Volume 76, Number 49 | May 2 -8, 2007

Villager photos by Esther Martin

Above, a sign with a photo of Eddie Boros on his tower in 6th and B Garden. Below, the tower.

A force of nature leaves a tower in Avenue B garden

By Lincoln Anderson

Three families came to pay their respects to Eddie Boros at his funeral on Sunday: His relatives, the members of the 6th and B Garden and his E. Fifth St. neighbors.

One of the great East Village characters, Boros, 74, died last Friday afternoon. He had recently had both legs amputated above the knee at the Manhattan Veterans Affairs Hospital on E. 23rd St., and then was recuperating at a V.A. facility in St. Albans, Queens. His relatives charge he did not receive good care at the second V.A. location, where he was found malnourished and dehydrated. He was rushed to Mary Immaculate Hospital, where he died.

He suffered from a circulatory problem and his doctors advised him three years ago to have his legs amputated, but, fiercely independent, he fought it as long as he could, his relatives said. In recent years, his legs had been virtually open ulcers.

Boros — who lived in the same E. Fifth St. and Avenue B apartment in which he grew up — was the creator of the 65-foot-tall toy-draped wooden tower that is the garden’s quirky and controversial centerpiece.

“NYPD Blue” featured the tower in its opening credits and a half-size replica of it graces the stage of “RENT,” the East Village rock opera. “NYPD Blue” would occasionally return to the garden to get a fresh shot of the tower to stay current with its ever-changing appearance.

Boros was the middle boy of three sons of Hungarian immigrants. His father was a house painter and his mother a seamstress. As a boy, Boros delivered ice in the East Village.

He and his brothers all became house painters. But Eddie also had a consuming passion for art. Almost anything he touched with his large, powerful hands became artwork.

His tower came about after he joined the then-two-year-old garden — around the corner from his house — in 1985. He began carving big wood sculptures in the middle of the garden, but this was taking up space and the wood chips were flying everywhere.

Joanee Freedom, a founding member of the garden, explained to Boros that each gardener only got one 4-foot-by-8-foot plot.

“We told him, ‘Put it on your plot.’”

So Boros picked a plot — then decided to go up. But the tower’s base soon grew to engulf eight plots.

“We call it ‘The Tower of Toys,’” Freedom said.

“Eddie was like our gatekeeper at the garden,” she said. “He sat at the gates. Buses of Japanese tourists would pull up and they’d jump out and take pictures of the tower — because they knew it. There was a Japanese town that wanted to buy the tower.”

Gray Wolf, who maintains the garden’s Web site, said Boros was known for climbing to the top of the tower and beating a drum or blowing a horn — sometimes at 2 a.m., to neighbors’ chagrin.

In fact, the tower was an ongoing source of contention. Some gardeners felt it was dangerous, plus it blocked sunlight to several plots. Every year votes were taken on whether it should be torn down, but each time it narrowly survived.

A forerunner of today’s recycling movement, Boros felt much of what was discarded as garbage had beauty and told the story of the neighborhood. Early on, he decided to decorate his tower with refuse that he found both on the streets of the East Village and sometimes farther abroad. The tower sports old stuffed animals and carousel horses.

His apartment was crammed with everything from moose heads to ship masts.

“He couldn’t see why someone would throw something out — ‘There’s a use for it,’” said Barbara Pavlock, one of his nieces.

Many of the things he collected he gave to neighborhood children. He made bikes and airplanes for the kids. He never married or had children of his own, though it was as if the whole neighborhood was his family.

He was also renowned for his attire — or lack of it. He walked around the neighborhood with his size-14 feet bare, without a shirt, wearing black cutoff jeans shorts and always a string of pearls around his neck.

Another part of the Boros legend was his phenomenal strength: Friends and relatives said he could rip a white pages phonebook in half with his bare hands — the long way. He also once picked up and moved the rear of a Volkswagen Beetle, where the engine is located. One night in a moment of drunken prowess, he lugged a manhole cover back to his home, then in the morning couldn’t move it. At age 70, he could still be seen moving around 100 pounds of rocks in the garden.

For all his strength, he was recalled as a pacifist who would never think of hurting anyone. He wouldn’t even step on a roach — instead taking it alive and tossing it out of his apartment, just “moving it,” as he would put it.

At the funeral, at Peter Jarema Funeral Home on E. Seventh St., everyone had at least one of his or her own Eddie stories like these to tell. Most had more than one. The stories kept coming and coming.

Igal, a filmmaker who documented Boros over nine years, recalled their first meeting.

“It was in January,” recalled. “He came into Sophie’s bar — no shirt, shorts, no shoes — pearls. He comes to me, sits on the bench and says, ‘I want to show you another dimension.’ He goes to the bar, gets a wrench. He opens up a fire hydrant and puts his back there and creates a huge peacock [the water bouncing off his bare back making a technicolor fan-shaped spray under the streetlight] — and that’s my first impression of him.

“He was maybe the most kind person I ever met,” Igal continued. “He was an incredible artist, a genius actually. He loved people — all people, beyond class, race, everything.”

His nephew, Joe Boros, a carpenter, said Eddie always said he wanted to build the tower high enough so that, from its tip, he could see above the rooftops all the way to the United Nations. He also said that when Eddie was in the Army during the Korean War, he was so averse to handling a gun that he was put on a detail planting trees.

Boros drank — at times hard.

“What he drank in one day could kill a lot of people — but he knew when to stop,” said Igal.

Jimmy Dougherty, a fellow 6th and B gardener, made a documentary of Boros in 1994.

“My plot was behind it,” he said of the tower. “I would get into gardening and an airplane would fall on my peonies. And there’d be a big footprint — like a Neanderthal — ‘Did you walk across my plot?’”

When they first met, Boros saw Dougherty wearing a psychedelic Bob Marley shirt and said, “I want that shirt.” They pulled off their T-shirts and swapped on the spot.

“He was a self-contained anarchist,” Dougherty said. “He was very benevolent, loving. But it could go the other way really quickly. He had an acuity for truth. That’s what the Lower East Side was about. He’s just an artifact. He’s a throwback, a reminder of that. And now he’s not here. It’s threatening.”

It may be that Boros’s tower itself is threatened, too. It remains to be seen if the sculpture, which Boros called “My Baby,” will last now that he is gone.

“People either hated it or loved it — it was polarizing,” said Dougherty.

Jared Goldstein, who leads tours of the East Village’s gardens, said he’s praying they keep the tower up.

“There a few in that garden that undoubtedly may be glad to have outlived him and might welcome the chance to finally pull the tower down over his dead body,” Goldstein said. “I hope that the media coverage might provoke a public commitment to preserve the sculpture, while, at the same time, making it safe from collapse or fire. I’d like to see the tower landmarked, but in a way that is safe.”

Eddie Boros leaves two brothers, Joseph, of Long Island, and Charlie, of New Jersey, two nephews, four nieces and 12 great-nieces and -nephews.

At the funeral, his niece Pavlock showed a reporter Boros’s page in “New York Characters,” a collection of photos and profiles by Gillian Zoe Segal, published in 2001. Among the book’s other notable characters are Ed Koch, Yogi Berra, “The Real Kramer” and Curtis Sliwa.

Boros’s page is the final one of the book.

“They saved the best for last,” she said.

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