There is a cloudless, blue-sky September morning of ruthless terror and unfathomable bravery from which Bruce Reynolds’ selfless heroism will always be celebrated.
But there is a place, miles to the north of what would become Ground Zero, where his equally lasting legacy will continue to enlighten with endearing, simple beauty and much needed quiet, calm and escape from the surrounding cityscape.
Reynolds, 41, a Knowlton Township volunteer firefighter and a 15-year Port Authority police officer, died Sept. 11, 2001, in the collapse of the World Trade Center after two planes hijacked by terrorists slammed into the defining towers of New York City’s financial world.
The history has been written in news stories over the years of how Reynolds quickly responded from his station near the George Washington Bridge – seeing the second plane hit along the way — and, despite a heart issue that kept him from climbing to the rescue, was last seen caring for a woman who had serious burns from jet fuel. Reynolds’ remains weren’t found for many months.
There are two streets named in his honor, but it is his garden, a half-acre space he created as a child with his social worker parents J.A. and Geri, that still speaks about the onetime urban park ranger in New York City.
The Black family had moved in 1966 from Pittsburgh to the mostly Irish neighborhood off the final northbound Manhattan exit of what becomes the West Side Highway. It’s where J.A. Reynolds did his part to solve a serious problem in his adopted community. He formed the Park Terrace West Gang, which brought Irish gang members, who had been destroying the fledgling garden at night, together to restore the space and the surrounding 20-acre Isham Park.
On a lovely mid-August Sunday afternoon in 2021 — during an impromptu guided tour of Bruce’s Garden along Bruce Reynolds Way, where a kid who longed to be a cop learned about the many challenges and rewards of horticulture — the gentle and subtle spirit of the place separates it from the crowded, bustling streets just blocks below the solitude.
It is a garden very much in the present, not ostentatious in its impression, but thought out and embracing. It’s far from perfect and has no pretense to be. The taller plantings, we’re told, were done by Bruce. There is a bench and a rock that honor his mother, who died in 2008. A onetime wishing well hasn’t aged well, but has earned its time-honored place in the original circle where the garden began. Beehives are a newer addition along the fenced in back edge, not far from the dark red gazebo, the fine condition of which does not bely its actual tenure.
Some of the pruning is precise, and metal sculptures along the narrow walkways are often whimsical. It is not a showy flower garden, but rather one dominated by shade plants such as ivy – which Bruce watered each day until it finally took root, his father told the New York Times years back – hostas, ferns, grasses and shrubbery. Perennials such as roses, black-eyed susans and butterfly bushes offer colorful contrast, but the space doesn’t rely on being in bloom. Much of the garden retains its green, bringing hope to bleak winter days in the city.
The onetime dumping ground is now a vital reminder of renewal that can bring joy with a simple look from a window in the surrounding tall, brownish brick apartment buildings.
The city’s parks department provides compost and assistance with major efforts, such as if a large tree falls in the shady space. But it’s mostly volunteers who keep the place going now that its final surviving founder has died in his late 90s.
J.A. Reynolds “never accepted what happened to Bruce”, he told the Times in 2011.
“I did a lot of crazy things searching for Bruce. I would look at homeless people on the street and look at them very closely when I was walking along. I went for counseling for maybe a year and I felt that wasn’t really helping me.
“I had decided to never come back here again, but I did come back. And that helped a lot, because I look around, especially when spring comes, and I see Bruce. Much of the garden here, he’s the reason that it’s here because he came here every day during the summer and he did a lot of the preservation work.
“… With Bruce, it’s amazing he was a police officer, but yet he lived this life with a great love for nature and for things that were wild. A really great life.”
The neighborhood would lose nearly 30 of its own on 9/11 or in its aftermath — cops, firefighters, stock traders – and they are honored outside the nearby Good Shepherd Church.
But Bruce’s Garden explains the soul of just one of them, from a boy until now, 20 years after his death. The plaque there says:
“As a child he was largely responsible for the creation, development and maintenance of this beautiful garden, his legacy in Isham Park, Inwood and Washington Heights, NYC.”
He was survived by his wife Marian and children Brianna and Michael.
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Tony Rhodin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.