OUTER BOROUGHS, NEW YORK CITY — When we asked Helena De Paola, the owner of Indoor Outdoor Gardener in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, why she thought people like to own house plants, she told us: “Plants give us life; give a room life. But, more importantly, they give us something to love, something to care about. And everybody loves to take care of something, and nurture it, and watch it grow.”
In New York City apartments, where pets are not always welcome, flowers and indoor plants can prompt joyful, emotional connections. Plants purify the air, encourage productivity, and naturally reduce stress. They are also a way for individuals to build intimate ecologies in the private space of the home. With some care and attention, these miniature bionomic zones have a potentially indefinite life span — some of De Paola’s plants, which were passed down to her from her mother, are now over 40 years old.
In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which is split mostly between Hispanic and Chinese immigrant communities, florists, plant stores, and occasional sidewalk sellers enliven the storefronts and streets. These plant shops, and the others we visited across New York City, reflect their local demographic landscapes by honoring the ecological customs and traditions of their resident ethnic communities, while also working hard to remain accessible to anyone that may pass through the store.
All of the business owners we spoke to have been selling flowers or plants, in some way, for years, and all of them have grown established and sustainable businesses. Plants have provided longevity to their work lives, and it is business owners like these that allow for, and encourage us to, cultivate these warm, green spaces as a part of our lives indoors.
Flores El Jarocho
4419 5th Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NY 11220
When Andrés Hipolito Morales arrived in New York City from Veracruz, Mexico, he made a living selling flowers out of a vendor cart in Sunset Park. However, Morales says he was often harassed by police, reported by members of the community, and arrested multiple times after he was unable to provide identification to the NYPD. Morales returned to Mexico, but eventually moved back to New York City. About six years ago, he opened Flores El Jarocho with Mercedes Guerrero, another street flower vendor, originally from Oaxaca.
Flores El Jarocho shares a storefront with Zapateria Jalisco, a shoe store specializing in handmade leather goods. With the development of Industry City, gentrification, rent increases, and skyrocketing property values in Sunset Park, Morales and Guerrero say business has gone down a little. However, many of their customers remain loyal, and keep coming back to buy flowers and bouquets for holidays, graduations, and quinceañeras.
They’re aware that the neighborhood is changing, including their clientele. In recent years, they’ve gone from carrying only flowers to also selling a range of succulents and other houseplants, because, as they say, “Las puertas estan abiertas para todo el mundo.”
Below is a translation of part of our conversation:
When you’re undocumented, there are a lot of barriers you have to overcome. You have a lot of conflicts with police officers. When they stop us in the street, since we don’t have a license, they take away our flowers; they arrest us. We have to spend 24 hours in jail. From there, you have to pay a fine. It’s hard since they don’t give us vendor permits to sell in public. Just because you’re selling in the street with a cart doesn’t mean that you’re a delinquent, or that we’re ‘lesser than.’ We all come to this country with a purpose: to work and have something to live off of [...] Even if we’re undocumented, we still pay taxes.
I think, “If we’re good, if we do things right, things will go okay.” We follow the laws here to avoid any problems. If I don’t pay taxes here, then they’ll close down the store [...] What happens to that money? The government keeps it. We also don’t have a right to claim our tax return.
It’s worse with this president who is attacking us a lot. I don’t understand why; we’re the economy here. If you walk from here until 60th Street, how many of those are Mexican businesses? A lot. We always give back something. I don’t understand why they don’t want us. It doesn’t matter, we’re going to stay in the struggle, even if they don’t want us here.
It’s good because we live in a zone with many Hispanics. [...] Ever since I came to this country, I’ve lived in Sunset Park. I didn’t go anywhere else; I came here. So, I feel good here because I know the area, and there are a lot of Hispanics. [...] Yeah, business has gone down. Rent is going up. You’re more tight in that way. But we’re okay here.
Flushing Flowers and Gifts
Flushing-Main Street 7 Train Subway Station, Queens, NY 11354
After living in New York for almost six years, I visited Flushing, Queens for the first time in February 2017. As I walked through the Flushing-Main St. subway stop, I noticed a tiny plant shop in one corner of the station. I was strangely enchanted by it — the unexpected blur of green. Its mystery only intensified after searching several variations of “Flushing Subway Plant Store” online yielded no results. The thought of going back to this store was a big motivation for this project.
