There is a neat, poetic symmetry to the life of Dominick Ferro, the primary custodian of Orient Grove, a shaded community garden providing an oasis on the eastern edge of ever-changing Williamsburg since 1997.
Ferro was born the son of hard-scrabble subsistence farmers near the southern Italian city of Salerno, in a pastoral setting staffed by goats, chickens, cows, the lot. In 1956, seeking the mythic promise of stateside economic opportunities, an 11-year-old Ferro emigrated with his sister and mother to the same north Brooklyn neighborhood he lives in today. While the area was a different place in those post-war boom times, both physically and demographically, it was still anything but pastoral.
Now, almost three-quarters of a century later, amidst a Williamsburg radically changed by decades of upheavals both major and minor, he has managed to recreate in Orient Grove something of a triangle-shaped slice of his country childhood—minus the goats, chickens and hogs, but with the addition of roses and hydrangeas.
Orient Grove started out as an addendum to nearby Cooper Park, named for industrialist Peter Cooper, whose glue factory occupied the site in the 19th century. When Ferro’s idea for a garden began gestating back in 1996, the compact wedge was graced with nary a blade of grace and was used mainly as a dog run.
Dog shit, in fact, was the initial fuel that compelled Ferro to transform the patch of dirt across from his apartment.
“I had had it with the dogs,” remembered Ferro, a light sweat still glistening on his forehead from recent gardening labors; despite the 25 years separating our conversation from his garden’s inception, residual exasperation added further sharpness to his pronounced Brooklyn accent.
“That’s where [the pet owners] used to hang their dog shit,” he added, gesturing to where the northern and southern chain link fences narrow to a point.
At that point in the late ‘90s, according to Ferro, the surrounding area still wore Italy on its sleeve. The demographics of the Williamsburg of his 1950s childhood, when streetcars rumbled their way up and down Graham Avenue, were even more starkly demarcated.
“The Puerto Ricans were already here when I arrived,” said Ferro. “But they were on the [south] side of Grand Street. And the Polish were to the north.”
Not able to contain myself, I made the obvious reference to a certain 1950s musical with a gangland love story at its heart.
“Yeah, the kids used to fight against each other,” affirmed Ferro with a shrug. “I wasn’t a part of all that, but, yes, they had [specially-made jackets].”
Orient Grove is bordered by several tall London Plane trees, two rows of four facing each other across the plot, their bows interlaced far above. They were planted there over one hundred years ago by then-residents and are protected by law, according to Ferro.
Those trees, which helped transform Orient Grove from just another community garden to a serene mote of calm amidst a relentlessly urban area of Brooklyn, are the garden’s only through-line from Ferro’s childhood to the present.
They’re a mixed blessing, though. Because of the constant shade they give, even in winter, Ferro can only plant things that don’t require a lot of sunlight. But he’s traded fecundity for a priceless Arcadian atmosphere and just the right amount of solar protection.
Before Ferro could morph Orient Grove into a tranquil hideaway of blooming flowers and sheltering giants, battles had to be fought with four separate combatants: logistics, dead soil, bureaucracy and the dogged opposition of pet owners.
Ferro won the first, despite having just undergone a triple bypass, via the kind of hard labor he would have known as a farmer’s son in mid-century southern Italy.
“I didn’t have permission to get water from the hydrant nearby, so I used to carry the water from my apartment across the street in buckets, back and forth,” he recalls.
Poor soil, meanwhile, was, and will always be, a problem at Orient Grove.
“This is the worst dirt in the universe,” Ferro exclaimed with a smile. “The moon has better dirt than this. All clay, dry and everything. I’m always replenishing it with good dirt.”
While the requisite bureaucratic maze proved more easily navigable than initially thought thanks to help from a knowledgeable neighbor, the area’s dog enthusiasts fought Ferro tooth, nail, snout and tail—mainly through door-to-door petitioning.
The anti-garden coalition actually collected more signatures than Ferro, who counter-petitioned. However, according to him, they lost because it was found they had padded their numbers with signatures from The Bronx.
