Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives


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Margaret Morton and Diana Balmori

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Jimmy's garden on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—an assortment of stones and garbage bags, five tires, a chair, a skid, a refrigerator shelf, some ailanthus trees and goldfish, a wooden fence, and a pond with water carried by hand from a nearby fire hydrant—was recently bulldozed by the city. Jimmy then disappeared.
Anna's garden is surrounded by a tall chainlink fence and filled with a menagerie of dolls and stuffed animals. The animals are whole, the dolls are maimed. Anna is a recluse who speaks to no one. The neighbors say she was in a concentration camp as a child.
Gardens have always been associated with wealth and leisure, viewed as an addition to home. In this remarkable book a landscape architect and a photographer show us, in word and pictures, gardens built by homeless or impoverished New York City inhabitants. Like traditional gardens, these spaces are designed for pleasure, social activity, or private retreat. Unlike traditional gardens, they are connected to a more active and ephemeral use of the land.
Transitory gardens speak the language of our times: here we find the reuse of nearly everything discarded, a sparing use of water and plant materials, an economical treatment of space, and a penchant for icons, toys, flags, and symbols of freedom and nationality. The gardens expand our definition of what makes a garden and what its design means for its creator. Diana Balmori's commentary and Margaret Morton's photographs combine with the garden-makers' own descriptions to encourage us to take note of gardens grown in unlikely places, on abandoned, littered lots, bounded by debris. By focusing on what homeless people make not for material comfort but from social and spiritual need, the book offers insight into both the meaning of landscape and the place of a garden in the life of an individual under duress.

Diana Balmori holds appointments as a critic in landscape, Yale University School of Architecture, and as a lecturer in the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She is also principal at Balmori Associates, Inc., New Haven, a landscape and urban design firm. Margaret Morton, a photographer who lives in New York City, is associate professor of art at The Cooper Union School of Art.

"I have read Balmori and Morton's book  with great pleasure. Their documentation of the gardens, houses, and constructions of the shanty and homeless people of Manhattan's Lower East Side is just what it should be. The commentary, the interviews, and the photographs let the people and their works represent themselves. By doing so these authors give us desperately needed testimony to the ceaseless search for order, creation, and love that springs from the human spirit."—Sam Bass Warner, Jack Meyerhoff Professor of American Environmental Studies, Brandeis University

"The photographs and text convey so many levels of meaning: intimate, touching lives of the homeless; suggestions for constructing one's own garden of found objects; a grim, futuristic fantasy of what city life could become at the end of its tether; a demonstration of irrepressible yearnings for serenity, creativity, and individuality; a gift to us of rare empathy and originality by Balmori and Morton. However one experiences it, this is a book that impels one to see, think and reflect."—Jane Jacobs, author of Systems of Survival

"That some homeless people scratch out a living from trash will surprise few; that some manage to fashion a rough beauty with that trash may surprise many. It is this remarkable achievement that Diana Balmori and Margaret Morton chronicle in this spare and thoughtful book. Both text and photographs attest to an unusual trade in trust."—Kim Hopper, past president, National Coalition for the Homeless 

"Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives is a brilliant book. It reveals that even on the edges of our society there is a strong sense of pride which manifests itself through creativity, order, and design."—Mary Ellen Mark, photographer

"Balmori and Morton offer us a glimpse into the untapped creative potential of an entire class of marginalized Americans. Their images and text capture fleeting monuments to the resiliency of the human soul."—Mary Brosnahan, executive director, Coalition for the Homeless

"A fresh and passionate approach to an important and timely issue. This book joins two fields—the depiction of poverty and garden history—and brings a novel perspective to each."—Bonnie Yochelson, Museum of the City of New York

"The photographs, the text, and the interviews present a moving testimony to the universality of the need for a sense of order and permanence. . . . Recommended for large public collections."—Library Journal

"A different treatment of the spiritual relationship between gardener and gardens."—Dennis Rodkin, The Chicago Tribune

"The season's most unusual architecture book."—Kay Larson, New York Magazine

"A stunningly photographed descriptive essay about the makeshift gardens of the poor and homeless around New York City. . . . This deeply moving account of gardening in the face of adversity is a triumph of hope, opportunism and recycling."—Francesca Greenoak, The Times

"This remarkable book is not only a moving tribute to the survival of creativity among people without shelter, work or even adequate food. It should also act as a stimulus to challenge left-wing orthodoxies about 'basic' needs. To Manhattan's poorest citizens, the hunger for beauty seems as much a primal force as the hunger for bread."—Susan Jeffreys, New Statesman & Society

Winner of the 1994 Harry Chapin Media Awards in the Photojournalism category
ISBN: 9780300063011
Publication Date: February 22, 1995
160 pages, 8 3/4 x 11
115 b/w illus.
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