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Roderick Romero Interview Transcript Interview Date: November 15, 2013 Youre a member of El Jardin de Paraiso?

Yeah, I moved from Seattle, Washington in 2001, seven days before 9/11. And so, I moved to Avenue C and 10th Street. Then 9/11 happened, and I didnt know what I was doing here. What, you know, why am I in New York? And then a friend of mine who was one of the founding members of this garden said she was giving up her plot, and she wanted to give it to me. So, I was like, Okay, at least I have a little place to go plant, or hang out. So I came here, and then I just started working. I built the treehouse, and then I developed this area and planted about 40 trees, and I just kind of got to know the community. Because I was an outsider, and they were very, actually, very welcoming. And so now, what, 12 years later, its like were all very, very close. And Ive been on the board for 12 years now. Do you think 9/11 helped solidify an interest in building community among people in the neighborhood? For sure. I think its a weird thing to say, but Im so happy that I moved here before 9/11, because I got such a deeper understanding of how kind and generous New Yorkers really are. Like for one moment, everyone whispered, like, Are you okay? Are you okay? People brought their TVs out into the street, you know, and then I just gravitated towards here. This garden totally saved my life. I would have moved back to Seattle in a heartbeat. [Laughter] But Im glad I didnt. What was it about the garden? The people you got to meet? The experience of working? It just gave me an immediate sense of community. Like, suddenly, people were getting to know my name or say hi to me, and Im like, you dont even know me and youre being so kind. And then you start growing vegetables together, and you start working on projects, and they saw how passionate I was about the garden. Like, I was like, This is Utopia. An acre in the East Village? And then there were all these really great things about to happen. They had already received like two Rockefeller grants, I think they were both for like $50,000 each, so, the wetlands got developed, the creek, our raincatcher off the buildings, the treehouse.

And then we had to reclaim the soil because there was so much toxic lead in the soil here. Because there used to be a building here. They blew it up in 1978, I believe. When they blew up the building they just left it as rubble. My benches, that wall is all rubble from the building, that I built. You know, its just like, I found objects and started collaging. I dont know, its just amazing that I got to have a place to focus, because all my work just went out the window after 9/11. Like, I had three major commissions and they just all of a sudden said, Oh, were going to hold off. We dont really know whats going on in the world. So, I was just kind of stuck here. And this gave me a focus, and everyone was just so nice, like Annalee, you know, Barney, David Schmidlapp, all these people were just so kind. I dont know, I found like a new family, you know? Would you say that most of the members of the garden have been here for a long time? Or is it more of a mix of older people and newer people? So, my friend Julie Kirkpatrick was one of the founders here, along with David Schmidlapp, Bonnie Stein, Annie Sinclair, and JK. And Im sure theres a few others that have kind of moved on, but were all still on the board, and theyve been here like 18 years. Like when it was just vegetable plots, and that was all rubble and dirt. It looked like a bomb zone. Like rubble. 13 years ago. And then, because of their passion, they started to x up the entire garden. There was a fence that went through the whole garden. They cut it off so it was just going to be vegetables and maybe they were going to build a new building or develop that, and then thanks to GreenThumb they said, No, this is going to be a park. And now, theres schools that come here on a daily basis, kids running around. You know, this was a drug war zone, you know? There were shooting galleries in the corner, it was a mess. And now, its like, you can bring four year old kids here and they run around freely and its like, you know, they can pick peaches from the tree, they can get the raspberries, and its pretty amazing. What do you see other people using the garden for? Some people just come to read a book, some to just kind of check in and say, What are you growing? People are curious. People come from all over the world, because theres a little map of all the gardens. And so, were on that map, so people go,

