Thursday, August 5, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green, II

My dear reader (again, here’s that pesky assumption that some people actually do read this blog) might question why the previous entry on community gardens, and why protests against the expiration of protections of them are (a) worthy of a blog entry, and (b) are worthy in and of themselves. I have been asking myself that since I last posted on The New York Times news story and decided that, no matter how remote from the actual garden experience such a post might be, it nevertheless deserves attention.

The architecture of the urban space as a whole emerges from the amalgamation of public and private, the traditional and the inventive, the commercial and residential, the artistic and the staid. Such multiple amalgamations manifest in and over time the myriad of conversations between diverse groups with distinct interests and visions—and if conducted democratically and constructively, the conversation produces an urban visual aesthetic in which buildings and spaces directly relate to (and serve) the people who inhabit, discourse, and use those spaces. The curious intermixture of the public and the private inevitably produces its own peculiar verve, its own vibrancy, and its own needs—and it is this verve that we identify with the city. 

But if the conversation assumes more of a dictated tone, then we witness “disasters” as many urban planners and architects call them, such as Berlaymont, home of the European Union in Brussels, which divide rather than unite neighborhoods. Berlaymont on weekends and “after hours” is a dead-zone; nary a café, restaurant, shop, or movie theatre open doors to attract people to a once vibrant neighborhood. The Rue de la Loi is more a fetid gash, an abstraction of the law for which it is named, rather than a grand European boulevard, a transitional zone, that seamlessly integrates distinct districts (in this case, Grand Place, Brussels’ historic city center, and the EU district) and therefore offer the verve and vibrancy we so often associate with urban spaces.    

Of course, many cities contain public gardens and parks—grand gestures to all those unable to afford plots of land on which to garden, barbeque, and relax—and the public garden has become a staple of successful urban design. But so too have community gardens become an inextricable space in the urban landscape; community gardens are the creative, personal cousin of the predesigned, public garden space. And they are just as important.

Community gardens encourage the personal production of food—and more importantly the sharing of food amongst neighbors (how many have planted a few tomato plants only to discover that those plants have produced more tomatoes than one could conceivably consume?). Community gardens offer a visual and psychic respite from the concrete, steel, stone, and brick that constitute the city’s artifice. Community gardens challenge the anonymity of the city by offering a space to till and toil, converse and conserve, garden and grow. Community gardens serve as a vital, if extremely localized, lifeline of the city, for they make communities out of districts, neighborhoods out of zones.

New York is not simply the neon electrifications of Time Square, but the collective of localized attempts to make the city one's own. New York is not simply the suffocating subterranean transportation system, or the actualized ruminations of architects who seek higher and higher into the skies, but the violent jolts of the unexpected and the creative resonances of those who inhabit (and, indeed, shape) the city. 

And community gardens, as homegrown, sporadic, and organic as they are, represent the marriage of public spectacle and private ingenuity, and thus feed literally and figuratively, aesthetically and psychically, their creators and tenders, those who happen upon them, and the city as it imagines and lives itself.      

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