A dinosaur comes running around the corner of South 2nd Street, followed by Super Mario and a bespectacled aviator. Soon, two dozen trick-or-treaters have gathered in front of the garden gate. A few minutes later, just after 3 p.m., ghoulish music starts to play, the gate is unlocked, and the pack of children rushes through.
Halloween at the Berry Street Garden in Williamsburg is the brainchild of Nancy Ramos. Ramos, a mother of five adult children, has been living in the neighborhood for 52 years and started the yearly Halloween event 13 years ago, on the advice of her psychiatrist. “I suffer from severe depression and PTSD,” she says. “My brain is always working, building and creating things, and she thought an event like this could be a positive outlet for that energy.”
The community garden is only about 50 by 100 feet, not much bigger than a basketball court, but Ramos packed it with spooky scenes to entertain the little vampires, princesses and action heroes running through the trees and bushes covered in spider webs. A family poses with a skeleton clown eating eyeballs out of a popcorn bag. Dressed up as a donkey, 3-year-old Clover is staring at a mechanized baby crouching between giant spiders. The baby is eating a human hand.
Some of the artwork was made by children from the community, and Ramos’s husband, Melvin, took care of the string of lights hanging between the trees and the handful of mechanical pieces, but all the rest – the dozens of bugs, scarecrows and other creeps – are Ramos’s work. She batiked old sheets for décor, created spiders from wire and papier-mâché and hand-painted details on many of the displays. She was working until 9:30 last night to finish setting everything up. “I don’t mind,” she says, “I work better in the dark anyways.”
Ramos arrives at the garden at around 4 – she was working on her makeup and her purple witch costume, including skull-shaped collar buttons, until the very last minute. Together with three volunteers – the Berry Street Garden members – she is handing out candy. Parents ask her to pose with their children, and an elderly couple congratulates her on the creative transformation of the garden into a haunted maze.
It’s hard to read Ramos’s emotions – her hat and plastic nose are covering most of her face – but her eyes and her monotone voice show it’s taking her a lot of effort to share the excitement of the children running around the spooky world she has created. While her Facebook wall for the past month has been dominated by pictures of Halloween-themed craft projects and excited captions – many in all caps – now that the event she has worked towards for so long has materialized, she seems hesitant and on her guard in her interactions with visitors.
The reason for her kind but detached behavior becomes clear when she is asked about a parent’s observation that the garden feels less scary this year. Ramos says she was struggling with her depression in the weeks before Halloween, so she didn’t have the time to add as much gory detail. She says it matter-of-factly, without much pathos but a look at her Facebook Wall shows how serious the situation was. On October 15, she posted a picture on Facebook of hospital food – chicken with pasta. When a concerned friend commented and asked what happened, she said her anxiety got the best of her after a woman insulted her about the Halloween event and she had to be hospitalized at Mount Sinai. She was on the verge of blowing the whole event off but her youngest son, Elijah, 19 and the only one who still lives at home, encouraged her to go through with it.
Inside the wooden toolshed in the back of the garden – La Casita, the garden members call it – Ramos shows me a printout of a photo yellowed with age hanging on the wall. A group of about 20 people is posing in front of the community garden. An African-American man in a loud checkered suit stands next to an older Hispanic couple and a young white man wearing a T-shirt and hipster glasses. Ramos points at a middle-aged man on the left. It’s her father, Israel Cordero. He was among the people who started the garden in 1978, decades before Williamsburg became gentrified, as a means of bringing a diverse community together, and providing activities for families who often lacked the means for expensive outings. Ramos started the Haunted Garden events for the same reason, to provide free and accessible entertainment for neighborhood kids, including her three sons and two daughters.
Today, most of Ramos’s kids live spread out across the U.S., with children of their own, but with two new garden members helping out at this year’s event, Ramos has the support to carry on her father’s legacy and create Haunted Gardens in the years to come, if her mental health permits it. In the meantime, the neighborhood children won’t have to wait until next year for Ramos’s next event. Every spring, she organizes an Easter event. Last year, there were 3,000 eggs.