City Seedling: An Introduction, and Soft Eyes

Editor’s Note: Today we’re happy to roll out another new blog, City Seedling, about urban gardening in Jersey City. Enjoy!

Hello Jersey Citizens, and welcome to City Seedling. My name is Emily, and I have lived and gardened in Downtown Jersey City since 2006. I used to have a little front yard, and now I have a plot in the Brunswick Community Garden.

Urban gardening has its own unique challenges and advantages, and I plan to use this blog to discuss some of those, as well as more general thoughts on gardening.

When I moved to Jersey City five years ago, I started to feel that something was missing. I had lived in a somewhat rural New Jersey suburb, and went to a college nicknamed “The University in the Forest.” It took a few months, but eventually I realized what I was missing: the color green.

I lived with my then-boyfriend, now husband, in a rowhouse on 7th Street. The house had a little front yard, and I started a container garden. I did it mostly just to make everything look nicer. I did not expect to become a gardener. Before that, I killed every sorry plant I put on my windowsill (I still have terrible luck with houseplants). I thought I had a black thumb. Luckily, the plants in my front yard were forgiving, and the little garden grew and grew. Within days, I was hooked.

My 7th Street garden looking very prim, despite the milk crate and broken slates

It’s easy for city-dwellers to feel disconnected from nature. We are surrounded by cement and bricks. In some neighborhoods, the thing closest resembling a tree is the tall wooden pole holding up the power lines.

When thinking about the intersection of the natural and the urban worlds, I am reminded (fittingly, I think) of an episode of The Wire in which a few characters discuss “soft eyes.” Soft eyes, as opposed to hard eyes, allow you to see the entirety of a situation. (Hard eyes are sort of the same as not seeing the forest for the trees … or the city for the traffic lights.) On the show, it was applied to a crime scene, but it works everywhere.

So instead of focusing on the broken bottle in the gutter, let your gaze expand to include the sycamore shading the street, or that green thing thriving, defiantly, in a crack in the sidewalk. Walk to Van Vorst Park, and let your eyes go soft again, and you will see dozens of fuzzy bees bumbling among the roses. While there, keep an eye out for one of the many mockingbird families.

Some other creatures I have seen in Jersey City: hummingbirds, groundhogs, rabbits, cardinals, monarchs. I’ve heard rumors about a flock of parrots.

Wisteria grows up power lines. Sunflowers flourish in rocky tree pits. Someone is farming corn on 6th Street.

And that’s just on the ground. Who knows what’s living up on the Embankment?

My point is, these things are here. They’ve survived the smog, the cement, and the abundance of Garden State Brick-face. Keep your eyes open and soft, and you will see them.

We are so surrounded by life at all times, that, as George Eliot wrote, if we could hear “the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat … we should die of that roar.”

Yes, even in Jersey City.

Happy growing,

Emily Helck

a lifelong New Jersey resident who moved to Jersey City in 2006. She earned an MA in English and writing from Fordham University. In addition to blogging about gardening in the city, her personal blog RTONJ is about being a young adult with cancer. She lives downtown with a dog, two cats, and her husband.