GOWANUS — Three New York legends converged Wednesday when Bette Midler helped open a newly renovated garden named for Brooklyn Dodgers great Gil Hodges, just blocks from the infamous Gowanus Canal.
The singer and actress is the founder of New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit that transformed the once lackluster lot on Carroll Street and Denton Place into a state-of-the-art urban oasis stocked with chard and fragrant rosemary.
"Here we are, so close to the notorious stinking Gowanus Canal, showing the world what can happen when like-minded people work together," a beaming Midler said at Wednesday's ribbon-cutting. "This garden is an old-fashioned place to rest, to daydream, to commune with each other."
Midler said she hoped locals would use the garden for "happy occasions" like weddings and barbecues.
While the new version of the garden is pretty, it's also functional. The garden was specially designed to absorb up to 150,000 gallons of stormwater annually, said Margot Walker of the Department of Environmental Protection, which helped fund the renovation. That will help keep stormwater tainted with industrial pollutants out of the nearby Gowanus Canal, which glowed jade green on Wednesday.
DEP also built a "bioswale" — a planted area that collects rainwater — on the sidewalk next to the garden. The bioswale and garden are part of a series of "green infrastructure" projects by DEP that will one day help make the Gowanus Canal safe enough for recreational boating, Walker said.
The Gil Hodges community garden was founded by locals in 1982. NYRP bought the space in 1999, and slowly began improving the green spot, where residents and workers from local businesses would sit and eat lunch.
In 2012, work started on the $245,000 renovation, which was sponsored in part by Jo Malone, a London perfume company. The new garden includes a nod to the company — a "fragrance walk" lined with aromatic plants such as sweetbay magnolia, ruby spice summersweet and mountainmint.
At Wednesday's ribbon-cutting, where uniformed waiters passed trays of mini granola bars, the crowd included a few longtime residents of the block. They reminisced about how the garden site once held a three-story building, where a shopkeeper who still lives in the neighborhood grew up.
There was also once a butcher shop where the garden is now, and 82-year resident Neal Troiano said he remembered lining up with ration books to get meat there during World War II. Back then neighborhood kids' primary entertainment was stickball and opening fire hydrants, Troiano said.
Now kids from P.S. 372, the school across the street from the garden, will learn about composting and growing arugula at the new garden, which has an outdoor classroom area with a blackboard.
Longtime resident Nettie Amato declared the garden "gorgeous."
Will it improve the neighborhood?
"It's improved already," Amato said. "At one time...everyone moved away, now they wish they hadn't."