Amid the Mulch, Musical Notes

July 26, 2012

Amid the Mulch, Musical Notes


THE rush-hour Metro-North trains roared overhead at the Urban Garden Center in East Harlem with impressive force and frequency. As a woman left with a bag of fresh produce, a bass player wheeled in his oversize instrument, past fragrant mulch beds and potted shrubs, to join other musicians setting up in a greenhouse. Two baby chickens played tug of war with a piece of straw, and a young juggler rehearsed with a set of white balls.

“I wanted to shed the traditional garden center theme,” said Dimitri Gatanas, a third-generation garden retailer who runs the center with his family. He paused while a train passed by. “It’s a retail operation with a community-minded mantra.”

That afternoon, Eni Bakallbashi had dropped in for a scoop of potting soil for succulents and a bromeliad she bought this year.

“They’ve always been good to me here,” she said, adding that the center was a welcome arrival in the often-maligned neighborhood. “I work near the flower district,” she said, “but I want to support local.”

Bordered by the uptown and downtown lanes of Park Avenue, the 20,000-square-foot space at 116th Street is part of La Marqueta, a once-vibrant commercial hub that stretches for several blocks underneath the commuter-train viaduct. Despite repeated efforts to bring back the bustle of its midcentury days, much of the complex has been abandoned for decades. The arrival of the garden center last year and a clutch of food stalls on 115th Street, including a retail space for the bakery Hot Bread Kitchen, may beckon shoppers to the area once again.

The narrow lot, with bric-a-brac furnishings scattered throughout, looks more like an estate sale with potted plants on offer than a typical nursery. A row of wire-and-wooden chairs (including a high chair) was adorned with grape ivy, Ming Aralia, an odd rock sculpture and a feline wood carving. A church pew and an old Singer sewing table displayed miniature Neanthe Bella Palm and coffee and prayer plants.

Many things in the center, including a few of the chickens and a piano, were rescued by neighbors who frequent the space, Mr. Gatanas said. Others are family possessions he cannot part with, including a white and gold brocade living room set. Of his deceased grandmother, he said, “She’d kill me” if she knew where he had taken her furniture.

The center hosts weekly Community Supported Agriculture pickups, clothing drop-offs and gardening classes, as well as free performances. This night, the melody of a lone and low jazz guitar floated in the air, momentarily blotted out by screeching brakes and a rolling train. The performers were warming up for a bill of jazz, blues, rock and folk, part of a pop-up series organized by Moscow 57, an entertainment and catering group with a wide and eclectic circle of artist friends in search of an audience. 

“I’m so glad you’re here,” said Ellen Kaye, one of the organizers who was running the show, as she walked two women to a table in the greenhouse. One family had driven from Fairfield County, Conn.: a husband, wife and daughter making the trek for the free music. He said they were taken with the setting.

Gesturing at a large planter near the table, the suburbanite inhaled deeply. “How many places do you go where there’s good air?” he asked.

Toward the end of the evening, Ms. Kaye crouched to share the microphone with two little girls who eagerly “ba-ba-baed” as she sang Anita O’Day’s “Boogie Blues.”

In the audience, Maritza Sabio, who lives around the corner on 118th Street, watched her granddaughter, Chaelyn, 4, scatting for the first time.

“I was just going to go home,” Ms. Sabio said. But walking by, she saw food being served and hadn’t cooked that night.

Now, sitting on Mr. Gatanas’s grandmother’s couch, she was sending texts to friends to join her.

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