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Transitory Gardens,
Uprooted Lives

Diana Balmori and Margaret Morton

[Yale University Press, fall 1993]
116 pages, 115 photographs

When I first visited the homeless communities under the bridges and in the vacant lots of New York City, I was surprised to discover the gardens that these men and women build with such care and unique beauty to embellish and protect their improvised dwellings.

James Spence picked through the rubble of a crumbling building that overlooks an abandoned lot on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, carefully selecting fragments to border the barren earth he had hollowed into an oval pond. Spence lined the pond with black plastic trash bags, creating an illusion of depth far beyond its six inches, and filled it with water from a nearby fire hydrant.

He found a discarded chair along the street — one leg was missing, so he sawed off the other three and joined it to a wooden palette at the head of the pond. In the back of the lot, Spence had clustered a sleeping tent, a collection of garden tools, and a vegetable garden planted with corn and tomatoes.

He sinks back into the red velveteen upholstered arm-chair, crosses his legs, lights a cigarette, and fondly recollects the pond as a child in South Carolina.

Spence, like many homeless people, evokes memories of his past through the creation of a garden.

Hector Amezquita, known as "Guineo" for his love of bananas, came to New York as a young man, but became homeless in the 1980s after he lost his job and his marriage ended. He built himself a one-room shack on a vacant lot off East Fourth Street following his eviction from Tompkins Square Park in 1989. In 1991, he added a walled entrance courtyard, reminiscent of his boyhood home in rural Puerto Rico.

The first time I start like a poor person. Now I feel better. Now I feel comfortable. Nobody bother me. I have to do it, because I'm an old man already. I'm on to fifty-five. Too much for me. For me, it's like a hundred.
— Hector

The interior courtyard provided a semi-private space for reading and visiting with friends. Amezquita created a path through the courtyard using bricks scavenged from a nearby building renovation, then added an inflatable palm tree and broken statue of a seated child.

I carry all these things here myself -- from the street, from everywhere, found them on Eighth Avenue, First Avenue, every piece of wood, I found it. Everything I found, I take it. Little by little, everything. I carried it all for more than two years.
— Hector

Perhaps by salvaging these discarded fragments, Spence, Amezquita, and others are also gathering the strength to survive. And as they reassemble these damaged bits of brick, plant and wood into a sense of place they are reaffirming our common and profound need to bring beauty and harmony into our existence, no matter how tenuous and impoverished the circumstances..

The gardens pictured here have been destroyed. All gardens disappear with the seasons, but these were uprooted by city bulldozers, never to return in Spring. Diana Balmori states in our book Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives, that "all gardens are transitory, like our lives. Yet in many respects they speak of a desire for permanence or at least an illusion of permanence. These urban gardens, pared of the superfluous, made with true economy of means by persons who are deprived of the most basic necessities, seem to point to the power of the garden. Few better examples of hope and the wish for fulfillment can be found."

Diana Balmori holds an appointment as a critic in landscape, Yale University School of Architecture, and as a lecturer in the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She is also principal at Balmori Associates, Inc., New Haven, a landscape and urban design firm.

Margaret Morton, a photographer who lives in New York City, is professor of art at The Cooper Union School of Art. Her photographs of the dwellings that homeless people have created for themselves are published in her books The Tunnel and Fragile Dwelling.

Reviews for Transitory Gardens

Other books: Fragile Dwelling, The Tunnel

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Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives
Yale University Press, 1993

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Revised: October 2000