“Two Gardeners,” a watercolor sketch of El Sol Brillante gardeners Patrick McDonald and Barbara Augsburger courtesy of Kaley Roshitsh
By Kaley Roshitsh
For many, a community garden is a place for healing, a sanctuary amongst concrete — and a lifeline.
This holds true, especially for the gardeners of El Sol Brillante (ESB). Meaning “a brilliant sun,” ESB is a 1,000 square-foot community garden on 12th Street between Avenue A and B. The 29-plot garden is complete with managed plots, common space, compost and worm bins, a tended beehive and ample space for community members to interact.
A once broken lot, the community banded together to raise the garden from ashes in 1977 — and the space couldn’t be more sorely needed in strange times.
“I was here through the blackouts, riots, 9/11, floods, Hurricane Sandy, and as horrific as some of those [events] were, the [COVID-19] pandemic was a new level because the city just seemed so empty — and it was soul-crushing,” said Patrick McDonald, a resident on the block and chef for 35 years, speaking on the impact of the latest event.
Despite the recent pandemic-induced surge in green spaces and outdoor park visits, many long-standing garden members can attribute their joining to a friendly neighbor.
McDonald first joined ESB in 2012 and received his plot the following year. He describes the influence of the late Ken Bond, who counts many friends among the current members, in joining the garden. Bond’s mother Florence, or “Flo,” was referred to as a “block historian” by many on the block and was “instrumental in starting the garden,” according to McDonald. Both Bond and his mother served as president of ESB.
“For me, it’s a little slice of heaven in the middle of the concrete jungle,” said McDonald on the importance of the garden. Describing his front-facing plot, he added: “I like its location. As you come into the garden, it’s one of the first ones you see. I always try to have something fun going on.”
Taking the right pathway tracing the edge of McDonald’s tended plot, on-lookers find pumpkins, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes — the evidence of a chef (and gardener) at work.
A Place for Love, Healing — and Democracy
“It was such a great way to meet your neighbors,” chimed in Barbara Augsburger, a Swiss native who moved to New York in the 1980s (following a then-boyfriend who was a musician). She would join the garden in 1983 and meet her husband only five years later.
Music is a central theme. “There was a guy in the store [on the block] who used to play Latin music and I would be sitting on the stoop [listening],” described Augsburger nodding along, “and that’s how I met my husband.”
Like the roses twisting atop the lover’s arch between her and her husband’s neighboring plot, Augsburger finds unity at ESB. “I learned how to be in fusion with nature,” she shared. “I mean, I knew already because I hiked a lot in the Alps, and I was always in nature, but this made it even in a more intimate way.”
In Augsburger’s plot, there are fresh healing herbs like lavender or lemon verbena, as well as oregano and fragrant rose geraniums.
“I think that every block should have a garden and life would be — for mental health — so much better,” said Augsburger calling the garden her “lifeline” and a space for “healing,” which is fitting given her energy work.
The garden is also rightly “a place of democracy,” in the words of Augsburger, as no communal space can be free of heated discussions where plot politics, fresh harvests and lingering branches are concerned.
A Fresh Take
Austin Frankel joined the garden in winter 2017 to meet new people and soon rose the ranks from friendly neighbor to key holder to plot holder to influential board member.
“In my plot, I’m making a space for myself, and it’s very organic. What I’m developing is coming along from what I’ve set there, and what I’ve inherited, and that’s a very cathartic experience,” described Frankel.
Cucumbers and shishito peppers are the stars of Frankel’s first harvest. But as is true of East Village — one can expect the unexpected to sprout up. When clearing his plot, Frankel discovered of all things a red stiletto boot nestled amid the weeds. (The other shoe to the pair was recovered in the garden common space for those curious. A bent spade atop the garden fence gives reason to suspect midnight stiletto-clad climbers).
His plans are to make a planter from the found shoe and continue providing a fresh take to garden meetings.
The Arts, Alive
Greeting amblers on the block is the 100-foot long fence that was created in 1993 by artist Julie Dermansky using scrap metal and speaks to the artistic presence at ESB that is still kept strong by members like Alejandro “Kuki” Gomez, among others.
“All of a sudden, I decided to start helping and working with the garden and getting dirty. There’s something about touching the dirt, the sticks, the leaves,” said Gomez, drawing the inspiration back to his work as a graphic designer, artist (known by the neighborhood for his tape designs), and now, events director, where an amalgamation of creative talents come together.
He joined over five years ago after first seeking solace in the garden as a guest. Gomez’s mother — an avid gardener — inspired his passion.
On Aug. 25, Gomez helped put on a free jazz event in association with The Jazz Foundation of America and Ariana’s List as part of the City Parks Foundation’s 28th annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. A strong turnout despite the heat, “Jazz in the Garden: with Willie Martinez and His Latin Jazz Collective,” drew newcomers and regulars in for a night of swirling sounds.
Along with summer jazz, Gomez organized a watercolor painting night in the garden. Like many in the garden, his tended plot takes on a distinctive flair, with Gomez’s shady corner plot taking on a heart shape among rectangles. Close to heart, “safety” is what ESB provides to Gomez.
Amid what he felt was an abandoned state of the city on the onset of the pandemic, Gomez reiterated that “this was heaven for us.”
Kaley Roshitsh is the first-ever sustainable fashion journalist at WWD. Her work appears on U.N. Women USA NY, Her Campus Media and the independent magazine she founded called ThriftEd Mag. You can find her on Instagram ranting about her latest thrift finds or the importance of knowing your neighbors at @KaleyRoshitsh.