At the Urban Garden Center in East Harlem, March 12, 2014 started out like any another cold winter morning, except that Anthony Douglas, 36, and a co-worker were trying to rescue a rooster.
The bird was caught in netting used to keep pigeons away from the garden center’s henhouse. Located at 1640 Park Ave. and 116th St., the center keeps chickens to gather their waste for a compost program. On that morning, someone had abandoned an injured fighting cock, shoving it inside a Macy’s Christmas shopping bag with the word “Believe.”
Unable to free the rooster, Douglas went to fetch scissors from a supply area. As Douglas reached for the scissors, he remembers, he heard the loudest sound he’d ever heard in his life. Then a sudden blast blew him off his feet and against a chain link fence. For the next 10 or maybe 20 seconds, Douglas says, he could hear nothing. All he saw was dust.
“When we found him he was yelling. He didn’t even know he was yelling,” said Alex Gatanas, 40, one of two brothers who own and run the Urban Garden Center.
A gas explosion had leveled two buildings behind the center, sending bricks and other debris into the air and all over the grounds. Eight people were killed and dozens were injured. The blast tore a hole through the center’s greenhouse and a fire had started there. To everyone’s surprise, no one at the Urban Garden Center was hurt that morning.
“The chicken saved the lives of our staff,” said Alex’s brother, Dimitri, 42. Earlier that day Alex had asked his staff to sweep up inside the center’s greenhouse. “If they had been in the space doing what they were supposed to do, there’s a high likelihood one of them would have been seriously hurt,” he said.
Douglas remembers the shock of seeing the debris where the two apartment buildings used to stand. “It’s like someone had cut a cake when it blew. It was so perfect,” said Douglas.
Now a year after the gas explosion in East Harlem, spring is about to bloom again at the Urban Garden Center. The small family business is just in front of the two buildings that collapsed. But in the center today, stacks of empty pots await their tenants, and staff members build and decorate custom planters for the coming flowers.
The Urban Garden Center opened at its current location in East Harlem’s historic La Marqueta in 2011, just a few blocks away from where Alex and Dimitri’s grandparents first lived after immigrating to the United States from Greece in the late 1940s. A green thumb has run in the family since the brothers’ grandfather, who was also named Dimitri, opened up a flower shop on 89th Street and Madison in 1959.
Today, the family shop is Manhattan’s largest garden center selling plants, trees and garden supplies catered to the urban gardener. The center, located under the train tracks, is also a hub for community programs, hosting a children’s gardening club, free tree giveaways, and the Corbin Hill Food Project that brings fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved communities.
“The fact that we’re vending in a space where my grandmother would shop, it’s hard to explain how strong of a feeling I have for that,” said Dimitri. “It means a lot to us to be here. There’s something more meaningful about this space to us.”
The family’s love for the neighborhood overshadows challenges they’ve faced to stay in business in this location. The center, for example, has no running water and only got partial electricity after the explosion. The shop still uses a generator and worries about using heaters too much.
“We’re so gun-shy about heat after the explosion, you have no idea,” said Alex.
Even though the explosion only tore a hole through the greenhouse, the entire center was soon taken over by authorities and bulldozed to make space to clear rubble. “The store looked like a garbage dump for construction materials,” Alex recalled. Bricks, beams, cars, ovens, and clothing filled the lot.
When the blast occurred, the center had been gearing up for the spring, so it lost all its inventory. “I saw an ugly future the day of the explosion,” said Alex. Both he and his brother were unsure how the business would bounce back.
Alex remembers the first customer, an elderly woman who has been a client of the family business since he was a child. She came by and offered to give them money. “She’s not a wealthy lady,” said Alex. “She buys a couple things, maybe $50 worth of products every year for who knows how many years.”
Alex tried to give her back the check. “She said no, I want you guys back in business as soon as possible,” Alex remembers. “That’s when it hit me. Maybe I can get this done.”
The family started an online fundraiser and raised $15,000. The center worked hard and managed to reopen by the third week of April last year. They rebuilt their greenhouse by May.
Dimitri says that as a small business, the store was underinsured, and the family has yet to recoup all their losses. “It hasn’t been easy for us. We’re really struggling through this,” said Dimitri. “It’s getting there.”
But, said Dimitri, “The fact that we were able to open so quickly encouraged people that we’re able to get through this together as a group. We were popping flowers all over the place as soon as we opened up. The place looked alive. It looked fresh. It looked happy.”
Now the center is ready for the start of spring again, and is contributing to a community effort to honor the lives lost last year. Photos, a rosary and plastic flowers adorn the chain link fence where the two apartment buildings once stood. The gardening Gatanas family envisions a more substantive memorial. “We want to do something meaningful and artistic,” said Dimitri. “We want to make something that lasts forever.”
After the city cleared the debris from the nursery’s grounds last year, they left behind two wooden beams and a metal one. “I decided I’m going to keep them and do something responsible with them,” said Dimitri. He and his brother are transforming one of the wooden beams into a planter that they will put a tree in. The planter will be kept on the sidewalk between Urban Garden Center and the lot where the buildings once stood.
Alex and Dimitri said they are building the planter in memory of two good friends the family lost in the explosion: Andreas Panagopoulos, who played bouzouki, a Greek mandolin; and George Amadeo, who would stop to talk with Alex during his daily dog walks. According to Alex, Amadeo had just left his apartment when he heard the first explosion and turned back to get his dog. He and his dog died in the second blast.
A memorial ceremony coordinated by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will take place at the site on the March 12 anniversary.
Meanwhile, the rooster stuffed inside the bag with “Believe” imprinted on it eventually found a home at the Urban Garden Center. The rooster stayed there for a couple months until a neighbor complained that it made too much noise.
The chickens are still here, though. “I think that chicken coop has had more visitors than the Guggenheim,” laughed Dimitri. The chickens have been kept inside with a heater for most of the winter, but will soon be let out for the spring.