When I first purchased my house on Norwood Avenue, almost 20 years ago, people told me that I was nuts. Upon moving in, the first thing that I noticed in the back “yard” of my house was a number of discarded purses (from purse snatchings) and gang graffiti tags.
Over the years my neighborhood has seen a drastic turnaround. It started with Elmwood Avenue rebounding, which in turn made the intertwined residential neighborhoods more desirable. Avenues and streets such as Norwood truly began to shine when home owners started to plant gardens, paint houses, and replace their front porches. Organizations such as Garden Walk contributed to the movement. Slowly but surely a healthy community began to take hold.
As I settled into my various routines, it became a daily ritual for me to not only take a walk around the block, but stop and chat with neighbors who were sitting on their porches, hosting yard sales and barbecues, and tending to their gardens. The street was undergoing a transformation, regardless of the few holdouts that refused to join the movement.
Over the years I’ve watched one particular front yard on my street turn into somewhat of a spectacle. It started with a few stones, and then morphed into a full-fledge river-style fountain setting. The young guy who was responsible for the building of this monumental water feature had taken the idea of social gardening to the next level. By creating such a sensation on the street, his house became the epicenter of activity, where everyone would stop and chat, not just about the new additions to the fountain, but various others topics revolving around the neighborhood and the city.
The visionary who created the magical place on my street played in a metal band at night, and although he also had a day job, he somehow managed to dedicate plenty of hours to his yard (I later learned that the garden was a dedication to his wife). If the sun was out, he would be tending to his fountain, shirtless, with a long pony tail and a “goat patch” beard tied with a couple of rubber bands. He was not your typical gardener that you would find on the street, which made him even more of a memorable character.
One day, as I walked by the bubbling stream I spied a beautiful cement, garden fairy perched on top of one of the river rocks. The angelic figure became symbolic of the effort, in that the sprite miraculously turned the entire setting into a magical wonderland. Other small creatures were added to the garden scape, along with more stones, flowers, steps and miscellaneous arrangements.
A year after the garden fairy appeared, her wings broke. It must have been during the course of the winter, but it was hard not to notice that something was different. I asked the young artist what happened to the wings, and he told me that they would be brought back upon the completion of the masterpiece.
Looking back, I should have known that the masterpiece would never be completed, because the project fueled the young man, and the neighbors were always looking forward to what was coming next.
No matter what he was working on, my friend would always stop what he was doing and come over to play with my dog and talk about whatever was on our respective minds. It was a daily ritual for a couple of years. Other neighbors did the same. Sometimes there would be a small procession of people standing around waiting to talk to him, or simply taking in the visual delights. In a way, he had become one with the garden, and one with the neighborhood. He was the eyes on the street, and an inspiration for others to emulate. There were times that I would see people standing in front of the garden, just to get their photos taken with the picturesque backdrop.
A couple of days ago our neighborhood suffered a terrible loss. Unexpectedly the young artist passed away, leaving his family and neighbors in a state of communal mourning. Suddenly what had been the place of garden parties, gatherings, chats and laughter was quiet. As I sit here typing, I am still in denial that such a free spirit could be taken away so abruptly, leaving so many questioning the fragile nature of our own existence. The garden scape had become a symbol for me. It was always a reminder about how far we had come since the days when people initially told me that the street was on a downward spiral and how crazy I was to purchase my house when I did. To me, the garden, and the inspirational artist behind it, had done more for our community than anything else imaginable. A neighborhood became united in a way that never would have happened without the wondrous gift that was bestowed upon all of us.
Yesterday I walked past the fountain and the water was turned off, the flowers were in hibernation, and the fairy was missing. In my mind, the artist had finally managed to complete one of his life’s works, even though I never saw the final touch, the wings, return.
On this Thanksgiving day, I would like to give a special “thanks” to my friend who managed to show me that one person can be the symbolic driving force of a neighborhood’s coming together. He did this by simply opening his heart, and the “doors” to his home. I will never forget the life lessons that he taught me… Be who you are. Do what makes you happy. Enjoy each and every day. Be open. Live simply. Create. Share. Laugh.
In a few moments I will be walking my dog around the block. As I pass by the garden I will envision the “angel” sitting on the river rock, in its full glory, wings and all. To me, the masterpiece is complete, and the neighborhood is forever changed thanks to the life of one very special person.
I always pictured us growing old together on our block… you will be missed Ben.
Lead photo: Standing with a neighbor’s child
Second photo: A memorial placed at the garden
Photo of snow angel: Taken by one of Ben’s neighbors