Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: Garden Guide: New York City by Berner / Lowry [Vol. 3, #32]

“The Delight of Discovery

A Review of
Garden Guide: New York City.

By Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

Garden Guide: New York City.
By Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry
Vinyl Flexicover : W.W. Norton, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

While the idea of a garden guide for New York City might seem unusual at first – this is, after all, the city that takes a beating for the size of the presumed ‘concrete jungle’ – the fact that just such a lengthy book exists is telling of an important aspect of urban places: namely, that gardens, parks, and green spaces are as integral to the fabric of healthy, diversified neighborhoods as anything; but also, as David Owen makes clear in Green Metropolis, the very density of NYC is one of the ‘greenest’ things it has going. New York’s gardens, scattered in-between buildings, along streets, on roofs, or in the occasional large park, become all the more valued because each plot of ground is precious, which is to say, each garden must do the most with the space given for it – none of this endless acreage of sprawling lawns and vacant lots such as are found in a city like Indianapolis, where I’m writing. Rather, creative uses are required for gardens in a city like New York, and so rooftops, the smallest vacant lots, and an old elevated train line all become valued green spaces alongside buildings, roadways, and the rest of city life.

A new revised edition of Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry’s Garden Guide: New York City documents over 80 gardens in New York’s five boroughs, and this number, it seems, is a relatively small selection, as the authors cite that there are over 400 community gardens alone in NYC. And within this guide, there is a full representation of many of these community gardens, along with city park-owned properties, private institutions with public green spaces, museums, churches, and municipal buildings, all with site-specific garden spaces in the midst of the city. Additionally, all of the gardens described in the book have visiting information, a ‘best season,’ and websites in most cases; through the bulk of the guide, these gardens are grouped geographically, but at the close, there are other classifications for gardens, such as ‘Best Vegetable Gardens,’ ‘Gardens With a View,’ or ‘Rooftop Gardens.’

Almost any one of these gardens could serve as an illustration for the complexity and creativity of all of the gardens in Garden Guide, such as the West Side Community Garden, situated right between high-rise residential buildings, and originally developed by guerrilla gardeners of a sort; Samuel Paley Plaza, a small pocket park with a waterfall along the back edge; Teardrop Park, one of several parks lining the Hudson River, complete with a bluestone rock wall mimicking the natural landscape of the Catskills; the Bronx County Courthouse Greenroof Garden, a 10,000 square foot green roof; or the Enchanted Garden, devised and maintained by students at John F. Kennedy High School, which unearthed a trace of the native Spuyten Duyvil Creek that once ran through NYC.

But perhaps my favorite project in the book is the High Line, which I’ve kept an eye on, since seeing some of Joel Sternfeld’s photographs of this abandoned rail line, overgrown with Queen Anne’s Lace and other plants. The High Line (also highlighted in Peter Brown’s delightful children’s book THE  CURIOUS GARDEN), a park that reuses an abandoned rail line, 30 feet above street level, and 1.45 miles long, opened last year, and by all accounts and images I’ve seen, this looks to be a park that is wondrous. The Garden Guide describes it as “a park like no other, a transformative intervention into the urban landscape, offering us a unique way of experiencing the city and a new approach to creating a landscape” (169). Likewise, landscape architect James Corner, leading the design of the High Line, has said in a recent interview that the design should “give people the feeling that they’ve come across a secret, magic garden in the sky. That they’re almost surprised and delighted by how long it is, by the twists and turns it takes, by the views it affords, and ultimately that they are engaged in some of the delight in discovering these moments” (inhabitat.com). All of this language used to describe the High Line sounds not unlike Liberty Hyde Bailey, writing in the early part of the twentieth century about the “magic wonderment” at his very doorstep, in upstate New York. Locating this same wonder of the natural world in the midst of the city is part of what creative, sensitive projects like the High Line can accomplish.

The potential for innovative reuse of abandoned spaces cited in Garden Guide, such as the successful High Line or the Bayview Habitat, as well as other large-scale projects such as Fresh Kills Park (being built over top of what was once the world’s largest landfill) or Governors Island (see Ouroussoff, “Governors Island Vision…”; New York Times, 04.12.2010), as well as the myriad forms taken by  all of these gardens, should certainly spark the imaginative cultivation of gardens and green spaces in many other places; if such a Garden Guide can be made for the most crowded city in the world, perhaps it will set a trend for urbanisms in many other cities.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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