Parks Department Gardener, Christy
posted: August 17, 2007
Christy, age 36, has found that being a New York City Parks Department gardener has given her a way to connect with people, even though they drive her crazy.

"I always wanted to live in New York. I started off wanting to study art when I was young and I wanted to come to college here, which didn’t happen. The movie Desperately Seeking Susan was my inspiration. I was like, 'I want to be that, I want to live that kind of life!'

"I liked all the things that aren’t here anymore, all the different kinds of people and that it was a Mecca for art and fashion – although you'd never guess that I had any interest in fashion at all, with what I’m wearing right now. I started getting a subscription to Interview magazine when I was 14 years old and I wanted to know everything that was going on in New York.

"I only started gardening five years ago, just after I moved here. I'd done a little gardening as a hobby, like super, super, super part time. I mean, I was always good with house plants, but then I got an apartment in Greenpoint with this dust bowl in the backyard that hadn’t been touched in years and I was going through a difficult time in my life when my mother was dying of cancer. I started gardening and I found that it was the only thing that shut my brain off; I could block everything out and it was really addictive. That’s pretty much how I started.

"When I started fixing up the back yard, all of a sudden I started getting to know the man who lived downstairs, a recluse, Robert, who has since passed on. Robert never spoke to anybody, but when I started working in the back yard he would come out and he would blab. And then there was an Iranian family on one side, and this crazy Iranian grandmother lived in the backyard: she slept on a mattress in the backyard! She didn’t know any English at all, but she would lean over the fence and kind of grunt at different plants and I would dig them up and give her some and she would give me some from her garden ... and we were trading and not even speaking to each other.

"Then I moved to downtown Manhattan and I didn’t have my little garden patch anymore and I had planted a ton of bulbs just before I moved out, which broke my heart. So I started looking for parks downtown where I might be able do something, and I volunteered at City Hall Park. I worked there for two summers with Rich, who is the gardener there and my mentor. I would walk around the park with him and I’d ask him, 'What’s that, what’s that?'  I would make notes of everything and then when I got home I bought some books and I started going through and learning how they best grow and all the different varieties and stuff like that and then it just kept going from there.

"All this time I was working as a bartender, and then the bar closed. I was fortunate enough to have a little bit of a windfall come my way and I did an internship with the New York Botanical Garden, which paid nothing. I mean, it paid $10 an hour, but certainly not enough to live off of. So I had the windfall money and I worked up there for six months.

"I left the Botanical Garden and I was doing rooftop gardening for rich people – and that was terrible. It was all grunt work and no design. Then I was offered a part-time job with the Parks Department, so I quit the landscaping job and worked downtown at a little park right at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, called the Living Memorial Grove. There’s five trees planted there that were rescued from the rubble of the World Trade Center.

"I worked at Washington Square Park last summer for about three months, and I quit, because it was horrible. In every way. I mean, human beings and dogs shit in the flower beds and there's all that garbage and fighting with the homeless people who pitch tents all over and people smoking crack, literally in my face. And NYU kids just completely disrespectful, walking through the park with bags of food and throwing their napkins and cans and straws everywhere and I just wanted to kill everybody in that park. So I quit before I did.

"I was just hired full time this year at this park. I always worked part-time and I worked seasonally so it was a major big deal to be hired full time. There's always something to do, and in the winter I guess I'll probably help with snow clearing and stuff like that and I'll work on plants for the next season.

"I'm a very pessimistic person, but I know what I'm doing makes me and other people happy. Even if people don’t appreciate it, I know that it does something for them; it’s at least cleaning the air that they breathe. I used to work in sales and then I worked in advertising, and it all left me cold. It was just using my talent to sell crap. Everything catered to wealth, but working at a park is for everybody. That’s why I hated rooftop stuff, because some of the gardens that I did were really beautiful, but they were for one person or a family that was only out there for a half an hour to have drinks. They didn’t even care about what they had. In a park, it doesn’t matter if you are homeless or the mayor, it’s all here and it’s accessible to everybody."
This profile is part of Overlooked New York