In a circular line, it all comes back


Fireworks, the 4th of July 2010' New York

 It was announced that for the first time in years the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks were to displayed in the Hudson River. The last time I had seen them over the Hudson, was in the year of my sixth grade graduation. I had to go.

 We arrived in New York to one of those glorious Summer dog days of humidity and 104 degree weather. Luckily, we got seats to the display, on an historic tugboat, right in front of the three barges that let off the fireworks in triplicate.

Irving Garten on the tugboat

 I grew up on Riverside Drive part of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Our apartment had a view of the Hudson and I would spend countless hours sitting in the window watching the water, the boat traffic and the sun set over New Jersey.

Fireboats on the Hudson July 4th 2010

Watching the the fireworks at my childhood home at 137 Riverside Drive usually involved watching the display from my living room window. If we were really lucky, the super would let us go up on the roof and watch.

July 5th dawned just as hot and  I wondered how to amuse Irving in this heat. A boat ride, The Circle Line! The last time I had gone around Manhattan on it was probably also round the time of my 6th grade graduation. I booked the deluxe tour because that is the one that passed 137 Riverside Drive. I wondered if they would still point it out. In hour 4 of the tour, we passed it and the tour guide announced,” That building there, is famous as the home of William Randolph Hearst. He lived on the top 3 floors and there was a swimming pool and servant quarters on the roof.”


137 Riverside drive from the Circle Line [the striped burgundy building in the center of the photo

At about the same time as my 6th grade graduation and my last Circle Line cruise, I started my experimentation in “Urban Farming”.

My bedroom window faced the inner courtyard of the building and was not particularly sunny but the window was large and faced south. It was there, I nurtured string beans and marigolds from seed to maturity and in the process won the science fair and became a pioneer in Urban Farming!

In my viewless bedroom, that rooftop of the apartment building held curious sway. Forbidden; except when the super let us up. Mysterious; we looked for the traces of the legendary swimming pool in the gravel. Unbridled; it had an unobscured view of the Hudson and basked in unshadowed sun. It stayed in my imagination until adulthood and my move to Toronto.

When I moved to Toronto and married, we bought a house and I had a plot of land to garden and farm in earnest. After a lifetime of apartment living, it felt good to be connected to the earth.

For 35 years I have gardened and farmed in three different houses in Toronto, gaining experience in horticulture, by planting and observing. As an artist who loves sunlight, I never had any talent or desire for a shade garden. This, is the challenge for urban gardening. Trees, roots, shadows from one’s own house, surrounding buildings, there isn’t just any where to have unobstructed open space. As you trim trees, they grow taller and become impossible to prune. Buildings ever higher, begin to compete with the daylight.

In the Spring of 2009 , I had a revelation. I had tried to grow tomatoes for years on the terrace adjacent to my kitchen. I grew them year after year with a modicum of success but as the variety of tomato seeds and plants available expanded, the yearning for complete sunshine to grow them grew. I hardly ever put tomatoes in my more decorative edible gardens.  Tomato plants themselves, are not so beautiful but their fruits in their infinite colors, forms, tastes and sizes are as gorgeous as fertility goddesses.

Back to the revelation. One March day, I was sitting in our top floor office in our family’s midtown Toronto office building   I ran out of the office and bounded up the stairs that led to the roof. I gingerly pulled open the door to see what there was. William Randolph Hearst never lived there, no fireworks were to be seen, no swimming pool to be traced, but it was mine! I could go up there whenever I wanted to. Instead of the inhospitable barrenness covered in gray gravel that I then saw, I imagined a verdant garden, an Edenic spot bearing tomatoes of every type, apple trees, and flowers. A place where people in the building could relax and soak in all the beauty.

My roof garden was born. It was like dream I never knew I had or a seed that had laid dormant through adulthood. Forty five years had passed since I was last on my roof at 137 Riverside Drive in New York City, and more years since I had first observed that roof from the Circle Cruise Line, and grew those vegetables on my window sill. As I stood on the deck of the boat circumnavigating Manhattan ,this steamy July 5th, I realized what paradises, life had given me the opportunity to create.  In a circular line, it all comes back.

Tomatoes on the roof

Addendum: This year on the roof garden, I planted and harvested 37 varieties of tomatoes, 4 of apples, in addition to lettuce, cucumbers, peas, beans, radishes, carrots, beets, hops, melons, basil, thyme, nasturtiums, marigolds, roses, onions, corn, mint, strawberries, and sunflowers. The garden appeared in publications and garden blogs internationally. The garden and its produce were enjoyed by many. A photographic exhibition of it’s bounty, now adorns the lobby below it.

Lobby with photos of the roof garden

 this article appeared in the Culinary Chronicles Autumn 2010 Issue #66., the magazine of the Culinary Historians of Canada.

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