Epilogue: The Medallions and Other Magic Gardens

Barely visible beneath a century’s accumulation of grime, a limpid lake beckons the viewer, its grassy shores flanked by stands of stately trees, its waters reflecting the clouds that grace a moody sky. On the opposite wall is its pendent, the depiction of a small farmhouse shaded by a grove and accessed by a road winding its way through verdant fields. These pastoral scenes belong to a series of eight oil paintings, known collectively as the Medallions; they are, and would from the first have been, the most visually striking features of the long, dark hallway that they adorn. This space, which admits little natural light, is the first floor and therefore main entrance hallway in the twenty-apartment tenement at 97 Orchard Street in New York City’s Lower East Side.
When the hallway was refurbished and the Medallions were painted on its walls at the beginning of the twentieth century, life in this New York tenement must have been similar in many ways to that of the residents of Rome’s insulae, its apartment complexes. When the pastoral scenes appeared, 97 Orchard Street had become increasingly crowded; the tenement housed seventy-one people in 1870 and one hundred and ten just two decades later. Indeed, in 1903, the Lower East Side was reputedly the most densely populated place on earth, making the city block that contained 97 Orchard Street “the most populated neighborhood in the world” with its residents numbering more than two thousand. [1] Crowded living conditions and the constant, strident surges of activity in the streets outside bring to mind the tirades of Horace, Martial, and Juvenal. As was the case with the emergence, and subsequent explosion, of Roman Italy’s villa phenomenon, the Medallions suggest that the urban ideal was giving way to the pastoral. In other words, the garden, not the city, was becoming the utopian paradigm, the substance of the social dream. The introduction of “country” into the city for purposes of physical, intellectual, and moral health had, in fact, been a concern for some time. These, for instance, were among the goals cited by Andrew Jackson Downing in his 1848 proposal for a People’s Park, a much-needed open space that would serve as the “lungs of the city.” [2] His vision would be realized in Vaux and Olmsted’s Central Park, the largest of this period’s environmental efforts. At the same time, environmentally minded reformers saw to it that parks were created on a smaller scale, springing up on land reclaimed from tenements. Thus rus in urbe became an ideal also of this epic city.
When they completed their journey to the lower Hudson Valley, the first European settlers reportedly found a second Eden, a land flowing with milk and honey. [3] They were overwhelmed by the raw beauty of the landscape, by the lakes, valleys, forests, and flower-strewn meadows of this relatively untouched land. Whether it is this “unspoiled” landscape, the farm whose orchards ultimately became Orchard Street, or a remote ancestral homeland that the Medallions portray, these are the landscapes of memory, nostalgic in their longing for a past whose idealized conditions were viewed as integral to the ideals of the present. Nostalgia, as well as the creation of gardens, is both forward and backward looking.
The essentially nostalgic and utopian nature of the creation of garden spaces in an urban context is more apparent in some cases than in others, and it is worth considering closely those exemplars that advertise their underlying principles. Such, for instance, are the vibrant gardens that fill reclaimed open spaces in the once crime-ridden, gang-infested Norris Square neighborhood in lower North Philadelphia. One of many successful products of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s “Philadelphia Green” urban gardening initiative, Norris Square is no longer an urban jungle. Plantings enhanced by backdrops of garden murals unambiguously evoke the largely Puerto Rican community’s rural past. These gardens are both “an improvement to the neighborhood, a form of physical rehabilitation” and a tangible means of preserving a cultural heritage. [4] The gardens provide hope where, for many, there was little or none, and this hope is cradled in memory. Fittingly, Norris Square’s first major mural/garden project has been christened “Raices,” Roots.
Ideologically, every garden reproduces the physical reality of the plants it encloses. The older and larger the plant, the deeper its roots penetrate the storehouses of the Earth’s geological memory. The cycles of seed-production and of foliage falling and then sprouting anew harbor an eternal promise. They harbor hope. Reflecting on the magnificent garden Adolf Rosengarten began to shape in 1912 on Philadelphia’s Main Line, Chris Woods poignantly observes:
A garden is a bridge between the human race and nature. It translates the chaos of the natural world into a language that is comprehensible and comfortable. It is essential entertainment, giving us sensual pleasure, while at the same time turning our minds to spiritual matters. While it is a complex creation, it reminds us of a more simple existence. [5]
What a garden does, by seducing us with its allurements of texture, scent, and color, is remind us of an essential unity, our essential unity with the natural world. This unity became and remains an ideal conceived in an urban context. Specifically, as manifested in Roman Italy, this ideal is conceived of as such when urban culture finds itself in a crisis or when the disadvantages of urban living begin to overshadow its benefits. In the Roman world, this ideal, described as rus in urbe, manifested itself in the flourishing of Epicureanism, a philosophy predicated on the essential atomic unity of life, and in the intense domestication of Nature evidenced by the avid embrace of flora, fauna, land, sky, and sea in the Roman villa as the Republic plunged irrevocably and fatally into civil war. The ideal of rus in urbe proved tractable and pliant, adaptable to a new social order and a new regime, and Augustus transformed its soft-primitivist strains into a dream of the Republic restored, the return of a Saturnian Golden Age in the rediscovery of Rome’s humble, georgic past. However, utopian dreams, bound as they are to the distinct social conditions from which they rise, are not endlessly capable of mutation. At a critical juncture, they will reveal irreparable rifts and ultimately shatter, later emerging as something altogether new.
As Lucretius and Virgil demonstrate, rus in urbe as re-conceived by the Augustan regime was fundamentally irreconcilable with the dream of Pericles, the social dream of Classical Greece. Thoroughly urbanized, imperial Rome could never have become a second Athens, nor should it have wished to be, for the social dream of Pericles was also that of Homer, a dream conceived at the dawning of the urban impulse in Greece, from the post-Dark Age conditions underlying the birth of the polis. The polis, an ideologically and physically constructed “machine for living well,”—not merely a place in which to survive, a fortress, but a place in which to flourish—was this social dream. [6] The polis was conceived not only as a center of defense, but also, critically, as a center of habitation, “political” institutions, cults, industry, trade, education, and entertainment. And, as the Shield of Achilles demonstrates, the exclusion of wild Nature was fundamental to its development. [7] The Shield, Homer’s utopian blueprint, discloses a world order established by the erection of barriers to check the potentially devastating encroachment of an untamed wilderness, from both within a settlement and without: walls and fences to keep Nature out, and a system of laws to contain the baser instincts of a city’s inhabitants. As Homer’s Shield so vividly reveals, both before the birth of cities and in the infancy of the urban endeavor, there was no need to dream of gardens.


[ back ] 1. Miller and Voulangas 1999:31.
[ back ] 2. Burrows and Wallace 1999:791.
[ back ] 3. For the reactions of these early immigrants, see Burrows and Wallace 1999:3.
[ back ] 4. See Golden, Rice, and Kinney 2002:69 for the quotes and pages 66-77 for Norris Square and its gardens generally.
[ back ] 5. The garden is Philadelphia’s Chanticleer, and the quote has been taken from the garden’s visitors’ guide, “Chanticleer: A Pleasure Garden.” Chris Woods, once the estate’s head gardener, became the Director and Chief Horticulturalist of Chanticleer when it opened to the public in 1993.
[ back ] 6. The phrase “a machine for living well” is a reference both to Aristotle’s statement that the polis exists in order to promote “good living” (Politics 1252b29-30) and to Le Corbusier’s conception of a house as “a machine for living” as articulated in Towards a New Architecture.
[ back ] 7. The essential elements of the polis are recounted in Hansen 2004:138-143.