Brady weakened, so did the new garden. “There wasn’t a whole lot of time for it,” Ms. Doukas said. “My time was for him.”
By early 2008, Mr. Brady was gone. Ms. 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. (Ms. Doukas, ever resourceful, repurposed their carriers as planters.)
These days, the garden, like Ms. Doukas, who is working on a memoir of her life here, is thriving again. She finds joy in the riot of nasturtiums, clematis, roses, kale and blueberries she added this year (never mind the smell of French fries). Upstairs, in the loft, the wood-burning stove is now a side table, an old life reimagined as something new. “I keep it around,” she said, “because it keeps me humble.”
WEST 23RD STREET
More than two years ago, Gerald DeCock, a gentle 52-year-old hairstylist and artist who has been living for the last 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. There were pots of lavender and grasses, and annuals tucked in each June.
Like every habitat here, this one was deeply personal. Mr. DeCock is a visual artist who makes films, photographs and paintings, huge swirling canvases that recall spin art. His studio apartment is an art piece in itself, its brickwork, floors and ceilings spangled with Mardi Gras beads; gold, silver and copper leaf; squares of colored foil; fluorescent paint; vinyl album covers; and photographs marked with Sharpies, all of which had seeped out the kitchen window into his garden, like the tendrils of a vine seeking the sun.
Like the huge roof forest, also razed, that had grown outside the slate-roofed “pyramid” apartment behind him — planted, perhaps, by the filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who lived in the pyramid for decades — Mr. 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. (Calls to the current manager, Arnold Tamasar, were not returned.)
Destruction and renewal are built into the life of any garden. A winter freeze can be as devastating as a new landlord. Susan Kleinsinger, whose wild garden once covered the space now overseen by Mr. DeCock and who now lives downstairs, said hers was ripped out decades ago. “It was a meandering place,” she recalled recently, of roses, juniper trees, tomatoes and collard greens, planted in whiskey barrels and lobster boxes given to her by the staff at El Quijote, the restaurant on the ground floor. When her husband, the composer George Kleinsinger, author of “Tubby the Tuba,” died in 1982, she fed her daffodils with his ashes.
The Chelsea, one of the city’s first co-ops, or “home clubs,” was created as a kind of urban commune by Philip Gengembre Hubert, a French refugee, architect, inventor and idealist, said Sherill Tippins, whose history of the place, “Dream Palace: The Extraordinary Life of the Chelsea Hotel,” will be published next year by Houghton Mifflin. Hubert designed the top level of its brick roof as a common area for the tenants, a place for concerts and poetry readings — in his words, Ms. Tippins said, “a cool and delightful resort in summer.”
Mr. DeCock and his former neighbor Sam Bassett, a photographer who was the most recent inhabitant of the pyramid and who tended its wild outdoor forest, used the roof as a photographic backdrop for a series of images shot at dusk over the course of a year, which they called “The Magic Hour.” On a recent Saturday, the pyramid was unlocked and mostly empty, save for a gilded Queene Anne-style settee covered in red velvet and a bright orange chandelier.
“When they chainsawed my planters, it was devastating,” Mr. DeCock said. “But I tried to accept it.” It was only this month that he began rebuilding and replanting, albeit tentatively. “My thought was to do stuff that was less permanent,” he said. Planters are only half-filled with dirt — he put boards inside them — and he planted no vines, only annuals.
“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.
Mr. 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. Friends would take midday “vacations” there, sunbathing nude and weeding for pleasure.
A decade ago, Mr. Guerra fell in love with a young Moroccan artist, Yasmina Alaoui, who felt so at home in his Moroccan garden that she moved in. Mr. Guerra said he fell for her perfume. Bees visited the terrace, and so did hummingbirds, lady bugs and generations of praying mantises.
Four years ago, the town house was sold, and Ms. Alaoui spent months looking for a top-floor apartment with access to an empty roof. “I have a little garden,” Mr. Guerra told their new landlord, somewhat disingenuously, when they finally found a place, in SoHo.
It took two 18-wheelers to move the 200 or so pots to their new home. As he packed them up, Mr. 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. I had a lot of rocks, a lot of driftwood. They had to use the stairs. I had to sell them on my ideals.”
Not all the plants thrived in their new home, a harsher climate than the lush, wind-protected terrace they had grown up on. Mr. Guerra estimates that he lost about a third of what he originally had.
He is trying to grow site-appropriate plants like rosemary, lavender and Moroccan olives, starting them as seeds so they acclimate and grow up tough. The newest generation of praying mantises is here, too, sleeping in a fat chrysalis on a taxus branch. Tellingly, Mr. Guerra and Ms. Alaoui’s son is named Issouan, which means “everything related to water,” in Berber, said his father, who said the garden could take an hour and a half to water on dry days. As he worked, he looked longingly at a lush forest to the east, high above Broome Street.
“You can see how alive it is,” he said. “You know that guy’s a real gardener. In the first two weeks I was here, he waved to me. He never waved again. I think it was a territorial thing, you know. Like ‘I’m higher, my garden is bigger, let’s see what your garden becomes.’ ”
Michael Goldstein was a young father with a 2-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 Mr. Goldstein, once a publicist for Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, started The SoHo Weekly News in what is now his bedroom, Allen Tannenbaum photographed Patti Smith in that same wading pool, coyly pulling down her underpants. 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 that he bought from a company in Long Island City.
Early on, Mr. 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. Lenny Kravitz, who used to live in the building during “the Lisa Bonet years,” as Mr. Goldstein put it, liked to hold his interviews under the peach trees.
There are no natural predators up here, no rabbits or deer, but once a poplar “volunteer” landed in a barrel. “That was before I knew what I was doing,” Mr. Goldstein said. “I let it grow because I liked the sound of the wind in its leaves. What I didn’t know is that its roots were going right through the barrel and into our roof, causing our ceiling to leak.” That’s when he swathed the roof in two layers of rubber, a barrier against leaks and aggressive root systems.
Despite its extraordinary abundance, the garden is modular and portable. Containers are filled with potting soil, which weighs less than plain old dirt and can be moved on rollers. Two years ago, when the building’s new owners lost it to a bank, Mr. 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 this month the building has another owner.
Like a small child, the Goldstein’s garden needs nearly constant attention in the summer months. There is an irrigation system, but each plant has its own quirks and appetites.
“You can’t just go away and leave it,” Mr. Goldstein said. “You have to find someone to take care of it and teach them how to do it properly. That’s not always easy.” “I always wonder what our life might have been like without the garden,” Ms. Goldstein added. “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.