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     Gardens by Ruth Horowitz 

When the Horowitz’s arrived on 44th Street in 1949, not much was noticeably different in terms of the 
house we moved into; in fact, it was an exact copy of the 46th Street house we had just left:  3 bedrooms 
upstairs, a living room, dining room, very small kitchen on the first floor, with a semi-finished basement 
below.  Nor did the street hold any surprises either.  There were the same houses and alleyways, the same 
sturdy sycamore trees, and a similarly configured courtyard outside the back door. 
 
Because all the backyards were visible to everyone else in the courtyard and could be easily visited from 
the walkway that bordered the center common, gardening was a major source of pleasure and a way to 
socialize with your neighbors.  Lincoln Court, bounded by 44th, 45th and Barnett Avenue (always called 
39th Avenue in the day), was a beautiful, well-maintained courtyard that bespoke a spare aesthetic and an 
upward-striving sensibility, well-kept and tidy.  

Each separate small backyard was hedged in, and the path around the center lawn invited people to walk 
about and visit one another.  These strolls happened on weekends and holidays when folks, off from 
work, came out onto their back porches to relax.   We knew the neighbors on our side of the courtyard 
well, and related often to them over the hedges that divided properties:  The Metcalf’s and the Murphy’s 
on one side, the Cutillos’, the Plimack's and the Stewarts, on the other.   Small talk over hedges might 
include the weather of the day, the weather to come, and chat about gardens and gardening 
techniques.   Sunnyside, in this respect, resembled a small town, and bonds over hedges seemed 
inviolable as people grew to know one another over time.  

My mother loved to work in her handkerchief garden.  She’d spend whatever spare time she had on 
weekends caring for her flower bed.  I never took an interest, but I also sensed that she liked being alone 
to tend the hyacinth beans she planted each year and which twined around the black metal balustrade on 
our concrete porch.  Small as our lawn was – probably no more than 10’X12’ - it accommodated a 
mulberry tree in one corner, and a hedge that separated it from our neighbors’ and the common 
walkway.  One year, my mother spent a hot sunny day planting out individual Meyer Zoysia plugs to 
create a new lawn.  We all applauded her effort as it filled in with new growth, but it looked pretty much 
like crab grass in the end.   

When we arrived in 1949, there had been a Rose of Sharon bush between our back porch and the Cutillos’ 
next door, and both families tended it.  At some point, tired of cleaning up the dead blossoms that fell 
along the flagstone path, my mom conferred with Phyllis, and it was agreed to take down the Rose of 
Sharon and replace it with a Golden Chain tree.  The Golden Chain was delicate and beautiful, and didn’t 
drop any blossoms.  Neighborly bonds were forged through such simple joint decisions. 

A few backyards down the row, Mrs. Stewart had her own little paradise, the crown jewel of which was 
an azalea bush that appeared year to year in a sudden flame of fuchsia out of the lawn’s emerald green.  A 
carefully tended rock garden wound around the base of Mrs. Stewart’s patio, and in the middle of this 
tight mix stood a very tall “Canadian” maple tree, many years old.  Mrs. Stewart’s little plot was 
stunning, and attested to her very special gardening talent and her work ethic.   



One year, Mrs. Stewart decided to have her maple tree cut down; it had grown so tall that now it shaded 
her flower beds.  My inveterate tree-loving mother, hearing this news, became alarmed and sat down to 
write Mrs. Stewart a delicately worded note asking her to re-consider.  Trees take a long time to grow, she 
wrote, and with some trepidation, waited for a reply.   It didn’t take long for Mrs. Stewart to re-consider, 
and to my mother’s great relief, the tree remained standing for many years, continuing to shade Mrs. 
Stewart’s little gem of a garden, until its demise from some kind of tree ailment.  

But we are talking about the 1950’s, a time that often made friendships difficult and neighbors 
mistrustful.  The Cold War was at its height, and Senator Joseph McCarthy had determined to root out 
and destroy the lives of Communists and “fellow travelers” in America.  Fear-mongering was rampant 
and people, frightened about the consequences of having Communists in their midst, worried about who 
their neighbors were.  In Sunnyside, the FBI circulated on our streets, parked in front of houses, and 
accosted our parents.  Progressive people lived in fear of losing their jobs and some at moments, their 
actual freedom.  Children of Communists absorbed all the terror and distress of their parents. 

When the New York City Board of Education began calling people in for questioning, Sunnyside 
Gardens, largely populated by schoolteachers, became a veritable battleground, with lines drawn 
politically.  There were the Legionnaires who were very anti-Communist, the Social Democrats 
(Socialists), the Communists, and no doubt, many Democrats, Republicans and ordinary undeclared 
people too.  But if you were the child of Communists, you definitely had to know who the “enemy” was, 
lest you ever let your guard down and inadvertently disclose something that would jeopardize your 
parents’ lives.  I never knew what I could say or to whom I could say it.    

The most notable schism existed between Socialists and Communists.   Allies perhaps under other 
circumstances, these two groups became bitterly hostile to one another.  I think the rift was so deep 
because many Communist schoolteachers were being fired, (around 345 in New York City by the end of 
the purge), while many Social Democrats were not.  Scared by the threat this period of repression 
fostered, people formerly engaged with one another felt the need to distance themselves, even from 
friends.  Some people informed for the authorities.  For Communists, the sense of betrayal was huge. The 
closest I can hope to understand this inimical situation has come from my experience during a strike 
situation in which people crossed the picket line.  

The saddest fallout perhaps from this era was that the children of each group were cautioned in some way 
not to play with the children of the other group.  To my parents’ credit, they allowed us to play with 
everyone in the neighborhood.  Nonetheless, by my parents’ expressed attitudes towards certain adults, I 
knew I’d be disloyal to them were I to play with the kids of those adults.  And so I didn’t.  

While some rancor never subsided and some relationships never healed, many neighbors remained 
neighborly on 44th Street, a testament to the strength of bonds created over backyard hedges.   

Ruth Horowitz has been homesteading with her husband in the backwoods of Nova Scotia since 1974. 

 

 


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