Oh, Im from Amsterdam and I heard about your garden, and what are you doing? And Im like Well, this is what were doing right now..., you know. [laughter] And theyre like, Oh, well were doing a tour of all the gardens, and Im like, Fantastic! Where are you going next? Oh, La Plaza! Oh, thats a good one! And Im starting to kind of reach out to the other gardens, like La Plaza for sure, because Ross has been so, again, welcoming. He and I work on a lot of stuff over there and thats a reallyall the gardens are very unique. They all have, like, the old school crew, and then theyve got the new, passionate people, and its like theres a balance between them, and I really love that. Some gardens I dont even feel welcome in, and some, theyre like, Oh, yeah, youre El Jardin del Paraiso? Yeah, I know your treehouse! Its interesting, to say the least. With the demographics of the neighborhood continuously changing, do you see the gardens playing a part in sustaining community? How do you see their role changing? We talk about that a lotgentrication in the East Village. I see this garden as probably one of the most consistent gardens, and Im not just, you know, bragging about our garden. Its like, we have the same people here that have always been here. We still have Puerto Ricans and Dominican Republicans playing dominoes, you know, in the casita. And then weve got the Waldorf School coming in, and then weve got people from the projects coming over. Were the closest one to the projects. And weve always been extremely welcome to everyone. No ones ever been excluded from here. I think some of the other gardens are getting more and more, in a sense, conservative in trying to restrict the ow of people, but I know that this one has been really great, very welcoming. Gentrications like, I dont know, its like what can you do? Its the East Village. Youve got apartments that are going for $7 million now, where you couldnt even get a cab past First, let alone A, B, no one would make it to C. And now you can buy an apartment between C and D for $7 million? What the heck? Thats a little pricey. But, you know, its New York City. Its a little island. In the middle of the world. Does the experience of coming to the garden and nding community help bridge connections between the diverse groups of people that use the space? Oh for sure. Yeah. The kidsll wander over there and theyre playing dominoes, and theyre like Hey, what are you guys up to? Theyre so kind, theyre so welcoming, theyre the only ones who really barbecue here and cook food. Theyll cook food for

everyone. Theyll make like a, Im a vegetarian, but theyll make chicken soup for like 25 people at a time. And its like, anyone off the street, Oh, you want some chicken soup? We just made it! Its like, theyre so giving and so kind, and theyre also protective. Because they know what they have here. What we have here, you know, is so rare. I didnt even know there were this many community gardens when I moved here. I was like, Oh, maybe theres someplace I can go and plant. Ive always had a garden since I was a little child. And so, this is like the way I keep my sanity. And then, were all best friends. We all hang out all the time. There can be some barriers, but not with me, and not with them. Were really allwere family now. They all come to my daughters birthday parties. And I go to their kids birthday parties. Were family. You were talking about the people who come to the garden from all over the world. What do you think it means to them to come to New York and nd a cool little place like this? I know so many people who come to New York and just think, Oh, its just all concrete, its just mayhem, crime is everywhere, you know we have such a bad rap. But its like, then they come here and theyre like, This is like a little piece of forest in the middle of New York City. And its just an acre. You go to Central Park, and theres 980 acres. You go to Prospect Park. Or you go to the Botanic Gardens in the Bronx or in Brooklyn. I mean these are museums of beauty and wood and nature. And its like, I think people just forget or dont realize that there are great sources of nature in New York. You just have to pursue it and look for it. And its becoming a really cool thing, because its like, its free tourism. No one charges you to come into a garden. Its just like, Come on in and enjoy it. Really? Oh yeah, you want some raspberries? Here you go! You want some mulberries? Yeah, no one eats mulberries anymore, theyre delicious! I think that theyre surprised, and pleasantly surprised, like, Oh, wow, Im gonna tell my friends when they come. I mean, people from all over the world. Ive met people from Argentina here, Chile, Costa Rica, denitely Holland, Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Sweden, these are all people like, they kind of look in, and Im like Come on in! Its okay! Its open! And then, they get a really good feeling, and then they go eat a nice lunch somewhere, and they have a good experience. Because theres that whole nature deprivation that happens, and so, a lot of what Im trying to do is reach out to all the schools and set up like, when Im in town, I set upa local school will come and say the second graders or third graders or whatever, and theyll come and theyll spend like two hours here. Theyll have lunch, Ill show them

