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Cindy Marten, the principal of Central Elementary in City Heights, calls the little blue cottage a few steps from her school the “miracle on 41st Street.”
Six months ago, there were holes through its walls and dried urine caked on the furnace. The yard, where drug dealers transacted, was strewn with refuse. “This house was ready to be condemned,” Marten said. It fit in on 41st, a poor, barren street with crumbling sidewalks and worn abodes.
In May, Luigi Cannoni moved in. Today passersby don’t always pass. They pause. They crane their necks, or if they’re bold enough, they wander into Luigi’s garden and take stock of the exoticism that has sprung there.
Topiaries, a bonsai tree, and hundreds of plants are arranged with a careful eye for flow. They have names like Cunningham King Palm, Pansy Inspire, After Dark, and Aeonium Zwartkop, which resembles a sea anemone and looks like it belongs in a science fiction movie.
In the courtyard he shares with the two other cottages on the parcel, he’s grown a seasonal produce garden: artichokes, cabbage, kale, garlic, lemons, grapes, blueberries, watermelons and nectarines.
Marten had told me Luigi was bipolar and might be reluctant to let me into his home. But she said I had to pay him a visit. “He kind of flies off,” she said. “But there’s absolutely no denying that what he’s created there is magnificent.”
His home is tucked away on a three-house parcel, and it is one of the most impressive sights I have come across in a while.
There is nothing like this in City Heights.
Walking up to his porch, I brushed away the purple foxtail-like flowers of the Fountain Grass plant that swayed over the walkway.
“Cindy Marten said I should pay you a visit,” I said when he finally heard my knocks over Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, blaring from the kitchen.
“Oh, Cindy!” he laughed. “That woman saved me. Here, I’ll show you around.” My curiosity piqued.
He stepped off of the porch and knelt down. He grabbed a handful of soil. “Have you ever seen soil this dark? Look at this!” He let it run through his fingers. “The ground is just so fertile it’s unbelievable. It was just sitting here, waiting for someone to take care of it!” Suddenly there was pain in his voice. His eyes were imploring and they filled with tears. His instant change in emotion took me off guard.
Luigi is a gardener. But he is a trained floral designer. His garden would be impressive in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. In City Heights, one of its poorest, it’s also a stark respite. Standing in the middle of it, the world seems to disappear.
He has waved at helicopter pilots who have circled around overhead for another look.
When Luigi speaks, his words are soaked in urgency or excitement or anger. Over the course of a conversation, his emotions swing from ecstatic highs when he talks about gardening to despairing lows when he thinks of his neighbors’ children, living in poverty. He’s “just an old queen,” he says, and everything about him is extreme: his facial expressions, his laughs and his gestures.
As he showed me around, school children from Central Elementary took a double take as they passed. “They don’t even know what a garden is!” he said with devastation in his voice.
He visibly agonizes over the poverty in the neighborhood, over the 15 children who live in the apartment complex next door “and only have concrete to play on.” Over the children who, on his third day in the neighborhood, walked up to him when he was barbecuing and asked for something to eat. He ran inside and sobbed.
He moved into the neighborhood in early May, and the small two-bedroom house was a wreck.
A single mother with eight children had lived there. The children went to Marten’s school. She visited the house often, and knew it well. It was falling apart.
Why would anyone move into a house that could have been condemned?
Early this year, Luigi split with his partner of 18 years. They lived in a spacious three-bedroom house in University Heights. He showed me pictures of his partner, Mike, and his garden there. His eyes filled with tears. Not because of the breakup, but because of the garden, which has suffered.
But at the time, the break-up incapacitated him. He stopped taking his medications for bipolar disorder. “There was no reason left to live,” he said.
He had to move out, but to where?
He invited a property agent to his home and showed her his gardens. “This is how I live,” he told her. “I want to create this somewhere else.” He told her to take him to the worst place she had, and when he saw the little cottage on 41st Street, he had found it.
“Yes, this will do,” he said.
He signed a one year lease, with a June 1 move-in date. On May 4, three weeks early, he pried open the front windows, tossed in his gardening tools, and moved in. He slept on the floor. He got to work.
“It was filth beyond belief,” he said.
He spent days and nights digging up the yard. He uncovered heroin spoons and children’s toys and tools, artifacts that told the history of his new home. He has incorporated them into visually interesting decorative arrangements in the house.
“The land tells the story,” he said. “It’s an archaeology you dig up. Look,” he said, picking a pawn from a chess set off of a bowl filled with rusted trinkets, “The people who lived here played chess.”
I placed a call to S&D Property Management and asked to speak with Sue Snowbarger, the agent who placed him at the house. She was on vacation. But when I mentioned Luigi to Angela Rivera, a receptionist, her voice perked up.
“Oh, we all buy his produce,” she said. “He has really transformed that property for the neighbors.”
The neighbors were scared at first. Luigi gardened all day and in the middle of the night He chased drug dealers out of the garden with the pitchfork that rests in his living room. He was delirious, at times, and starved himself.
He startled Jane Nguyen, too. She is the secretary at Central Elementary School, and when Luigi walked into the school office soon after he moved in and told her he loved plants and children, and wanted to help garden on the campus, red flags went up.
She passed along the message to Marten, who had heard him from her office, but brushed off his offer. “You have to be careful when a mentally ill man comes into the office and says he loves children,” Marten said. He came back twice. “I didn’t have time to deal with him.”
But his neighbors came around. They saw what was happening in the yard that was previously filled with trash, and they fed him. A Vietnamese neighbor asked him to plant a pepper tree native to Vietnam. He planted it next to the fence, so she could reach her hand through one of its holes and pick them.
When Marten was preparing for her school’s graduation ceremony months later, she needed floral arrangements to decorate the stage. She remembered “that creepy guy who kept stopping by and said he loved plants and lived a couple of houses down.”
She walked down the street to find him. “I remember walking down the path and I was astonished,” she said. He lives here?, she thought. She remembered what it was. Now, “it’s the only green in the entire neighborhood.”
Luigi maintains the school’s planters, and has struck up a deep friendship with Marten. She checked in on him while he was at the height of his delirium and is guiding him as he re-stabilizes.
He gardens everyday, when he isn’t working for clients to try to scrape together the $1,200 monthly rent. Inside, there are still holes in the walls that let light into the kitchen. Holes, not windows. But the house is decorated with curios and layers of manicured plants. It looks like a museum. A framed Mona Lisa peers from her perch on the living room wall.
In the bathroom, there is no shower curtain. A wooden frame draped in plants gives him some privacy. The plants live off of the moisture. There are jars of marbles everywhere —all marbles he dug up while gardening.
“I lost them all,” he said. “But I’m getting them back one by one…But look at what came as a result.”
“I have to finish this place,” he said. “It’s the feeling that I have to leave a place more beautiful than I found it.”
Was he planning on leaving?
He isn’t sure, he said. Earlier this month, he found out the house’s owners had put it up for sale.