As Nagel walks me through the neighborhood, past tree pits, parks and window boxes, she talks about the plants, the people and the history of this neighborhood.
Forget dull rows of begonias or impatiens. Nagel’s tree pits look wild and biodiverse.
In a courtyard garden that Nagel also designed, she explains that this is the best part of her job. “The payback is awesome,” she says. This affordable housing building was renovated just two years ago, and a lot of older women live here,” she tells me. “They come out and talk to me about plants all the time. And they love watching our progress.”
Unlike many New Yorkers, she knows her neighbors and her neighbors know her. “I can walk around Hell’s Kitchen,” she says, “it can be 42nd Street and 8th Avenue (near Times Square), super-urban, total New York; I can walk around those streets and people stop me and recognize me and talk to me about plants.”
Down where we’re sitting, in a courtyard garden that Nagel also designed, she explains that this is the best part of her job. “The payback is awesome,” she says. This affordable housing building was renovated just two years ago, and a lot of older women live here,” she tells me. “They come out and talk to me about plants all the time. And they love watching our progress.”
Nagel lives and works in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, where she is on a mission to improve the neighborhood one garden at a time. She is ever-present on the streets, the sidewalks, and even up on the roofs as she chisels more precious green space into a vast concrete desert, transforming the environment outside of buildings that house low-income residents, some of whom are formerly homeless. Nagel also lives in one of the buildings where she works, which makes her job much more than a job; it’s also her home. The woman on the roof points at a squirrel down in the courtyard, amazed to find a real animal in a garden boxed in by buildings. “This little guy. He’s trouble,” says Nagel. “He’s eating everything. He’s digging everything up.” She tosses an empty paper cup at him and he doesn’t flinch. “And he’s not afraid of anything!” she laughs. The squirrel scampers up an ornamental bush and begins eating the berries. Even the squirrels love what Nagel has done to this property!
Nagel works for the Clinton Housing Development Company (CHDC), a New York City housing association that manages about 60 buildings for the city, transforming them from dilapidated derelicts into affordable housing with green space. Many of the CHDC’s buildings are located in Hell’s Kitchen, also called Clinton, a large, diverse neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan, stretching from 34th Street to 59th Street and from 8th Avenue over to the Hudson River. The neighborhood contains commercial and residential space and houses a diverse range of people—from actors and other theater people who commute to the nearby theater district, to yuppies, to populations from the “old days” as immortalized in the musical West Side Story, which was set in this neighborhood. The CDHC’s buildings contain about 750 apartments and house more than 1,000 people of varying income levels, including some formerly homeless people and families. In addition, many staff members, including Nagel, live in these buildings. For that reason, Nagel approached this job—managing green space in the buildings—with caution. She worked at the CHDC for a couple months before moving into an apartment in one of the buildings because she wanted to be certain she liked the job and the environment. “My home is very precious to me,” she said, “and to put my home on the line for a job— I had to be very sure I wanted to be here.” That was three years ago.
Almost all of the CHDC’s buildings have green space that Nagel handles. Sometimes, it’s just a touch—a few window boxes out front, or a “tree pit”—a street tree surrounded by plants and rimmed with wrought-iron edging. Other times, it’s a rooftop garden, a backyard, or a courtyard garden. In total, Nagel cares for some 40 gardens, plus two small parks, and 85 street trees with their surrounding tree pits. It’s a big job, but one that is integral to the way the CHDC approaches its buildings. According to Nagel’s boss, Joe Restuccia, the executive director of the nonprofit, green space is “not a luxury,” even when it comes to affordable housing. “We don’t build barns; we build homes, a place to live,” he said. As it turns out, green space has a real impact on citydwellers. Studies have shown that areas with green space have less property and violent crime and more healthy social interactions among inhabitants, perhaps because greenery alleviates stress and anxiety, which are precursors to crime, and because people gather in green space, which puts more eyes on the street. Green space isn’t a nicety, it’s something that humans need to feel at home and safe. Certainly living in a CDHC building changes the nature of Nagel’s job. For one thing, she says, “You have a different concern for the tenants because they’re not just clients; they’re your neighbors and they’re people you live next to all the time and see on the street.” Employee concerns and tenant concerns can be one and the same. “I think one of the interesting things about living in one of these buildings in the middle of Manhattan is that you live with tenants who are real people,” she says. “They’re
