HELL'S KITCHEN — Six years ago, David Scalza watched as workers tore down the sculpture garden he put together by hand behind his Hell’s Kitchen apartment after the city declared it a fire hazard.
But as workers removed the found-object sculptures, paintings and other works of art Scalza either created or collected and arranged in the courtyard behind his home at 424 W. 56th St., the artist was already planning its revival.
“From the day they were throwing stuff out into the dumpster, I was putting stuff back,” said Scalza, 54, who has since restored much of the original artwork — and added new creations — to the courtyard, taking care to avoid blocking the fire escapes.
In 2009, the Department of Buildings warned that Scalza’s landlord could face $18,000 in fines, saying the “debris and trash” in his garden, called “Another Man’s Treasure," behind the building and the three adjoining buildings was impeding two fire escapes.
Scalza’s landlord had the installations removed, despite neighbors and others rallying around the garden. But he said the landlord has since allowed him to fill the courtyard with artwork again.
The garden — now known as the “Courtyard Garden D’Arte — currently houses a hodgepodge of items, ranging from sculptures and paintings created by Scalza and other artists to unwanted plants from the Chelsea Garden Center and various pieces of discarded furniture.
He sees the collection as a way of dealing with struggles he has faced throughout his life, from a childhood fraught with domestic violence to a battle with bladder cancer he believes stemmed in part from his time as a volunteer with the Red Cross after 9/11. In the aftermath of the attacks, he said he loaded trucks, provided moral support to victims' families at a "comfort center" and handing out food to workers at the site.
“People are throwing out art all the time — you walk by and all of a sudden, there’s a treasure,” he said. “Art became an outlet for me to heal.”
One sculpture, which he calls “Hermaphrodite,” is a “both male and female” figure fashioned from found objects including metal pieces and a cake tin. He calls another interactive sculpture crafted with old drums and cymbals a “sound machine.”
Scalza, who taught Spanish in high school and middle school for years before he got sick and started working on the garden, said the courtyard was in shambles before he filled it with art.
“I don’t feel myself to be a great artist, but I had something to express, and this place was a mess, so I decided to clean it up,” said Scalza, who is also currently in the process of painting the back of the building.
Although he never obtained written permission to reconstruct the sculpture garden after the 2009 dismantling, he said he isn’t concerned it will come under fire again.
A spokesman for the DOB said there have been no complaints filed on the property since 2009. The building's landlord could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
With the courtyard at maximum capacity now — his installations, plants and other pieces take up virtually every corner — Scalza said one of his goals is to help create another sculpture garden in a neighborhood less affluent than Hell's Kitchen.
“We’ll get some volunteers and say, ‘Bring us your trash,’” he said.
Scalza has also turned the halls of the apartment building into a gallery of sorts, lining the walls of every floor with works he has created, received from other building residents or found on the streets.
He even has a “Hollywood section” that includes prints, photos and collages featuring stars like John Lennon, Pete Seeger, The Rat Pack, Jimi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe.
“Once people catch on that you’re doing something, all of a sudden everyone knows, and you find pictures in the vestibule,” Scalza said.
Neighbors like Julia Gordin, 22, who lives in the building next door to Scalza and has access to the courtyard, said the sculpture garden was part of what drew her to her apartment in the first place when she moved in in October.
"Honestly, it was like the coolest courtyard I've ever been in — it looks like Wonderland or something," she said. "It's almost like being at a giant garage sale, but everything's cool and nothing's for sale."
Shannon Baker, 78, who has lived in the building since 1973, called the garden "spectacular."
"It's a big plus, certaintly for this neighborhood, and it's been very helpful for all our neighbors in these buildings — especially during the summer, people were out there enjoying it," he said.
Scalza, meanwhile, said his artistic endeavors have given him a way “to feel good about [himself]."
“I felt like junk, and now I go out and rescue junk…. I paint it, I fix it and I try to make it beautiful,” Scalza said. “Is that a metaphor? I don’t know.”