The clipboard duel between Ferro and the canine camp lasted about three months, and by 1997 the little parklet was his to transform. Roses came first, then hydrangeas, and things evolved organically from there.
As the years passed and the garden started to slowly flourish under Ferro’s Augean labors and investments of cash (he says he’s sunk around a total of $50,000 to $60,000 into the plot), the neighborhood he’d grown up in—by 1997 already a different place than in 1956—began to look ever more unrecognizable.
When Ferro, his sisters and mother first came to the area, they were attracted by an already established community from Campania, to which his home town of Salerno belongs. His uncle, who had come to Brooklyn and opened a candy store on Kingsland Avenue some years previous, helped the newcomers get on their feet.
While his mother worked in factories to support her children and pay off the debt incurred getting from Italy to Brooklyn, Ferro worked as a shoe-shiner and stock boy, among other odd jobs. After a military stint in peacetime South Korea, he settled into accounting, working for now-defunct discount department chain EJ Korvette, and a local lender that eventually merged with Chemical Bank.
Changes to Williamsburg, already afoot when he started Orient Grove in the late ’90s, accelerated swiftly after 9/11.
“What happened here [after 9/11]? The Italians sold the neighborhood,” asserted Ferro. “Because it’s location, location, location! You’ve got the L Train, plus the expressways and the buses. So the real estate people saw the opportunity. People were afraid to live in Manhattan and started moving this way. The Polish [to the north] didn’t sell, but Italians… ‘How much you got?’”
While COVID-19 no doubt had an impact on the neighborhood, Ferro says he hasn’t noticed the same sort of hemorrhaging of residents that followed 9/11.
According to municipal statistics, there were 7,912 combined cases for the Williamsburg zip codes of 11211 and 11249, with 189 succumbing to the disease.
Ferro, in fact, checked himself into the VA hospital on East 23rd St. in Manhattan this last January, where he received a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Demurring an offer of an extended hospital stay, he instead barricaded himself in his apartment to cough and sweat it out; after a couple of weeks, the 76-year-old emerged hale and victorious.
Despite mostly going it alone at Orient Grove, Ferro has received several contributions from friends and acquaintances looking to help improve the garden’s infrastructure. When a repaving crew ripped up Metropolitan Avenue, he noticed a treasure trove of the old cobblestones that used to pave the road when he was a kid. He talked to the foreman and, just like that, they were his.
Parks and Rec has been a reliable partner as well, contributing wooden boards from outdated benches in Cooper Park that Ferro uses to make planter boxes. A couple of months ago, a man dropped off a metal bench and matching chairs, which Ferro promptly painted bright red.
Not everyone is so accommodating. People clip roses without permission or steal his bell peppers; dogs frequently rain acidic hell upon his plants from the other side of the fence. Vandalism isn’t unknown, and he’s had several “No Dogs Allowed” signs mysteriously disappear. Perhaps some old resentments refuse to fully die.
While he’s not holding his breath, Ferro does accept help where he can. Recently, a young Englishman named Max started pitching in regularly. He’s proved to be far more dependable than most would-be volunteers, who tend to back out at the last minute, offering feeble excuses (“One guy said he was allergic to grass”).
But mainly, Ferro encourages people to simply stop by and, yes, smell the roses, to sit down in a lawn chair and enjoy for at least a moment what he’s wrought over the last 24 years. There’s an air of sagacity and experience about him that seems to intrigue 20-to-30-something pedestrians, and the gate can sometimes stay open as late as 11 p.m., Christmas lights conjuring a soft glow among the foliage as Ferro plays gracious host with a big bottle of ginger ale or a beer.
All you burgeoning Orient Grove groupies can also catch a glimpse of Mr. Ferro most Friday nights at La Locanda. At the longtime restaurant on Graham Avenue, he and a group of old friends habitually linger over long dinners of veal cutlets and wood-fired pizza. While the group’s numbers have dwindled over the years, the tradition abides for those that remain.
Image: Matt Fink
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