people with kids, they’re families, they’re older people, they’re normal working people. The building next to us is a super-fancy glass castle, and the people coming out of there look very different. I’d much rather live with the people in my building.” Having staff live in the department’s buildings also means more eyeballs on everything, including the gardens. Nagel pointed out that the super of the building we’re in drinks his coffee in the garden, and “he calls me up and tells me when anything is wrong or when anything is right.” The supers help take care of green space, primarily by watering it. “I would be nothing without them,” Nagel says. But the supers benefit from the arrangement as well, because residents and people on the street praise the plants. “They get all that feedback, especially the ones that live on the premises—they get the plant bug,” Nagel explained. It’s no mystery why the supers like Nagel either. Of course, she’s young and attractive, which doesn’t hurt, but more than this, her enthusiasm for her work is evident, and not just its botanical component—she loves working with people. Her fire for community organizing is part of why Restuccia hired her, he said. As Nagel walks me through the neighborhood, past tree pits, parks, and window boxes,
she talks about the plants, the people, and the history of this neighborhood. We tromp up five flights of stairs—this is how she stays in shape, she says—to a rooftop garden lined with pots exploding with greenery. This is her boss’s building, she explains, and it’s not easy to keep rooftop gardens so lush. Watering is a challenge in the city, where hoses often live in basements. Nagel’s boss learned this firsthand. For years, he kept up this garden with an elderly neighbor woman who spent hours each day lugging watering cans to the roof. When she passed away, many of his plants floundered. Now Nagel has introduced him to the marvels of irrigation—there are small metal rings in each of the pots, which are hooked up to a central water supply— and all this resulting greenery has made him a convert. Restuccia and Nagel share a gardening aesthetic, favoring gardens that look wild and natural instead of rigidly organized. Restuccia came up with the tree pit concept, while Nagel designed and executed it. Forget dull rows of begonias or impatiens. Nagel’s tree pits look wild and biodiverse, full of reedy flowers, lush variegated leaves, and other plants. The CHDC’s work is spreading like
a beautifully invasive vine, and envious neighboring buildings have approached Restuccia and Nagel for advice on how to edge their tree pits in iron and fill them with plantings. It’s not easy to find the right plants to grow in the city. “When you get a gardening book they don’t tell you what plant can handle hours of heavy bus exhaust,” says Nagel, or hundreds of dogs peeing on it each day. “These are the kind of environmental issues that we deal with here in the city,” she added. “And we’re really homing in on the plants that can handle it. Some of them are a surprise.” Like Japanese anemone, which tolerates hours of bumper-to-bumper exhaust each day, since she’s planted it on a block that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel. Oftentimes, Nagel tries to sneak an edible—like a potato or Swiss chard—into plantings, just to generate conversation. While working on an edible food project for New York University a couple of years ago, she noticed that while flowers provoke aesthetic reactions—“Oh, pretty flowers!”—vegetables in the city induce a whole conversation. People, particularly older ones, dredge up memories of the farms from their youth, she says, and everyone asks questions like, “Who’s going to eat vegetables?” or “What happens if someone steals the vegetables?”
Vegetables are Nagel’s first love. She grew up outside Saratoga Springs on her family’s 10 acres. Her parents, whom she describes as “incredibly skilled vegetable gardeners,” cultivated food on about half the land. Each weekend, she and her siblings had to work in the garden for a few hours. As she got older, working in the garden stopped being a chore, and she stayed and weeded and pruned with her parents long after she’d finished the mandatory weeding. After graduating from Emma Willard, she spent almost a decade farming, then studied at the New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture for a few years before joining the CHDC’s staff. Now, even though her schedule is hectic thanks to the intense logistics of keeping up so many gardens in New York City, Nagel still finds time to grow food. Across the street from the CHDC’s office, at Metro Baptist Church, she’s organized a rooftop vegetable garden. It was hard to carry all the materials up to the roof of this five-story building since there’s no elevator, but church members and volunteers helped haul soil and baby pools to use as containers. The produce from this garden—tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, beans, peas, and
more—goes to a local food pantry. Downstairs, inside the church, there is produce available, too, though it wasn’t grown on the roof. Nagel has organized a local CSA share. (CSA stands for communitysupported agriculture and allows people to buy vegetables directly from the farmer.) Eventually, Nagel hopes to find grant money so that the local food pantry can take a share of the crops. And while altruism is part of her motive, so too is her love of farmgrown vegetables. She wanted a CSA that was convenient to her, and this one’s just across from her office. For the time being, Nagel says, New York City is her home. She’s got a local CSA, a bevy of close girlfriends who date from her time at Emma Willard, and plenty of room to garden and, through gardening, to create community in her neighborhood. Living where she works has transformed the experience of New York for her. Unlike many New Yorkers, she knows her neighbors and her neighbors know her. “I can walk around Hell’s Kitchen,” she says, “it can be 42nd Street and 8th Avenue (near Times Square), super-urban, total New York; I can walk around those streets and people stop me and recognize me and talk to me about plants.”