Volume 76, Number 51 | May 16 -22, 2007


‘Poytry,’ pruning and the birth of Jane St. Garden

By Patricia Fieldsteel

NYONS, FRANCE — An article in The Villager not long ago launched me on a retrospective journey. The serene Jane Street Garden, site of nearly three decades of killer neighborhood fights, won an award from The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation for its beauty and “contribution to the legendary quality of life in Greenwich Village.” How true, how true....

When I moved to the Village in 1969, the garden’s site was occupied by three-story Greek Revival buildings, 25-29 Eighth Ave. and 38-40 Jane St. Built in 1845, the buildings on Jane were residential; the three on Eighth had ground-floor storefronts. Spyros Food Market, now on the corner of W. 12th St. where Doc Guido’s Abingdon Pharmacy & Luncheonette (complete with marble-topped soda fountain) was then, occupied adjoining storefronts at No.’s 25-27 and a candy store/newsstand occupied a triangular space at No. 29 on the corner.

The newsstand was operated by a young couple; he had a red beard and a propensity for playing the ponies; his wife had a propensity, perhaps not entirely voluntary, for hard work. It was she who served me my first egg cream from the tiny soda fountain in the tip of the triangle.

  By the late 1960s, the Jane St. buildings had fallen into disrepair; all but an elderly woman on the top floor had moved out. The debt-ridden landlord was unable to budge her; then a fire of “suspicious origin” caused an exterior wall to buckle. The buildings went to in rem proceedings, were used as a squat by junkies, and another suspicious fire forced the fragile structures to be torn down.

I remember waking up in my Jane St. studio to an apartment suddenly filled with brilliant light and being stunned as I lay in bed to discover, instead of viewing brick walls, I was looking straight out to the breakfast crowd already seated at the sidewalk tables of La Bonbonnière on Eighth Ave. The lot remained filled with rubble. A group of Jane Streeters led by Phyllis Katz, Jean Verral and Gerard Mutsaers (who did the heavy shlepping) cleaned it up and created an oasis of green. Dan Stewart, the prominent landscape architect who lived at 70 Jane, designed the small garden, which was planted and tended by members of the recently formed Jane Street Block Association.

These were the heady days of Village activism, long before the yuppies, bobos, superstar celebrities and multimillionaires arrived. No one was chic, no one was trendy and no one was rich, and if a few were, they worked hard to hide it. New York was in decline, sliding toward bankruptcy; people were leaving in droves for safer, greener places. The Jane St. Block Association raised money to buy trees for the then-treeless street. A chicken-wire fence was put around the garden; benches and seats added. The dress designer Mollie Parnis recognized the garden with a Dress Up Your Neighborhood Award in 1974.

Then in 1975, a catastrophe of cosmic proportions occurred. The plot, now known as “36 Jane Street, Block 625, Lot 34,” was bought at auction by a novice real estate developer, 26-year-old Gregory Aurre, Jr., of W. 12th St. Overnight, the garden was neck deep in mud. Aurre hired architect Stephen Lepp to design a four-story combined apartment/commercial building for the site. Jane Streeters charged the plan wasn’t in keeping with the street. Rumors circulated that quickly became accepted as fact: The building was to be a high-class brothel. Petitions on top of petitions circulated. Phone lines buzzed to the point of near breakdown. Charges about Aurre’s alleged expulsion from the National Association of Securities Dealers were freely flung. Aurre said they were untrue and irrelevant to his project. Lepp’s design was subject to approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission because Block 625 is in the Greenwich Village Historic District. A hearing was scheduled for May 13, 1975. Representatives and supporters of the Jane Street Block Association lobbied to request that Landmarks delay the hearing to allow time for further study. Accusations of “sneaky tactics” were made by both sides.

On May 12 disaster struck. A shovel-wielding workman sent by Aurre entered the garden and brutally dug up flowers and plants, killing many, maiming others and abducting the rest. An angry crowd led by Jean Verral arrived to rescue the survivors. There were tears in the eyes of many. Our street had been violated, sullied; innocent and beautiful flowers destroyed in the name of crass financial greed. Ultimately, Landmarks rejected Aurre’s proposal. The city took over the property, renting it to the Jane Street Block Association for between $6,000 and $10,000 a year. In 1977, Aurre pled guilty as part of a 24-count federal indictment for participation in a banking conspiracy in which he obtained $160,000 in fraudulent bank loans between 1973 and 1975. He was sentenced to prison. 

