EVERYONE bemoans the loss of community in our lives, but a powerful tool for rebuilding it has been overlooked: the creation of private gardens that unify the interiors of city blocks. These are hidden places, but they are also communal -- secret squares of green and light and flowers tucked into the hearts of city blocks, invisible to all but those whose back doors open onto the glory of a one-block commons.
One of the earliest and most famous of these secret gardens is the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District, in New York City's Greenwich Village. This gorgeous park, hidden from passersby, has for seven decades molded a community spirit in its neighborhood that, if it were duplicated around the country, would make city living far more attractive and also safer. Delicious as it is, however, the garden has had only a few imitators in Manhattan -- chiefly the much smaller Bleecker Street Gardens, at Eleventh Street, and the famed Turtle Bay Gardens. For children the Macdougal-Sullivan garden -- which measures about forty by 200 feet and occupies the full interior of a city block -- is a private playground; for parents it is a godsend; for busy professionals it is a civilized bit of Europe in the concrete jungle. Owners of the twenty-one townhouses surrounding the garden retain small private areas that they can plant as they choose, but fences higher than four and a half feet are prohibited. The private greens merge visually with the common green, a rectangle of grass shaded by tall trees. At one end is a children's play area and a basketball court, at the other end a garden planted with flowers. Here the residents have children's birthday parties, charity cocktail parties, egg hunts, trick-or-treating, visits from Santa (who travels over the garden in a sleigh drawn along a wire, showering candy onto squealing children below), caroling, and ice skating when they decide to flood the green.
Given the obvious attractiveness of these secret gardens, why aren't cities across America filled with blocks of row houses built around a verdant heart? The explanation lies in a quirk of the English property laws that the early Colonists brought with them. These laws were the result of a long struggle by the English to free the country of the tangle of overlapping claims that made it impossible for most property to change hands in the medieval period. American property laws were from the start stacked firmly against multiple claims that might inhibit any property's sale or development.