around the garden, Ill educate them about whats going on, and all of the board members do that. All of us are really active. We love it. We want to promote it. And thats, I think, really great. There was a kid last year, I said, Oh, what do you think that is? And hes like, Thats a plastic peach. And I said, No, thats a real peach. He goes, Really? I go, Why dont you grab it, and take a bite. And hes like No... And I go, Come on man! So he grabs the peach, chomps into it, and hes like Oh... like its the best thing hed ever eaten in his whole life. And I was like, Yeah, let me tell you about all the vegetables you could be eating here. Like my daughters eight. She knows every single vegetable thats edible here. She just goes around and eats her own lunch. Shes like making her own salad. And thats great. And the more we can do thatand I also talk about architecture, and what was here, and why this is so important to the community, and like Oh, heres the treehouse, all the branches are from all the things that happened like Irene or Sandy. Can you talk a bit about the treehouse you created for El Jardin de Paraiso? I started building treehouses back in 1997, so the rst one was for a really good friend of mine, from Mexico, and the second one was for my brother, and then I really lucked out and my third one was for Sting and Trudie, the musician. And so as soon as I did Stings then I got to do Donna Karans, and then I got to do Julianne Moores, and Val Kilmer, and all these people, right? And I was going one way. I was gonna beI had a band for 20 years, so I kind of just toured around with my group forever, and then suddenly I now am doing, you know, Ive done 54 treehouses. I was just, you know, I never saw it coming. So, my way of kind of trying to stay busy, because Im horrible if Im not busy, and so I thought, Oh, well Ill just donate all my time and energy to build a little sacred place for the kids to go and have an observation onto the garden, as it was being developed. So, again, David and Bonnie and JK, and everybody, and Sonia, they were all working really hard on the garden, and I was just getting involved, and I said, Well, what if I just built a place for the kids to go while all of this is going on, and they had a safe place to kind of observe? And so, thats what I did. What I did is I went to the church down the street, and I said, Hey, youve got all this scaffolding. Can I have it? To build a little shrine for St. Francis, you know? [laughter] I probably shouldnt be saying this in public. And he said no. And Im like, Its for St. Francis! Im gonna build a nest! And, like, kids can go there. And he was like, No.

So, a friend of mine who I will not disclose his name, we snuck into the church, into the back and we stole all the lumber, and then I built it in four days so it looked like it just happened really quick. And then the priest came by, and hes like, Oh, this is beautiful! Whered you get the lumber? And I go, Oh, someone else donated it. And hes like, Oh, thats great! Not even knowing that wed, you knowbecause he had so much lumber, like ridiculous. So, I built the framework out of that, and a friend of mine, hes from Colombia, he just parked his van and slept in the garden for ve days when we worked on it. And it was awesome. We were like, making barbecues, and hanging out, you know, and hes like he couldnt believe that you could park a van in a community garden and sleep there! And I let him come over to my place to shower and stuff, of course. And then so I built that and then I started adding the branches, and then again like I said, its like, every winter season we get a lot of downfall, from the willows and the birches, and the poplars, and all the trees start dropping branches if theres too much ice on the branch, or whatever. A storm like Sandy or Irene comes through and its massive havoc. And so, I just take all that and just keep adding it to the nest, like a bird would do. And the kids, they really get a lot out of it. I will never get tired of hearing a kid go, Lets go to the treehouse! Because its like, Im like, Oh, they like it! We do a lot of art installations out of there, we do a lot of fundraising here, because thats a big part of community gardens. I dont know, maybe Rossll talk about that. We need to be able to survive. So we have members, and then we do lms here and different projects, weddings, and things like that, and that helps raise money for buying new hoses or building a new toolshed, or, you know, new picnic benches or whatever it is. Theres always a little bit of overhead forespecially an acre of land. You said before that you often explain the architecture to the kids who come here. Could you talk a little more about that? One of the things is like, you know, I like talking aboutwhen the kids come I have my own little tour that I give them. Like Okay, this is a rain catching system. Were catching rain water off of this building and that building and heres the pipe, and that leads into a 10,000 gallon cistern thats underground, buried over here. And so watch, if I turn on the hose here, the waters going to go there, and its going to lead into the creek, the creeks going to run into the pond, and the frogs and sh and the turtles get water. And theyre just like, Wow, really?! You know, in the middle of the

