The Greening of the City

A vicarious look at the new New York
Fifth Avenue tree beds are packed with Queen of the Night tulips.

Back in the day, when the kids were little and before we bought the weekend house in Amagansett, we would spend an occasional Sunday afternoon in Central Park, walking to the children’s zoo there if the weather was warm, taking a bus if not. I shall never forget my 2-year-old niece trilling at the top of her little lungs on one bus ride that “We’re going, we’re going, to see the smelly animals!” 

Although we lived not far from the park itself, we hardly ever went into it, except for the playground and the zoo. Central Park, like every other city park in the five boroughs, was dangerous at night and unattractive at best during the day, with cracked walkways, broken-down benches, and hardscrabble lawns. That was a watch-your-back time in New York, a time when every parked car was a target and “No Radio” signs littered the dashboards. People who put pots out in front of their brownstones with plants in them often found the plants stolen overnight, and sometimes the pots as well, if they weren’t chained down. 

“There was no hint of beauty anywhere in the city,” as a former city parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, writes in his introduction to “Sidewalk Gardens of New York,” a new book of stunning color photographs by Betsy Pinover Schiff that make it clear just how far we’ve come since then.

In the last 25 years or so, grim gray blocks of city habitat have been softened almost everywhere one looks by front-of-building plantings, tree beds, community gardens, hanging baskets on lampposts, river’s-edge plantings, flowering median strips, and pocket parks offering breathing space from traffic fumes and clamor. Coincidentally, or maybe not, crime of all kinds is down, according to New York Police Department statistics, by over 75 percent.

Ms. Schiff, a Montauk homeowner and Manhattanite with six books of garden photographs to her credit, told the magazine New York Cottages and Gardens last fall that she first registered the changing cityscape about two years ago, “as I walked up Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum, when I started scrutinizing the tree beds in the sidewalks. And then I’d be in the Village for dinner and notice the tree beds there. And those giant blocks of concrete designed to protect the facades of high-security buildings, suddenly overflowing with flowers. Almost overnight, the city started to feel friendlier and more beautiful, with lovely plantings everywhere.”

“Sidewalk Gardens” is a testament to the transformation, covering initiatives both public and private, large and small, parks and pots. The photographer’s experienced eye spots splashes of color in the most unexpected places. “My goal,” Ms. Pinover Schiff has said, “is for readers to ask, ‘Where is that? Is that in my city?’ ”

There have always been secret gardens in the metropolis, hidden from public view behind townhouses or on penthouse terraces, but more and more they are out in the open, for all to see and enjoy. Take, for example, a triangular-shaped park in Tribeca bounded by Varick, Canal, and Laight Streets, where the waterfall and outflow from a sculptural fountain “mimics the flow of the canal with locks that used to run under Canal Street,” complementing the sidewalk benches and grassy lawns that surround it. Not so long ago, the site was a parking lot.

What is today recognized as the greening of New York really began, though no one realized it then, in 1980 with the Central Park Conservancy, founded by private capital to revitalize the park, since widely copied in other boroughs, and now semi-public under a management contract with the city. The movement picked up speed, Mr. Benepe explains, in 1996, when his predecessor as parks commissioner, Henry Stern, “looked at all the odd corners of the city where streets and avenues met at angles, leaving behind triangles of asphalt or concrete, and saw . . . tiny oases of greenery and flowers.”

Today there are more than 3,000 of these “greenstreets” in the five boroughs, and counting. Meanwhile, the number of street trees is up 30 percent since 1995, thanks to a campaign called MillionTreesNYC.

From its first shot of yellow, pink, and purple tulip-packed tree beds at Fifth and 67th Street to the last double-page spread of rosebushes exploding along the East River by the Williamsburg Bridge, “Sidewalk Gardens of New York” surprises. Some of the city’s noisiest, most traffic-y places not only turn out to be cheek by jowl with some of its most drop-dead gorgeous, but to have a few bits of gorgeousness themselves, undreamed of 30 years ago. 

“My goal,” Ms. Pinover Schiff has said, “is for readers to ask, ‘Where is that? Is that in my city?’ ”

By the by, the smelly animals are gone, along with the asphalt jungle, replaced in 1997 by the Tisch Children’s Zoo. It features, among many other imaginative diversions, a massive net that allows birds to fly freely, pettable potbellied pigs, and the only cow in Manhattan.


Betsy Pinover Schiff spoke to the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons in January on the flowering of New York City. The writer of the informative text accompanying her photographs, Alicia Whitaker, is a director of the alliance.

Ornamental cabbages provide months of color and interest on Park Avenue.
Yellow and purple violas fill a built-in handrail at a townhouse.
Planted pots define a path through a plaza at the Flatiron Building.