By Catherine Morrison
David Goldstick is a familiar figure in Riverside Park. You can find him every morning between 9 and 11, working in the area around the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial at 83rd Street, and again in the afternoon from 2 to 4, now that the season is underway. This has been his territory since 1991, when Stanley Zabar recruited him for the Park.
Goldstick’s 90th birthday is approaching. Asked if his plans have changed in the face of this significant milestone: “Not at all,” he replied. “I have a 10-year outlook. That’s why I start with small plants. It takes them 10 years to mature. My physical abilities are reduced, so my work habits have changed. I have help from a crew from the Goddard Riverside Community Center, and neighborhood volunteers between 50 and 80 years old work alongside me.”
In 2012-2013, when the wall west of the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial collapsed due to water damage, restoring the first 100 yards of it between 84th and 86th became Goldstick’s priority. His nursery beds are below the parapet of the reconstructed wall, and each year he places extensive orders of “starts” — tiny plants in flats of 100. He covers the cost, then grows the tiny plants along for a few years until they are ready to be set out in the almost four acres under his watch.
Recently his work has expanded enormously. Along the walkway into the Park from 83rd Street there is a difficult footpath about 15 feet downhill, leading off to the right to the top of Mt. Tom. This rocky outcrop of Manhattan schist is rumored to have been named by Edgar Allan Poe after the son of the owner of the farmhouse he rented nearby. The planting will be primarily Viburnum plicatum, “Popcorn,” the showiest variety, started from cuttings in 2016.
This is only Goldstick’s current project; like most gardeners he’s “bred in the bone.” Nine-year-old David started gardening during World War II in East Lansing, Michigan. The State Agricultural College plowed up two acres of empty lots for Victory Gardens and families signed up for quarter-acre plots, 100’ x 100.’ Children used hoes to break up the soil and planted potatoes, corn and broccoli for the home kitchen. A large portion of commercially grown food in those years went to the military.
The Goldsticks moved to Great Neck, NY, in 1945 when David was 12. Of course there was room for another vegetable garden. College and law school followed. A practicing lawyer by 1962, he moved to the Upper West Side. A few years later he bought a second home in Westport, CT, plowing up the lawn for vegetables. The conversion to flowers and shrubs did not come until a trip to London in 1978, setting him on the path to Riverside Park.
Permanently settled on the Upper West Side, he became a legendary lawyer in the world of co-op and condominium conversions. He retired from the practice of law in 1989 and by 1991 Stanley Zabar, a client of the firm, recruited him for Riverside Park. The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial needed funding and Goldstick agreed to support it, but only if he could do the work as well. Over the year his responsibility grew to the present almost-four acres.
The plantings are extraordinary. Two hundred varieties, 34 different hydrangeas alone, faced down with hellebores and ferns. Hydrangeas have a reputation for being notoriously finicky, but are not indulged here. They are planted under black locusts and among rock outcrops, starting out as small plants, tucked in among roots and into crevices, then covered with wood chips. There is an excellent watering system that compensates for the lack of pampering. The pruning of hydrangeas is tricky, the subject of book chapters and periodic technical articles. That is not the practice here. The hydrangeas are never pruned unless a volunteer is unable to resist.
Goldstick is the only person on his worksite who decides what to plant. There is no interference, only benign oversight. He is not a fan of abject allegiance to native plants, believing that when a site is disturbed and man-made elements are introduced, the natural ecosystem is irretrievably altered. Then all bets are off.
In 1994, David Goldstick joined the board of the Riverside Park Fund, now the Riverside Park Conservancy, where he is consistently outspoken, opinionated and deeply committed. You can find him any day in his part of the park. Visitors are always welcome. Stop by and say hello. He would love to see you.