The garden was replanted. Eminent landscape designer Pamela R. Berdan, a creative, talented visionary but nonetheless a bit of a witch, was brought in to work her horticultural magic. Berdan had already created the magnificent Jefferson Market Garden and was responsible for the Sheridan Square viewing garden’s design and award-winning private gardens.

This was the era when street fairs began — not the commercial horrors of today, but homemade local events. The Jane Street Fairs were legendary and the profits paid the garden’s lease. It was decided the third annual Jane Street Fair, set for Oct. 9, 1982, would be a Nieuw Amsterdam Festival in commemoration of the Oct. 8, 1782, signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, formalizing diplomatic relations between the newly formed republic and the Netherlands. Invitations to the festival’s opening were sent to the mayor of Amsterdam, the Dutch royal family and Mayor Koch.

Gerard Mutsaers suggested putting an old-fashioned Dutch windmill in the garden. Evan Stoliar built it with his father, Arthur, who drew up plans based on a model of a Heineken beer windmill. Joan Stoliar bought a book on roof thatching, had bales of hay delivered, and Jane Streeters would drop by evenings to thatch the windmill’s roof. The windmill required a circular brick foundation. Several lopsided attempts were made. There wasn’t time to order a book. A stranger strolled by the garden one day and yelled, “Hey, you need someone who does brickwork?” The windmill assembled, its motor hooked up to a streetlight, the switch was flicked and the sails began to turn, for reasons never fathomed, backward.

  The sidewalks around the garden were painted blue to look like canals and a platform for speeches was erected along with a Dutch kitchen and outdoor cafe selling beer, pea soup, siroopwaffles, Dutch chocolates and cheeses. Vendors and strolling musicians were dressed in Dutch costumes and wooden shoes. Mayors Koch and Wim Polak arrived; Polak made a brief speech. A limousine pulled up in the middle of Eighth Ave. and the princess of Holland stepped out. The festivities were all on Jane St. From high on the dignitaries’ platform, Hizzoner spotted the lone, bewildered princess across the street and ran to her rescue, yelling “Here, Princess! Here, Princess!” She nodded graciously and he escorted her to the dais. The day was saved. The festival netted $20,000.

Eventually, the Koch administration demanded the bulk of street fair profits. The Jane Street Block Association went into debt to the city over its inability to pay the garden’s lease. Bill Bowser and the West Village Committee came to the rescue by negotiating a 25-year lease at $40 per year to maintain the space as a community garden. Bowser and Berdan had worked together on the St. Vincent’s Hospital garden. Their visions for the Jane Street Garden were not harmonious. Bowser held the keys and locked Berdan out. Under surveillance of two escorts, Berdan was permitted to remove plants she’d put in at her own expense.

During this period, Jane St. was adopted by an individual calling himself “The Friendly Neighborhood Poet,” or as he said, “poyt,” preferring the archaic upper-class pronunciation. He came to bring “poytry” into our lives and help with daily chores, for which we were permitted to give financial remuneration. Most residents were charmed. I was not, plus his “poytry” stank. He took up residence inside the windmill and gave readings of his work. 

A series of thefts occurred, mainly car radios and tape decks but also household electronics and cash. As a service, the “poyt” began to sell similar items he’d found in the trash and repaired. With extra cash, he was able to indulge his fondness for weed, though not of the pesky garden variety. The sight of smoke curling through the thatched roof in the evenings caused more than a few people concern. Several Jane Streeters who’d been robbed were surprised to discover their own Social Security numbers on many of the exact same items our “poyt” was offering for sale. A delegation went to the Sixth Precinct. That night, our “poyt” failed to notice when the thatched roof caught fire; while he slept beneath smoldering cinders, officers from the Sixth entered the garden and escorted him to more secure accommodations at Rikers. Shortly after, the windmill was torn down.

