The Urban Garden Center Brings Gardening To Every New Yorker
The competitive, Wall Street-centric Manhattan of the 21st century isn’t a Manhattan typically associated with small, family-owned businesses– and certainly not a three generation one. But under an overpass in East Harlem, the Urban Garden Center is proving otherwise.
The space is hardly what one would expect from a traditional garden center but it is (somehow) exactly what you would expect of a garden center in New York. Stretched out narrowly under the Metro North train’s tracks, the Urban Garden Center (UGC) has utterly embraced its peculiar brand of urban botany.
It’s the same charmingly-eccentric vibe that miniature golf courses often have: part vintage, part functional, part earnest wackiness. The whole setup feels a bit like what a plant shop would resemble if it took place in the world of Mad Max— not so desperate and desolate of course, but with the same cool, salvaged, mishmash sensibility.
“My grandfather used to always say we’re a little bit of country in the city,” Dimitri Gatanas, the third generation owner of UGC told us. “I took that to mean my experiences driving up to the Catskills or wherever else in upstate New York. I always loved those experiences and I said, ‘How do we make that happen here, in New York City?’ while not taking away from the ‘New York’ vibe.”
The result is an almost hyper real New York– a neon green plant sign washes over the flora below, the train tracks rattle overhead at regular intervals, curios from different eras are crowded together on shelves and tables (not unlike a subway car in the morning). But everything on the shelves is there for a reason or has some interesting, entertaining, unique quality, each adding to the space’s frank sincerity– perhaps the most “New York” quality of all.
UGC began as a flower shop called Dimitri’s (named for Gatanas’s grandfather) on 89th Street and Madison Avenue, in 1959. “My grandmother and grandfather came here from Greece by the 1940s– I don’t know the exact year because everyone you ask, there’s a different year,” Gatanas recounts.
“They came to this country with the same perspective that every immigrant came here with: they thought the streets were painted gold.” While Gatanas’s grandmother took a steady job in factory, his grandfather cycled through a number of odd jobs before eventually landing one at a flower shop– an unexpected fit, as he didn’t comfortably speak English. Eventually, Gatanas’s grandfather purchased his own shop, and moved from cut flowers into outdoor plants.
“He had no idea what he was doing, or why he was doing it,” Gatanas admits. But in a stroke of cosmic career fortune– the kind that only ever seems to happen in New York– it ended up being just “one of those things,” as Gatanas puts it– a fortuitous accident turned family calling.
Of course, Gatanas didn’t always realize it was his calling. Living in New Jersey and going to school in Manhattan, Gatanas spent many an afternoon doing his homework in his grandfather’s shop. “I grew up in the business in that way, but that made me hate it!” Gatanas confesses.
“I was a kid– it equated itself to work.” After pursuing a career in real estate, he found himself helping his grandmother out as she moved to their location on 2nd Ave. “I said, ‘I’ll help you out for two weeks.’ And two weeks turned into fifteen years,” Gatanaus laughs. “I fell in love. I can’t even tell you how much I love the business. I enjoy every second of it.”
Over the years, locations, generations, and owners, UGC has held onto their original Upper East Side clientele (“I have some clients– pretty well known people– I’m not even allowed to tell you who they are,” Gatanas confides). But they’ve also begun attracting a younger audience that is newer to gardening. Gatanas enjoys the contrast between those looking for a single tiny air plant and “clients who wear white gloves and bonnets”.
Some clients have spent their whole lives in Harlem, shopping at UGC, while others have just arrived in New York from other countries– exactly the kind of diverse population New York is known for.
In addition to their plants and gardening supplies, UGC is home to several chickens, whose waste they mix with community food scraps to make compost anyone is free to take (provided they can carry or bike it out).
On Thursdays and Saturdays, a Grow NYC Youth Market takes place outside. They recently populated the Street Seats across NYC. UGC also accepts clothing donations, and hosts community events (coming up is the East Harlem Harvest Festival on October 24th). They’re also opening a plant café in the coming months. “There’s so many different things happening,” Gatanas added. “We just want to give the community space as much as we possibly can.”
Three generations strong, what lies ahead for UGC? “My daughter’s seven. One of the questions she was asked by her teacher the other day was, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?'” Gatanas relayed, amused. “She said she wants to be a gardener.”