Friday, July 10, 2009

The Death of Smith & Hawken Reminds Me Of My Youth

There's been some webiverse ado about the death of Smith & Hawken. Like all good funerals, you get to sharing your memories. My first rooftop gardening job, I was 24 years old, a bit cocky that I knew about this field. It was my first day, dropped on the terra-cotta tiled roof of the client we called "The Masterson's", near park, East Side -can't remember exactly where, family of actress Mary Stuart Masterson, whose garden we later built. 

My boss left me on that roof to construct Smith & Hawken teak furniture. I assembled the furniture and waited for his return. In those days, as there were no cell phones, when we needed to communicate, we needed to hit the street to find a working pay phone -often enough a good part of our day, next to finding parking. When he returned, I was told the furniture was the wrong model. I'd have to disassemble the furniture, put it back in boxes. Ugh. The job got better, but was always incredibly physical work. There's a lot of glory in the visage of roof gardens, but not much said about how much work goes into it, 'cept here at 66squarefeet

If I told you we had to carry 3" caliper trees to the roof of a 5-floor walkup, that probably wouldn't mean much. But I think carrying 200 40lb bags of potting soil up 5 flights of stairs carries some weight. Back then we didn't use (was it the frugality of our boss?) those convenient hoists I see being used all the time now to lift gypsum board into apartment buildings. When we were building a deck, each piece of everything needed to be hauled up. Often there was no freight elevator, but if there was, it was often in some ridiculously distant corner of the building. When we got to the apartment, they always seemed to have a white carpet! But no matter, shoes off, masonite down, paper down, everything taped, dirt, trees and plants carried through. 

A bulk of our summer business was maintenance -showing up to fix something, sweeping, watering, deadheading, painting, lots of electrical, cleaning fountain slime and whatever else. I found this aspect the most boring, but much easier than hauling the garden to the roof! 

New York was at the tail end of 6 years of recession when I began doing this work. I started at $8 and hour, boldly making it to $10 by August of that year. New York was a different place back then, I lived alone in Williamsburg, right near the subway.  I could survive on 10 bucks an hour, pay my college loans, save some even, although not without taking extra jobs and working lots of overtime. But even with all that, I still managed to find time to paint at night, hang out, whatever. There was NOTHING to do in Williamsburg then! Wealth was very concentrated in certain neighborhoods of Manhattan. I could buy fresh baked Italian bread at Sparacino's Bakery (been many things since it closed) for 75 cents. How things have changed in 15 years. So thanks 'death of Smith & Hawken' for sending me down memory lane. 


  1. And thanks for the holler :-)

    Great post...yup. Sometimes we do the hoists or booms, not always -depends on the budget. $4000 for a half day.

    The other day I found the most delicious, seeded baguette (sounds wrong, I know) at Sahadi's for $1.40...which I considered a bargain. Still warm.

    Ten years ago Fifth Ave in Park Slope-ish was still considered dicey. Now look at it. Stroller central. 4th Ave was a No Go. NOW look at it!


  2. I worked at Christensens Nursery just south of San Francisco. Carriage trade nursery, but very old school. Smith and Hawken started their first store in a small building just south of us in Menlo Park. The concept sounded interesting, so when they opened their first concept retail store in Berkley, I had to check it out. It was so cool, I knew this would be a hit.

    This was before Silicon Valley, when San Jose was a place on the map south of Stanford. We left before all that and moved to the foothills. I think when I saw the first Smith and Hawken in Stanford Shopping center it left me with an odd taste. Garden store in the mall? It was a huge success.

    It's a whole different world now, and the rumors of Paul Hawken starting it up again are most likely just that, rumors. Besides, bring me some top quality American made tools, instead of importing them from England. It's time for an American Renaissance in fine craftsmanship.

  3. Trey,

    I agree. I wish Lee Valley Tools would make more of their tools in the US over Britain/Netherlands. They are based here though. The craftspeople are here, but economics???

    I remember when the Smith & Hawken store opened in SOHO, maybe in the late 80s or early 90s? It was always odd to me, boutiquey, so I never saw them as a gardening outlet, but an accessories store, high end (at first?). But I used to peruse their catalog, never having the garden or resources to purchase anything.

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