City slickers build a backyard from scratch
By N. Clark Judd
The Padernachts have watched a garden grow in Van Cortlandt Village for three generations.
For most of the more-than-80-year history, the family has tended the 15-building complex and its courtyard entrance on Giles Place.
First, Steven Padernacht’s grandfather, Sydney Padernacht, served as the building’s superintendent from 1949 until 1976.
Then, his recently deceased father, Howard Padernacht, worked as the complex’s manager. He had lived in the complex since he was 1.
Now Steven and his brother, Daniel, manage the 236 apartments at Scholem Aleichem.
Steven Padernacht, who is 27, remembers his father spending hours sweeping in front of the complex’s Giles Place entrance.
“We all grew up watching him,” he said.
His father entrusted the job of transforming the complex’s courtyard into a verdant garden to two long-time tenants, Elizabeth Quaranta and Irma Fontanez.
Over time, what began as “just dirt,” said Steven, bloomed into a garden.
Ms. Fontanez did her best to tend one corner of the courtyard. Then, when she moved to an apartment with a view of an inoperable but decorative fountain, she filled it with dirt, laying the groundwork for the plants that grow there now.
When Ms. Quaranta moved there from Manhattan 20 years ago, she was in her early twenties and had no background in gardening. But she started to plant and flowers bloomed.
Tenants gave money and the owners of the building, which went from co-op to rent-controlled after the Great Depression, allowed Ms. Quaranta to design the garden. Trees — dogwood, cherry blossom, crab apple, Japanese maple — grew up and out.
Ms. Fontanez planted irises and rhododendrons in the old fountain now nicknamed “the cake,” with colorful tiers of flowers adorning it.
She frequently admires her handiwork from her second-floor window, she says.
The iron gates at the entrance to the courtyard hang open for visitors to stroll through, and the improvement is not lost on the tenants.
“It was more dirt than grass and greens,” said Luis Osorio, a 15-year resident, with his son, 1-yearold Luis Jr.
Now, he said, “It’s looking more like a castle than buildings.”
The brothers are doing what they can to preserve the garden, and to uphold their father’s memory.
Though the ownership transferred to a new group of investors behind a limited- liability corporation, Van Cortlandt Village LLC, in 2007, the Padernacht brothers still oversee the complex. As a tribute, they have compiled signatures on a petition to the City Council to rename the stretch of Giles Place their father always swept in honor of the longtime manager at Scholem Aleichem.
The garden that tenants have nurtured is starting to blossom, and if the brothers — and Ms. Quaranta — have anything to do with it, it will blossom next year, too. And the year after that, and the year after that.