Bowser maintained the garden according to his own tastes. At times, it looked unkempt and wild; other times, it was beautiful. Volunteers whose ideas differed from Bill’s were banned, as he became increasingly dictatorial, viewing the garden as his own private fiefdom. On April 7, 1995, Bowser was hospitalized with pneumonia. I was recuperating from surgery and had been confined to my apartment for months. Looking out at the garden in winter, I was eager for spring. By May, the garden was still untended. I checked with Eileen Bowser, took my key and went in. I asked the writer Susan Brownmiller, a Jane St. gardener, to help. She had the expertise I lacked. We were quickly overwhelmed by enthusiastic volunteers and cash contributions. 

The more I listened to Susan, the Gardener-in-Chief (G.I.C.), the more I was shamed by my own ignorance, and the more nervous I became. Great plans were apparently afoot. A group of old ladies, the Fans of Bill (F.O.B.), began to harangue us. How dare we touch HIS garden, tamper with HIS vision!? The G.I.C. and F.O.B. were quickly at loggerheads. I sided with the G.I.C. and consulted Eileen. Bill was on a respirator. Do what you think is best, she advised, and don’t worry.

The first showdown came over the pyracantha growing next to the garden’s gate. The G.I.C. said it had to go; I wasn’t sure what pyracantha looked like, but I was assured it was ugly, had thorns and was choking other plants. I wasn’t comfortable removing anything; it wasn’t for us to do. The G.I.C. persisted. I waffled, then gave in, stating firmly it would be the only plant to go. On May 13, the first purple iris opened. I took Polaroids and visited Bill, who still had a tracheotomy tube. He seemed pleased with the photos, but when I mentioned the pyracantha, he started frantically mouthing words I couldn’t make out. I left with a bad feeling. 

On May 22, the first of the many roses, La Reine Victoire, opened; then the peonies exploded, followed by foxglove, hollyhock, columbine, fever few, Allium, etc. Nearly everyone agreed, the garden had never been more beautiful. The leader of the F.O.B. threatened to have me arrested for allowing my Westie in the garden while I worked. Battle lines were quickly drawn. The majority were thrilled to have the community garden opened up to the community; a vocal minority was dedicated to keeping the community out. 

I had more surgery and came back to find major tree pruning had been done. HE did not believe in pruning; whereas the G.I.C. was a pruner.

The G.I.C. posted lists of flowers in bloom, their Latin names, characteristics and locations. Norman Rosenfeld planted dahlia tubers, flowers both his mother and Bill’s had raised. Parents brought children, introducing them to “country life.” Others came in to work, to admire, read, write, socialize. We all got to know “strangers” we’d passed on the street for years. Friendships developed, parties were thrown and the F.O.B. continued to harangue. 

On June 19, Bill was released from St. Vincent’s. Eileen called to say he would visit the garden June 30. Early on July 1, the G.I.C. was awakened by the phone. Bill was not pleased. His “vision” had been violated, destroyed. Brownmiller replied “chaos” was not a “vision.” “YOU PRUNED!!!!” he screamed. The G.I.C. was banned from the garden “for life.” I nervously awaited my call. Arthur Stoliar went as an Emissary of Peace to visit Bowser on July 3. The meeting lasted several hours. Bill was more conciliatory; Arthur felt encouraged. Then, as he walked out the door, Bill screamed, “SHE PRUNED!! SHE DESTROYED MY VISION! I MAY FORGIVE, BUT I NEVER FORGET! AND... I MAY NOT FORGIVE!” 

The garden needed watering; the roses deadheading. No one dared go in. I received a thank you card from Bill and Eileen. A week later, Bill banned me as well. The situation was sad, if not crazy. No one had meant any harm. Perhaps, the old Chinese proverb said it best: “All gardeners know better than other gardeners.” On Sept. 7, Bill put up an enormous red metal sign: “NO DOGS ALLOWED.” Several Jane Streeters remarked the sign wasn’t tightly attached; most likely it would blow away in a strong wind, which it did two nights later. After a time, through an intermediary, I was asked to help out. But my communal gardening days were over.

In 1998, Bowser received The Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation Award. He died in early 2001. The West Village Committee still maintains the garden, led by the horticulturist Susan Sipos. I am told she has done a magnificent job, that the garden continues to bring much happiness, but then, when given the freedom, that is its nature.

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