East Village? Yeah. And then Ill go, Okay, lets go over herelets go to the compost system. And theyre like, Whats compost? And Im like, Okay, you bring your vegetables that are the cut-offs from what you dont eat, your fruit, goes into this can, and then theres a committee that takes this stuff from this can, puts it in this can, into the tumbler, the tumbler spins it, then it goes into the soil, then we take that soil and we put it into the rst container, then the second, then the third, and theyre like Wow! Next thing you know youre showing them, like, worms. And theyre like, What?! Worms! Oh, theyre so gross! And Im like, No, theyre so awesome! And then I take them over to the treehouse and I talk about ways of sustainably building, you know, like reclaiming wood, salvaged wood. We talk about geometry, like, Okay, this is an octagon. But once you start going around it enough it looks just like a giant nest. But its really eight sided. And then theyre like, Oh! And one kids like, It reminds me of the Guggenheim! And Im like, Oh! Thank you! Thats the greatest thing anyone could say to me! And then well go look at the chickens. We have chickens here, we have bunny rabbits. We have so many birds, we have like over 20 varieties of birds that come here. Over 21 varieties of fruit plants here. We have something like 170 trees here. Thats quite a bit, you know? And then all the vegetable gardens. We create a lot of biomass, like people eat from these gardens. If we have surplus, we take it to the churches, you know, the synagogues, you know, thats a big part of it. Or people just walk by and go, Can I come in and pick some? Sure, thanks for asking. It just gives you a sense of community, its like, you know its not cold here, its not frigid, its not likepeople are very welcoming, you know? And people want other people to be happy. And thats what a community gardens about, is community. Pretty simple. As an architect, do you have any insight into how the design of this particular garden lends itself to different uses by different people? Well, theres landscape architecture and then theres architecture, but I always have felt that they have to go hand in hand. So, I would never build a structure that I didnt think was harmonious with the natural surrounding. And so, once I kind of had the treehouse going, and then all the other members were like, Oh, were focusing on this, we tested the soil over here and its contaminated. Okay, so what do we do? Well, we have to cap it, and build up. So we have actually, you know, landscape here. We have hillsides, we have one of the only indigenous wetlands in the East Village. And its

a pure indigenous wetland. Tom Hughes and Bill Young, those guys, they researched like mad to nd out exactly what was it like here, you know, before Peter Stuyvesant. And nothing against Peter Stuyvesant. This was all marshes, it was all wetlands. Theres a great book, its called Island at the Center of the World, and it talks about this area before Stuyvesant, and it was just a series of marshes. Thats how, like, if you see the willow trees, theres a river under each one of them. You follow the willows you follow a river that leads out to the East River. And so this was all swamp and marshes, then it got lled in so that cattle could be raised here way back in the day... I always thought we should bring a cow in here just for the fun of it [laughter]. And so, thats very educational because, its like, Okay, you see this, kids? This was exactly how it was 300 years ago. And these werewere reintroducing species that dont even exist in the East Village anymore. Like, bald cypress. No one has a bald cypress, were the only ones who have one in the gardens. Its because Bill and Tom researched like mad to nd out exactly what was here, because it is documented, what species were here, what trees were here, and thats why all the birds are coming back. Because theyre like, Oh, thats what, you know they used to eat, or they used to habitate. I love that part of it. So its like working with the landscape and the architecture, and it all has to work harmoniously, and also, you know, we have to test the soil all the time to make sure that were not growing anything that could be contaminated with lead or something like that. So we test our soil every year, we go to the Gaia Institute out of the Bronx, and they run back our soil samples and they let us know if everythings good, or what we should plant that might extract the toxins, like, say, sunowers. Sunowers pull toxins out of the soil, and then all you do is you can compost those sunowers and then its gone. Its like a miracle ower. Were constantly learning, and gardens are never nished. Thats what I love. Its just an ongoing process.