Past a McDonalds, a cluster of row homes and several auto-body shops on Clarendon Road, the gate to a lush green 1.5-acre park with a brown, white-shuttered Dutch colonial home is ajar. A dark, longhaired young man in jean cutoffs and a plaid shirt squats before a raised wooden garden bed and inspects the plants that reside inside.
He is Jason Gaspar, the 33-year-old gardener and caretaker at East Flatbush’s Wyckoff Farmhouse, which was built beginning in the 17th century. “My neighborhood is unique: a suburban, urban and rural collision,” said Gaspar.
And so is his position. In the midst of the metropolis, Gaspar is one of 21 live-in caretakers tasked with protecting New York City’s 23 historic homes from disrepair, theft and vandalism.
Gaspar begins his day with a cup of coffee and a survey of his crops, like any rural farmer. Urban elements like noise, dirty air, foot traffic, automobiles and street heat make his job different. As he rises from in front of the garden bed, the high-pitched whirring of electric lug nut wrenches from M&J’s Tire Shop next door shatter any kind of serenity.
A native of Brownsville, Texas, whose grandparents were born in Mexico, Gaspar came to this intersection of rural and urban life in East Flatbush about 18 months ago because he wanted to garden and needed to make money.
Owned by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum is a member of the Historic House Trust. As Wyckoff’s gardener, Gaspar focuses on nurturing his plants and educating his neighbors about colonial farming practices. The most dangerous element in his environment is the treacherous criss-cross of Ralph and Ditmas avenues, Clarendon Road and East 83rd Street, the site of many car accidents.
Unlike some other historic home caretakers, such as Roy Fox who occupies the 29-room King Manor Museum mansion in Jamaica, Queens, Gaspar lives rent-free and receives a salary. Gaspar’s stipend is provided by the Wyckoff House & Association, which operates the Wyckoff Farmhouse and whose board members include descendants of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff.
Gaspar earned his undergraduate degree in art from the University of North Texas in 2005 and had worked as a landscape artist to pay for his studies. He subsequently worked on farms in New Hampshire and Texas. From there, he went to graduate school in Minnesota and studied visual art.
After getting his master’s degree, Gaspar moved to Mexico to work with an artist and then in 2010, he accepted an internship with New York City’s Exit Art, a non-profit group devoted to alternative art. He found an advertisement for the gardener-caretaker’s position online the following year.
“My living situation is unique. I live in the oldest home in New York City,” said Gaspar, who resides in an art studio-cum-office and apartment housed within a former wagon shed on the property.
Gaspar owes the job not only to his farming experiences but his aplomb with at least one animal. During his job interview with Diane De Fazio, Wyckoff’s former education coordinator, Gaspar was introduced to Sylvia, Wyckoff Farmhouse’s tuxedo housecat.
Sylvia burrowed herself into Gaspar’s lap. When he went to pet her, she dug her claws into him. But, he didn’t react.
“The cat delivered a blow, yet I stayed calm and kept on petting,” he recalled. “Maybe this said something about my character.”
The current director of education, Melissa Branfman, along with docent Lucie Chin and executive director, Joshua Van Kirk, do not live on the property, but work out of a trailer, which has sat perpendicular to the Farmhouse Museum for the past six years. According to the firm nARCHITECTS’ website, ground will be broken in 2013 on a new visitors’ center, which will give a permanent home to the Farmhouse Museum’s administrators and their collection of Dutch Colonial literature.
Although the nARCHITECTS project remains “in design” and there have only been preliminary conversations about a separate landscape plan, according to Van Kirk, Gaspar is preparing for the upcoming changes.
“At this point, that’s why I did this,” he said, indicating 11 lovely raised beds, which grow tomatoes, onions, collards, beets, peas, cilantro, radishes and more. “It was a chance to use this as an empty palette and go all out.”
His work has not gone unnoticed. “He’s growing some nice stuff,” said Terry Tyner, who works for his father at Paul’s Used Furniture and Antiques on East 57th Street and Clarendon Road.
The 38-year-old Tyner passes by the Wyckoff Farmhouse several times a day. He was introduced to Amish watermelon, which has a golden center, thanks to Gaspar. Tyner has since grown accustomed to popping in and requesting that Gaspar set vegetables aside for him. “He knows I like my green tomatoes,” Tyner added.
In addition to giving the garden an aesthetic boost, Gaspar, along with the rest of the Wyckoff staff, tries to lure in residents by handing out flyers in the neighborhood, which advertise upcoming events and programs, including the summer garden program.
Some of the neighborhood’s more eccentric personalities wander into the park without any prompting. Gaspar has given them nicknames. There is “Godot,” a quiet man, described by Gaspar as having a childish look in his eyes and a flair for fashion. “The Minimalist” is a male who collects pieces of found wood, makes them into sculptures and places them throughout the neighborhood. And then there’s the area’s roller-skating songstress.
Damian Torres occasionally visits the garden, but has yet to set foot in the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum. The 25-year-old, who has worked at M&J Tire Shop for seven years, has received deliveries of onions, lettuce and homemade apple juice from Gaspar.
“I met Jason when he came in for hot wings,” recalled John Staudt, an employee at Julie’s Deli & Grocery on East 52nd Street and Clarendon. The 29-year-old, who had ridden past the farmhouse property numerous times in the past, began talking with Gaspar.
During the course of the conversation, Gaspar offered to deliver Staudt fresh lettuce, onions and tomatoes from the farmhouse garden for use in preparing deli sandwiches. When Staudt told this to his boss, a long-time East Flatbush resident, she was surprised. She had no idea there was a garden at Wyckoff Farmhouse.
“It’s great what they do,” added Staudt, “but with three or four people working there, it’s not enough.” Van Kirk mentioned that the organization is looking at ways to expand their capacity, however he is currently unable to discuss any details.
Visitors who pass through the garden gates out of curiosity will be surprised to find a thriving weed patch there. “All plants deserve garden space, both wanted and unwanted,” Gaspar explained. “‘Weeds’ are useful, both in the garden and in the pantry.” Mugwort, which has been used to treat depression, asthma and digestive tract disorders, is one weed that flourishes on the Wyckoff property.
Gaspar also grows exotic plants, like borage, an herb that the Romans used in a confidence-boosting pre-battle beverage.
In his wild rural plot in one of the world’s busiest urban settings, Gaspar says he has “found a place that accepts and challenges me.” “He went on, “A place where when in conversation I feel judged by my character, rather than what I do for a living.”