One evening after work, Catherine and I went back to Flushing to see if this plant store actually did exist, and to see if the owner would like to be interviewed. When we arrived at around 7:30 pm, a group of customers were hovering around the store’s small entrance. On our subsequent trips to Flushing Flowers and Gifts, we’ve noticed this is how business usually runs there: Swells of customers crowd the store as trains arrive at the end of the 7 line, or peek in shortly before scheduled trains depart back to Manhattan.
Once the customers cleared, we approached the owner, Julie, to ask about an interview. Initially, she shook her head no. It was only after speaking with her a bit more that she became open to the idea.
About a week later, we visited Julie in person again to confirm a time and date for the interview. Again, she seemed hesitant. She didn’t want the interview to interfere with helping her customers — a common concern among many of the plant store owners we approached. Julie asked if we could come after Mother’s Day. Eventually, we settled on Sunday, April 30, at 4:00 in the afternoon.
Like Andrés and Mercedes, Julie and Peter’s entryway into plant selling was through flowers. She told us that bouquets and flowering plants are some of her most popular products. The station’s foot traffic seems to include many people who need to pick up last minute gifts. She pointed out varieties of orchids as some of her best sellers, as well as her red peace lilies.
We returned to Flushing on the afternoon of May 6 to record some more sounds of the station, which are distinct to ambience of the store. On this trip, we discovered four other plant stores within a few blocks of the subway. Two of them were split storefronts like Flores el Jarocho. One shop, Lucky Money Tree Property Inc. shares a space with Xinhua Bookstore. Another, Soy Bean Chan Flower Shop, also sells soy bean curd from a small stand in the front window of the store.
Eng’s Florist Inc
4722 8th Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NY 11220
Annie and Tony Chan emigrated to the US from China’s Guangdong Province more than 20 years ago, and opened up their first store, Eng’s Florist Inc., at 244 Grand Street in the Lower East side of Manhattan. As Annie alludes to in our conversation, 8th Avenue between 42nd and 68th Streets was not yet known as Brooklyn’s Chinatown when she and Tony moved Eng’s to Sunset Park.
In the early- to mid-1900s, Sunset Park was predominantly home to Scandinavian dock workers employed at the Brooklyn Waterfront. After the waterfront closed and these workers moved elsewhere, Sunset Park, especially East of Sixth Avenue, was mostly abandoned until the 1980s, when Chinese families and businesses began to move into the neighborhood.¹ Now, this 25 block stretch of 8th Avenue is dense with food markets, dollar stores, medicinal shops, and restaurants. Eng’s, however is the stalwart plant store on the street.
Eng’s is a split retail space with a jewelry store, Good Luck Jade and Crystal Craft, and occupies just one of the back walls in the store. Annie also owns Good Luck, but says most of their business comes from custom flower arrangements and selling traditional Chinese house plants such as bamboo and bonsai.
Indoor Outdoor Gardener
8223 5th Avenue, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NY 11209
In the early 1970s, New York City natives Helena and Peter De Paola met while working towards their PhDs in Linguistics. After they became a couple, gardening and horticulture emerged as a small but ever-growing hobby for the two of them. By 1974, they had nearly 400 plants growing in the basement of their home in Bay Ridge.
In 1974, Helena and Peter began to sell cuttings of their plants to shops and florists for 25 cents each, and six months later, they opened a small store called “The Indoor Gardener” at 7610 Fifth Avenue. In 1977, they began to carry outdoor plants, and The Indoor Gardener moved to larger space at 7704 Fifth Avenue. Customers that followed them to the new location began to colloquially call the new shop “Indoor Outdoor Gardener.” Eventually. Helena and Peter decided to adopt the name.
In 1985, Helena and Peter decided to close up shop and retire in Italy, but, by 1990, they missed the business so much that they re-opened Indoor Outdoor Gardener, this time at 8223 Fifth Avenue. They continue to carry a variety of indoor and outdoor plants, and are now the first hydroponics store in the tri-state area. Over the years, Indoor Outdoor Gardener has been profiled in the New York Times, the New York Daily News and elsewhere.
Peter passed away in 2006, but Helena continues to run the store with her daughter, Eva, and a small but dedicated family of employees. Unlike the other plant sellers we spoke to (who buy their plants wholesale) Helena sources her plants directly from growers all over the US and Canada, and carries a lot of exotic varieties that can’t be found elsewhere in the New York City.
Photographs courtesy of authors.