In the summer of 1979, the year that Robert Opel was killed, I was living on Capp Street in San Francisco. He was killed just a couple months after the White Night Riots, which I participated in. It was a heated time for the queer community, just months after the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. I was a very young 22 at the time, and felt intimidated by the circles that Robert Opel travelled in. They were older (Robert was just a year younger than my mother) and more worldly wise. I do remember the furor his death caused, the insistent question ‘Who killed Robert Opel?’ was a rhetorical slogan for years. We all suspected that minions in the San Francisco Police Department set up the murder, as detailed in Uncle Bob, the documentary made by his nephew, Robert Oppel. I watched the documentary yesterday while the blizzard was raging. It is a long way from San Francisco and 1979, and the documentary brought me back to that era. The politics. The style. The queer art world. The AIDS crisis in the gay male community was still a couple years away, and the Folsom Street scene, which Robert Opel’s gallery was in the center of, was possibly at its wildest and, conversely, most innocent ever.
What does all this have to do with gardening? Possibly not much. Except perhaps there as a ferality that the time allowed and encouraged. The tension between the wild and the tame that is at the heart of the style of gardening I like. Robert Opel clearly moved comfortably between the tame world of television talk shows and the wild party scene of late 70s San Francisco. That’s perhaps too easy an analogy, but I’ll stick with it. I compare the gardeners that I know and love here in Brooklyn, and they are so far in spirt and approach from the chemicalized, manicured approach of, say, HGTV. I’m particularly struck by the punk graphics of the late 70s. The crude cutting and pasting. The cheap production values — discounted offset printing and early photocopying. The late 70s also saw the beginning of many of the community gardens in New York City, and the intervening years saw the taming of the movement — much like the gay community. Again, perhaps too easy an analogy, but I’ll stick with it. There’s something there.