The Wall Street Journal
El Catano Community Garden: Where Gamers Come to Play
By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 12, 2016 10:02 p.m. ET
Fame is fleeting. Fortune–and fortunes–come and go. But one thing you can always count on is that socializing with old friends is its own reward.
That seems the guiding ethos at El Catano Community Garden on East 110th Street in East Harlem, where four gentlemen sat around a card table last week under a white canopy and played dominoes.
They included Gilberto Mantilla, who’d moved back to Puerto Rico but was paying his annual visit to the city. “I come every year. Spend some time with my family,” Mr. Mantilla said as he carefully placed a domino on the table.
I’d come to learn the game from experts. Though it quickly became apparent that probably wasn’t going to happen. “You have to have good memory and good math,” neither of which I possess, explained Raul Reyes.
Mr. Reyes was Mr. Mantilla’s partner and sat across the table from him.
But I soon came to appreciate another, and perhaps equally consequential aspect of the game–the ability to conduct a conversation on any subject as you keep track of your opponents’ moves.
The players ranged in age from their mid-60s to late 80s, and seem to have known each other almost as long.
“I came here in 1946,” said Mr. Mantilla who is 80 but seems to be a walking, or rather seated, advertisement for the benefits of dominoes. He doesn’t have any wrinkles and doesn’t look a day over 60. He said he worked for Mr. Sinai Hospital for 30 years.
El Catano Community Garden is maintained by New York Restoration Project, founded by Bette Midler in 1995. The inspiration, at least part of it, behind the nonprofit seems to be the understanding that nature and civilization can coalesce as easily in a space not much larger than a spacious apartment–the garden is 2,523 square feet–as well as it can in any of our more majestic parks.
“Our goal is to build strong communities,” explained Deborah Marton, the group’s executive director. “We facilitate what the community wants to do. They’ll tell us what they want.”
Community gardens are becoming increasingly precious as neighborhoods such as Spanish Harlem feel the pressures of gentrification. In fact, El Catano was one of 52 gardens New York Restoration Project acquired in 1999 when the city planned to auction them for commercial development.
The de facto “mayor” is Jose Reyes, a retired mechanic with the U.S. Postal Service. “I’m here all the time,” he said. “I come here in the morning; sweep the snow in the winter.”
Mr. Reyes was happy with the support New York Restoration Project provides. Though he said a leaf blower would come in handy. If I had any quibbles with the otherwise restful landscape, it was that it lacked a water feature. A burbling fountain in its center would have completed the effect.
“It’s a challenge raising funds,” said Ms. Marton, humoring me only so far. “We have 10 gardens that are completely unrenovated.”
Back at the dominoes table Raul Reyes, Jose’s brother and a dominoes tournament player and judge, was reminiscing about New York City’s mayors. The garden serves as a gathering place for the National Puerto Rican Day Parade and there’s a wall of photographs of politicians who have dropped by.
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“John Lindsay,” he said, surprising me if only because he reached that far back.
Mr. Mantilla nodded in agreement. “He was a good mayor.”
“During those years there was the race riots,” Mr. Reyes remembered. “He took it upon himself to hit the streets.”
I did my best to learn dominoes, the players showing superior forbearance at my choppy learning curve. It would be foolish of me to attempt to explain the game. I understood the part where you’re supposed to lay down a rectangular tile that has the same number of dots as the person who went before you.
But any strategy beyond that sailed over my head.
I was more comfortable discussing the pleasures of Puerto Rico with Mr. Mantilla. “I can’t take the winter no more,” he said as he touted his native island’s warm turquoise sea. “There is the water.”
How often does he go swimming, I wondered. “Two or three times a month,” he said, confiding that he’s a better dominoes player than swimmer. “I don’t go deep.”