Plowed Under

Progress swallows up a garden of earthy delights.

By Neal Pollack

For 15 years an elderly Cuban named Gregory Iglesias has been tending a hardscrabble patch of land at the corner of Winthrop and Thorndale. When Iglesias moved into his apartment overlooking the property, it was a dirt lot full of bottles and other debris. He planted sunflowers, dahlias, and carnations. He erected a fence to keep out loiterers. He grew mint and cilantro for the Chinese family that lived next door.

He brought in greenery from wherever he could. If he saw a plant sitting in the alley he’d put it on his land. Iglesias had no money. He lived in the barest of surroundings. But he gradually created his neighborhood’s most eccentric garden.

He built a makeshift wooden hutch complete with bedding, a fan, Christmas lights, and a transistor radio. When it got too hot he’d sleep outside, just like he’d done as a boy in Cuba. But mostly the hutch was for his two black Pomeranians, Frankie and Francie, whom he referred to as his “children.” When passersby would ask Iglesias what the garden was for, he’d say, “I plant it for my children.” The dogs would stay in the hutch at night, and Iglesias would tune the radio to an oldies station, which he said the dogs found relaxing.

I moved to Edgewater last May, and my daily routine quickly grew to include stopping by Gregory’s on the way to and from the el. Like many people in the neighborhood, I was drawn to his craggy face and odd little garden. He’d always give me some mint if I asked, and he always let me play with the dogs.

Every day Iglesias would be out futzing with his hutch, hoeing some dirt, or babbling into the air. He talked to everybody, whether they understood him or not. His English was poor, and his Cuban-accented Spanish far too fast for even a native speaker. “I can’t understand his Spanish,” says one guy from the neighborhood who’s known Iglesias for nine years, “and I’m Mexican. I have to ask him to say everything twice.”

Over the winter I’d occasionally see Iglesias on the el with one of his dogs, which he’d dressed in a pink sweater.

“I like to take my children outside,” he’d say.

“You’re doing the garden again this summer?” I asked him one day.

“Before I live here, I fix the plants at Truman College,” he said. “For five years I fix the plants for everybody. I fix plants all night. In the morning. Flowers, flowers, flowers. I know nothing else. The garden is my life.”

A few weeks ago a banner, visible from the el, went up on Iglesias’s building. “Watch this sign for exciting redevelopment soon,” it read.

At 2 PM on Saturday, April 17, the building’s new owner, Michael Hecht, came by Iglesias’s apartment to fix a French door that had been broken a long time. When Hecht was done, he told Iglesias that he needed the land where the garden was. The dog hutch and the tree that provided shade for it would have to come down that day. He ran the cord for a buzz saw up into the apartment and set to destroying the hutch and cutting down the tree.

The next day, Iglesias stood in his garden, dazed.

“I do the garden for free a long time,” he said. “Every day I do it. When you plant the flower you plant the love, you plant the peace, the spirit. You’re breathing the reality naturally. The planting of the flowers makes everything clean. It’s crazy. He broke the spirit and didn’t say nothing. I’m not going to do anything anymore. He cut my life. He just broke my dream.”

Growing up in Cuba before the revolution, Iglesias said, his family always gardened. He worked part-time at a sugar-processing factory and part-time as a gardener. His parents had a garden. His grandparents had a garden.

“What a yard! Beautiful yard! What roses! All our lives we plant.”

Francie died in November. Iglesias had buried her in the garden, but now he dug her up. Frankie, tottering beside him on 17-year-old legs, would live inside from now on.

All day people visited the garden.

“They tore down the doghouse!” one neighbor said. “What happened?”

Another neighbor, also from Cuba, came by on his way to the dry cleaner.

“The dog lost her home,” Iglesias said.

“Don’t worry,” said the neighbor. “We’ll find her another home.”

“When I got here it was garbage and broken glass. I spent one week tearing it up.”

“One time I needed fresh spearmint for my cooking,” said the neighbor, “and Gregory had a patch.”

“My vision is gone,” Iglesias said. “I never want to plant again.”

“The garden is spiritual,” he told me later. “It’s a spiritual place. Most people don’t understand what a garden is. When you get home from a long day and go in the garden, it changes you. God changes you. It relaxes you. There’s not a Cuban alive who doesn’t like a good garden.”

“We encouraged him because it gave a little color to the corner,” says Sheli Lulkin, executive director of the East Edgewater Chamber of Commerce. “I sat across the street from the garden for eight years, running the farmers’ market. I used to give Gregory $10 every year so he could have some money for planting the flowers.”

Iglesias’s building, which spans the block from Winthrop to the el station, will keep mostly the same tenants under the new owner. The pharmacy next to the garden will move over one storefront, and Michael Hecht plans to turn its current space into a coffeehouse. Eventually the garden will become the coffeehouse’s patio.

“Hecht’s a bear on cleanliness,” Lulkin says. “So am I. We like clean streets. I know he’s gonna run a clean operation.”

Hecht runs a real estate business out of another of his apartment buildings on Winthrop. When he moved to the neighborhood in 1981, he says, there were more than 40 burned-out buildings on his street and on Kenmore. He saw potential for development, but the process has been slow.

“It’s taken far longer than I expected,” he said when I visited him at his office recently.

As for Iglesias’s garden, Hecht plans to renovate the building’s brickwork this summer and needs a place to store materials. “Plus there are rats there. Loaded. When I was chopping down the tree one of them came out–eight inches long, and that’s just the tail. There’s no room for that in the neighborhood. I had mentioned to Gregory once before that I had to do something with the garden. I didn’t say exactly when.

“He certainly kept the property better than it was before. Whether it’s my personal taste or not, that’s separate. He even pitched in and started helping. Actually, I was thinking of giving him a few bucks for it. I actually like Gregory. He’s a nice guy. What is he, Cuban?”

Eventually our conversation turned, as did most conversations that week, to the school shooting in Littleton, Colorado. Hecht asked me what I thought could be done to prevent such a thing from happening again. I posited stricter gun control. He shook his head.

“What are you going to do?” he said. “Ban knives? Ban baseball bats? You can kill somebody with anything. I could kill you with this pen if I wanted to.”

“No you couldn’t,” I said.

“Oh believe me,” he said. “I could.”

Our society is too lenient with criminals, he said, and jails shouldn’t be country clubs. Besides, parents aren’t teaching kids right from wrong any longer. He offered the following anecdote:

“When I was a kid I had a bow and arrow, and I shot up some neighbor’s tomatoes. Well, I spent the rest of the summer working for that guy. Not only in his garden but painting his house! You think I ever shot up anybody’s tomatoes again? No! I learned my lesson.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“A guy has his property and you leave it alone. It belongs to him.”

Afterward, walking to the grocery store, I stopped by the garden, where Iglesias was tearing out plants. At least this summer, he said, Hecht was going to allow him to keep one ring of flowers and most of his herbs.

Over the next few weeks, Iglesias would put up a little wooden picket fence and he’d build a new hutch for his dog out of wire mesh, scrap wood, and a discarded billboard from the el platform. He didn’t know how long these projects would last.

“That guy can do whatever he wants,” Iglesias said. “Money is money.”

When I came back from the store, Iglesias had gone inside. Hecht was there instead, unloading bricks from the back of a flatbed truck and pitching them onto his property.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.