In Sugar Hill: Convent Garden and its Determined Caretaker

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For almost ninety-years, a wedge in the uptown grid at the quirky intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue and Convent Avenue, designated a park by the Board of Estimate in 1909, sat misused, abused or neglected.

Initially, the triangle contained a gas station until the Parks Department discovered its rights to the rare patch of land and razed the pumps there in 1985. A group of neighbors then developed the first iteration of Convent Garden, but after the city uprooted their landscaping to remove the underground gas tanks, weeds grew and trash accumulated in the triangle. The chain link fence around the perimeter began to collapse and police officers from the nearby 30th Precinct commandeered the lot to stash seized vehicles or park their own cars.

In 1998, Juliette Davis, who lives on the fourth floor of a building across the street and who neighbors call Miami, decided to rejuvenate the so-called garden. Today, the .13-acre park, full of flowers, trees, a gazebo and an assortment of decorations donated by friends and neighbors, stands out as a colorful oasis amid the Sugar Hill brownstones and a testament to Davis’ determination.

“You can sit around and wait for days and months and years for somebody to do something for you and never get it done, but maybe with a little knowledge you can do it,” Davis said as she sat in the shade beneath a rosebud tree near the garden gate and reflected on the history of Convent Garden and her neighborhood. “I just started doing the work. I started cleaning the place up and doing things myself. I cleaned off this entire lot because my first thought was, ‘I want grass.’ It was like the wilderness here. Garbage. Weeds growing up above your head.”

Eventually, she said, the Parks Department noticed her efforts. They named her volunteer of the month and gave her a modest grant, which she used to purchase sod. Davis continued adding new features, planting trees, laying a cobblestone pathway and planting thousands of flowers.

“The best way to predict your future is to create it,” she said, pointing to a sign with that inscription dangling from the rosebud tree. “When people see you doing something they don’t mess with it. Even when I started the garden there were guys who would roam around scavenging and looking for something to steal to get a fix. Some of them even told me, ‘We’re not gonna mess with your stuff because it’s so nice.’ And some of them would even bring me trinkets and little things for the garden.”

Building community on a little patch of land

For nearly two decades, Convent Garden has provided a comfortable space for senior citizens to chat with neighbors and parents to relax while their children play. Eight chairs are arranged in a circle in front of a wide evergreen tree, which Davis decorates for Christmas. Additional pieces of outdoor furniture, including a kid’s table with red, yellow and blue chairs, are located throughout the garden while small bicycles, Cozy Coupes and toys lay scattered next to a grill near 151st St. The garden hosts several events, like an annual Labor Day festival and a Halloween party for dog-owners.

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During our conversation on a warm October afternoon, four of Davis’ many friends and acquaintances stopped to say hello. One woman entered the garden accompanied by a patronizing home health aide -- “Don’t worry, we’re gonna get your old [aide] back,” Davis told her friend knowingly.

A man named Donald hugged Davis and said he was celebrating his 66th birthday.

“Keep on. Maybe you’ll catch me,” Davis, 71, said before she paused to reconsider. “No, I hope you don’t catch me ‘cause that means I’d have to stop.”

Meanwhile, several passersby, attracted by the long bed of flowers and the gnarled vine that winds through the top of the wrought-iron fence, peeked through the gate or walked in to take photographs. Most seemed like young hipsters, new arrivals to the Sugar Hill section of Harlem.

Neal Shoemaker, owner of Harlem Heritage Tours and a lifelong Harlem resident, said Convent Garden provides a vital resource for a neighborhood where gentrification threatens to fracture community and erase history.

“Without common spaces and places, we lose a sense of community and a sense of community is necessary to have a healthy family and a sense of connectedness,” Shoemaker said. “We lose what we need to be fortified as an individual. The garden gives us a sense of having some place to go where we can share commonalities.”

A dream realized

While growing up in tiny Florala, Alabama and, later, Southern Florida -- hence her nickname -- Davis had a vivid dream. Actually, more like a vision.

Davis dreamed that she was walking in a forest where she encountered a grassy triangle surrounded by hedges. An octagonal pit bubbled with golden liquid inside the triangle and a man standing nearby explained that if she could figure out the meaning of the pit, she could have anything she wanted for herself and her family.

The vision stuck with her even after she moved to New York City in search of an apartment to share with her six children in the 1970s. She finally settled on a large apartment on Convent Ave. near 152nd Street that had been severely damaged by a recent fire. Rather than repair the apartment, the landlord covered the roasted walls with faux-wood paneling and the charred beams with a drop ceiling, which spewed soot each time the upstairs neighbor walked around.

Davis renovated the apartment herself and later led the other tenants in turning the building into a co-op after the landlord stopped paying property taxes, she said. Eventually, she applied her skills and determination to the garden. After Davis cleared the refuse and laid the sod, the Parks Department rewarded her hard work with a donated gazebo. Parks employees constructed the octagonal floor of the gazebo and Davis went home to gaze at it from her window.

“It was new so it had a honey color like gold and they put the floor in and they were putting the rest of it up the next day,” Davis said. “I went upstairs and I looked out to see what it looked like and I said, ‘That’s my dream.’”

“The old man said if I knew the answer to the pit of bubbling honey I would have everything I wanted,” she added. “Well I know the answer to the pit of bubbling honey. [It’s] do things for yourself. Learn things for yourself. Don’t wait for anyone else to do it.”

As she spoke, Davis opened a black garbage bag stuffed with hundreds of bulbs to plant.

“People always ask if I grow vegetables and I say, ‘No. I’m a gardener not a farmer. I want to feed the soul,’” Davis said. “Whenever you want to make people feel good or celebrate, you give them flowers. But a lot of people don’t get flowers so if you’re coming home from work and you’re tired or you’re depressed then you come here. A lot of people look forward to coming here to see what’s blossoming. It lifts their spirits.”