Two blocks on the corner

How do we know if a building fits the aesthetic and culture of a neighborhood? Who's to say?  Seems like it's up to the people of the neighborhood. Not some developer who trumpets hollow talking points about abstract cultural influences. Not the new arrivals for whom the building was built and who, yeah, might think a building fits the area's aesthetic because it fits the only aesthetic they've ever known – they didn't experience the brick townhouses before the introduction of glassy prefab slabs. They have no memory and little stake.

In neighborhoods choked and sabotaged by derelict governments and ignored by private investors, we hail modern, somewhat radical buildings that serve the community – for example, some of the funkier supportive housing developments for formerly homeless adults and families like Breaking Ground's Boston Road. The new apartments feature foreign colors and materials or tower above the old, but people tend to consider them progressive and as indicators of investment (which they are).

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In Sugar Hill: Convent Garden and its Determined Caretaker

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.”

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