The shaded garden on 149th street was not always the peaceful hideaway it is today. It was once an abandoned lot littered with garbage - a blight on the side street. Although the garden is now managed by Edo, it was her good friend Miss Maggie Burnett, a resident of the building across the street since the 1980s, who was the original driving force behind its transformation. "She was a cop, so no one messed with her," Jahanah, Edo’s daughter, told me when I stopped by one Saturday afternoon during the summer of 2017. She was in the garden selling baked goods and cold water. She said that there were "so many badass stories" connected with Maggie. One such legend was that Maggie stopped a shooting outside simply by confronting the instigators and saying, "Not in my garden.” In fact, she had been known to almost single-handedly police the street.
Her dedication to keeping the neighborhood clean and safe is what drove her to contact then-mayor Ed Koch to request the restoration of the abandoned lot, which had long been a site for illegal activity. Mayor Koch offered her the space, and Maggie made it into a garden where she grew vegetables and even kept some chickens, “which was a nice treat for me to hear in the city,” Edo shared. When the New York Restoration Project - founded by Bette Midler - became involved in 2002, the garden was revamped. Thanks to generous funding from the Brownstone Family Foundation, a team of horticulturists and landscape architects was able to design a place that would best serve the community. Maggie’s Garden officially reopened in 2003 in a ceremony hosted by Bette Midler and attended by guests such as former President Bill Clinton and Representative Charles Rangel.
Although Maggie passed away in 2016, she remained devoted to maintaining her garden well into her eighties. “It’s visibly noticed that she’s no longer here, and you feel the absence of Maggie, because she did keep things clean,” Edo reminisced, adding, “She was almost like a neighborhood staple.” Edo has done her best to keep the legacy alive, explaining that she is just “tinkering in Maggie’s shadows.”
Edo does, however, allow her own philosophy on gardening to influence her modifications. As we walked down the path to the central arbor draped in hanging vines, Edo showed us the newest wind chime she was planning on putting up. “Part of gardening for me is using all of the senses,” she explained. For this reason, she has planted more colorful flowers “to give the garden more personality,” while also including sounds that serve as a pleasant backdrop for anyone resting on one of the benches arranged along the gravel paths.
We were curious to find out about the members of the garden and their role in supporting it. Edo told us that anyone can be a member as long as they attend monthly meetings and do their shift working the soil. There are even areas specifically designated for members to grow new plants, and although they do not generally grow much food, we were assured that whatever they do harvest will be shared as a communal meal with all members. “That’s what this is for - sharing.”