Bergen Street, 1100 Block Community Garden, April 9, 2020
Every day out of the last twenty-six, for about the length of a cigarette, I’ve been standing before this inaccesible community garden on Bergen Street between Nostrand and New York Avenues. At the height of spring now, the garden flourishes with daffodils, both yellow and white-petaled, showing their sunburst centers, tulips, hyacinths, purple snowdrops, young leafing trees and a bush with a cluster of red, berry-like flowers that I, city kid and poor botanist, can’t recognize. A rickety gazebo with a few plastic chairs is pleasingly sited just off-center, in the lot, joined by an untread meandering dirt path to the padlocked gate of a high, chain-link fence. If anyone comes to tend the place, these days, they must be there at odd hours, very early or after dusk. Each time I’ve passed by, usually relatively early morning, before nine o’clock, or evenings before six, it’s been deserted except for songbirds thronging there, mostly undisturbed. A lone tabby cat I’ve seen prowling on occasion sometimes stalks them in low-slung hunter’s crouch through the grass, belly brushing the dew. The garden is backed against the apse of an old stone church and recent cherry blossoms show like tinkling white and pink bells off the blank gray stone, as if this were some quiet country churchyard somewhere in Northern Europe.
I’m tempted to imagine this small paradise as a place of healing amid all the suffering, the birdsong as antidote to the sirens and the heavy sound of slamming ambulance doors, the clatter of the gurney in the hall. Or something like a spot of high ground in a flood as waves of catastrophe ride round us. In gloomier moods, I can see the garden as it might become after humans have left, died out, a micro-center of the new wilderness taking over the city. Already a bunch of red tulips thrust their heads through the fence. Soon the roots of the bushes will run under the concrete and break up the sidewalk, the fence will fall, the undergrowth will spread its tendrils, the flowers seed themselves beyond their beds. The imagination is well-furnished with pastorals and apocalyptic visions, none of them exactly true. Primed for story as we are, we feed our wishes with even meager leavings. “Then the last judgment begins and its vision is seen by the imaginative eye of everyone according to the situation he holds,” says Blake.
And what if one tries to see things merely as they appear: the flowers do their bloomy thing, the birds sing not so much in relation to the tide of human suffering but perfectly at ease alongside it. The garden exists, as a fact, in history, already a record of a different kind of disaster and recovery: a sign on the fence reads “Here we take care of our legacy of lead” with instructions to all visitors and gardeners to wash their hands after contact with the soil. There’s another sign that displays a bit about the garden’s history including the year of its founding, 1978, and the names of the six women of the block association who chartered it. I can assume it was a piece of reclaimed land from industrial overdevelopment and urban blight in this part of Brooklyn, a garden intended, I imagine, partly to remediate the toxic soil through the plantings, which, over time, will extract and bind the particles of heavy metals into themselves, and so neutralize them.
Still that’s just a different story I can only intuit from a sign. I know nothing really about the place, a stranger in these parts. I only arrived at the beginning of the quarantine period, moving in with a relatively new partner. If there were some custodian to inquire of I could learn more, but people these days aren’t very talkative: another human being just looks like a vector of contagion, and everyone is anyway muffled in masks.
Even in better times, my presence here might have been met with suspicion: a middle-aged white man, seemingly well-dressed to the undiscerning eye, or at least wearing a certain class uniform: jeans, a threadbare sportcoat (only I know about the holes in the lining) over an untucked dress shirt, fancy glasses frames, and faux working-man boots. The neighborhood remains predominantly West-Indian Black, a lot of health care workers in scrubs and transit workers, public school teachers and municipal employees; many old people as well.
