Nature and urbanization have often not worked well together and yet, many profess otherwise, believing in the therapeutic, restorative effects that a bit of greenery can have. Situated underneath an elevated train track amidst the incessant whistling, rattling and shaking of whirring locomotives and the chatter and horns of the bustling streets, I discovered the Urban Garden Center. It is a whimsical, unassuming little contradiction, bringing the wild beauty of nature and an equally wild urban world to one place. Walking through the outdoor paths of the Urban Garden Center, I found a charming refuge from the city, filled with intertwined branches, trees, and string gardens (clumps of moss cradled in strings with plants growing from them). Farther through the aisles, was a semi-covered section that resembled a greenhouse, as well as cactus gardens, orchids, barrels of bulbs, and hanging plants. (The greenhouse is not truly indoors I realized – there is just a frame of a roof, but Dimitri Gatanas, one of the owners, suggested that "It makes it feel like people are walking indoors. " The Urban Garden Center is owned and operated by the Gatanas family. They have lived in the city since the 1940s. I have had the pleasure of meeting several members of the family when stopping by, learning pieces of their history from both mother Aspasia and her sons. Dimitri told me that the Urban Garden Center has been around almost as long as his family - since the 1960s - though it has gone through a few iterations. They originally opened on 89th Street, and then moved to 86th, and later to 102nd. In 2010, the sons discovered an empty lot underneath the train track, running from 116th to 117th Street, and converted it into its present day green oasis. Aspasia told me that when her boys came to her to say that they had found the perfect space to move their long-established family garden center, she thought they were insane. "It had no electricity, no running water, no bathroom and I was supposed to smile and say, 'great. '" She then went on to say, "When you're around this long people take notice, no matter where you go. " And, while sharing the family's collection of New York stories and photographs, Dimitri was quick to point out an old photo of his grandmother, Calliope Gravanis, standing on a rooftop in Harlem. He was proud to elaborate on his mom's comment, “Our family has gotten to know the neighborhood really well over all of these years. ”
Although customers at Living With Green span a wide variety of ages and backgrounds, they all share something in common — the desire to bring a bit of green into their home. Brian Byrnes and Vanessa Jovel Byrnes met as sophomores while attending colleges in Manhattan. The duo bonded over their shared love of plants. Vanessa had grown up with tropical plants in her home — some of which are well over thirty years old, while Brian’s parents were passionate about outdoor gardening. When the Byrnes first moved in together, they both brought plants. Soon they would incorporate a greenhouse into their personal living space, and in 2020, only a short time before Covid closed everything down, they decided to give up their own careers and open a shop dedicated solely to plants. Living with Green sells cacti, succulents, and a wide variety of indoor and outdoor tropical plants, but, perhaps most important is that they offer an incredible knowledge of everything green. When asked about plans for the future, Brian offered that he hopes to expand in a number of directions. "Our goal is to be able to go into homeowners’ apartments and roof tops, taking care of their plants and aiding people in creating their own personal greenhouses. "The couple's dedication goes beyond selling plants; they aim to nurture the NYC plant community. "We hope to bring more joy and variety to our fellow NYC plant community with local delivery and a variety of products, services and resources to ensure any plant parent is thriving in their journey! " they said.