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Seniors dig in for little patch of paradise

Brentwood Gardens boasts “patio style apartments,” but the patio is a 46-inch wide slab. Many residents have used small areas of land in front of their apartments for their small gardens. (Courtesy of Catherine Gleason)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Emma Rael-Lopez’s irises are in full bloom now, a bright riot of purple and yellow amid the ashen moonscape of gravel and rock spread across the property at the ironically named Brentwood Gardens Apartments.

“I’ve lived here for eight years, and when I first moved in, my neighbor planted those irises for me as a welcoming gift,” she said. “They bloom every year, but my neighbor died.”

Small patches of land in front of apartments at Brentwood Gardens have been turned into pieces of paradise by tenants, but a note from the management says the gardens must go. (Courtesy of Catherine Gleason)

As low-income properties for seniors and people with disabilities go, Brentwood Gardens is one of the nicer ones. But no matter how nice it is, moving here begins with loss – of youth, health, spouse, income, career, home. The irises for Rael-Lopez, like the small gardens many of the residents grow, remind her of younger, sweeter days.

The irises, however, may not be long for the world. Monarch Properties, which manages the Northeast Heights apartments, notified tenants April 23 that they have a month to do away with plants, fences, furniture and other items beyond their patios. Deadline for removal is May 23.

“I told Monarch about how much those irises mean to me,” she said. “They don’t care.”

(“Patio,” it should be noted, is a generous term for the 46-inch wide concrete slab outside each apartment door.)

“There is much sadness and anxiety in this community caused by Monarch management because they have recently dictated that we need to uproot the flowers, rosebushes and other beautiful plants that residents have purchased and planted in front of their units, which would leave only dirt, ugly holes and rocks in that area,” said Catherine Gleason, who has lived in Brentwood Gardens for 11 years. “The flowering trees in this area are also being chain-sawed down.”

Monarch officials say they are only enforcing rules tenants agreed to when they signed their leases to maintain the cohesiveness of the property’s “modern landscaping.” Which is to say, the rocks and gravel.

“We’re just trying to get things back under control,” Monarch Vice President Jack MacGillivray said. “Some of the residents have gone way over the bounds into the common areas, and they may think it’s beautiful. I may think it’s beautiful, but maybe a neighbor thinks all the trinkets and wind chimes and Christmas decorations aren’t beautiful.”

Take a stroll around the 122 units of Brentwood Gardens, on Harper Place NE, and it’s hard to see anything that isn’t beautiful, at least in terms of gardening.

In small patches of land between the patio slabs and the walkways – which MacGillivray refers to as common area – residents have created their own little pieces of paradise. Roses, geraniums, Russian sage, petunias, irises and lavender are in bloom now, some rooted in the earth and neatly ringed with stones or springing forth from large pots.

Some say the plant purging has already begun.

“While one resident was out, they secretly chain-sawed down her tree that was healthy, beautiful and small and a sanctuary for nuthatches, which she fed,” Gleason said. “She wept when she got home and saw the ugly stumps of her small tree.”

MacGillivray and regional property supervisor Vanessa Pino say they are not aware of any such destruction.

Even so, neighbors say the order is already taking its toll.

“Our small but meaningful area brings so much to our lives by getting outdoors in the fresh air to taking care of our flowers, vegetables etc.,” Sharon Grose said. “We get exercise and the pride of having and maintaining that small but significant area. Blood pressures are lowered, sugar levels are maintained. So many health issues are effected, not to mention mental health. To take away our gardens would have devastating effects on our community.”

Grose said she especially worries about a neighbor who planted a peach pit in front of her apartment 15 years ago and has watched it grow, year by year, into a small, stately tree.

“Her garden is her life,” Grose said.

On Friday, Monarch officials held a meeting with residents to address their concerns and to seek a compromise.

“We’re not unreasonable,” MacGillivray said. “We want our residents to be happy. But we need to maintain the uniformity and the safety of the property. It’s possible that we might want to give a small patch of land as long as it’s managed well and not obtrusive.”

The meeting, some residents say, was heated.

“The compromise is that they will cut the roses to 3 feet and consider giving us a little extra room, but it still sounds like they’re going to slaughter our beautiful gardens,” Gleason said. “Nobody’s satisfied.”

Timing of the mandate is especially stinging, coming after a grueling year of the COVID-19 lockdown when seniors and those with compromised health were homebound and isolated, unable to have visitors or go places. Their little pieces of paradise are their escape and their oasis.

“I am not overstating the effect it is having on us,” Gleason said. “Many are lonely and depressed here and their gardens give them comfort and an opportunity for a hobby, fresh air and exercise. Just viewing them as I stroll around the property lifts my spirits.”

And so the seniors of Brentwood Gardens are digging in, still hopeful they can save paradise. So far, 51 residents have signed a petition against the purge.

“Some will live their last days here,” Grose said. “Let it be with dignity.”

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.


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