How I came to experience the great public health crisis of our time from a ringside seat in one of the most afflicted neighborhoods in the five boroughs still feels mysterious to me, as if I ended up somehow in the wrong body. Almost everyone I know of my age and background has fled the city to second houses or to friends and family upstate and out-of-state. I’m too old to be one of the recently arrived twenty-something white kids who circulate in blithe defiance of social-distancing orders at the noxious tiki bar next to the garden. They come for “to-go cocktails” at half past six but often linger in little clusters. All of them wear masks now, but it just makes them seem like stranded ghosts of that other New York, when the fourteen-dollar cocktail was served next to the check cashing store. It’s not that I’ve suffered, but that I’ve stayed more or less the same for the last fifteen years, living off a small managed inheritance, writing not often enough, or not for enough money, accepting less for doing the teaching and editing work that a generation ago might have ensured me a decent standard of living, a large apartment or a house, even in this city of my birth, with a small garden. I wasn’t ambitious at the right time of my life, or not ambitious in the right ways, or just disorganized, inattentive, and underappreciative of risk.
Some days, the thought I might die here during this pandemic fills me with bemusement, some days with dread. Some days I’ve thought that my purpose in coming here was to die. “If it be not now, it will come.” Am I then practicing a kind of readiness? In the self-involved moods, yes. Bury me in the garden, and et in arcadia ego. My first night here, going to bed, I felt I was in the presence of death, thick and foglike, a mass that was darkness within darkness. It sat there in the room, the blackout curtains drawn. I was right to fear and right to sense it, but it wasn’t yet for me. Perhaps I’ve come here not as a terminally vague, indecisive Hamlet-quoting autofictionist, but as a witness, a kind of Horatio. I will breathe the air of the world again a little longer and tell another’s story.
Like so much else in American life, a kind of perpetual perverse morality play, where vice is rewarded and virtue is punished, as if our national novel should be called 120-Plus Years of Sodom and Counting, the coronavirus pandemic afflicts the already afflicted. The death tolls in Black communities, like the one where I find myself, is astonishing. Asthma rates in these communities were already terrible, the lack of basic preventive care and frontline medical treatment chronicled in reports and studies that piled up in Departments of Health and Human Services unread or unacted upon. To this add the studies that show that stress and economic hardship are themselves a kind of “pre-existing” medical condition that weakens immune systems and literally saps the will to live. The ingredients of the unfolding mass death rates were already present. It took just the one spark.
Perhaps the fact that life before for so many was already a step from disaster explains the way people go about their lives here, an everydayness, a getting on that ought to shame the hysterical preppers and doorknob wipers of Park Slope, people with neurotic fears of the subway system before the neurotic became the rational. I talked to my aunt the other evening. She’s 84 and quarantined on the Upper West Side. There’s some commotion, she says, and she can’t hear me. It’s seven o’clock and people are applauding the health care workers, banging pots, ringing bells. Here, in the neighborhood where some of the workers live, no one claps or shouts. All is quiet except for the sirens and the occasional car stereo. At twilight, the streets are full of people returning from work, masked, hunched, walking in pairs or sometimes even small groups, heedless of injunctions to distance; most likely they’d anyway just emerged from a crowded subway car or ended a shift at a narrow-aisled supermarket where social distancing has proved impracticable, or a hospital. What is it my neighbors know that “my audience,” dangerous thing for a writer to think about, does not? That the crisis isn’t something to be controlled, only weathered? That most days there’s no progress, only storm?
Recently, someone graffitied “Obama” over one of the signs on the community garden fence. Who knows whether it was intended as mockery, reminder, or inspiration. Maybe the witster is pointing out that Hope right now is a locked garden, or alluding to 2008’s “change we can believe in” slogan. No doubt I’ve also misread my neighbors’ stoicism, the degree of their acceptance. There’s a cliché about New York City that the only constant is the unceasingness of change. As the garden reminds, this is true of nature, too. Last year is dead, it seems to say. But the garden also gives a clue to how the new city, germinating already out of our toxic, plague-haunted soil, could be better than what it grows over: it will have to be wrested from the land with the same determination it took the six women named on the sign to make this spot out of the ruins of industrial New York and preserve it against the New York of destructive real estate developers. Like the old garden, the new city should also come with a sign:
“Here we take care of our legacy of the dead.”