Up until a little more than a year ago, Carlton Avenue between Park and Prospect places was more or less like any other block in the neighborhood. Now it’s a required daily stopping place for many a neighborhood tot, and a sort of community art project for kids and adults alike.
It all began about three years ago when Laura Keith moved the statue of a white cat named Sadie from her back yard to the tree well outside her brownstone.
“It just occurred to me one day that maybe Sadie would like to go out front and see more people,” said Keith, a retired administrator who moved to Prospect Heights about 25 years ago.
The little white kitty was an immediate hit with the neighbors.
“They would sort of stop in their tacks and say, ‘Oh look there’s a cat.’ They just came to know her and it became sort of a stopping place,” Keith said.
Then one day a pair of pink heart-shaped glasses appeared on Sadie, and people began taking pictures of her. Then other decorations appeared: a neighbor plunked a straw hat on her as a goodbye gesture as she loaded her moving van. A scarf, and then later a ribbon, were tied around her neck.
The little white kitty had become a way for neighbors to reach out to one another, Keith said. “She was just sort of an icebreaker. I think truly the heart hungers to connect,” she said.
Then, about a year ago, Sadie disappeared. Keith tied a note to the tree Sadie used to sit in front of that said “Cat, come back!” She sent an e-mail to Carlton Avenue Block Association members offering a reward.
Sadie was never returned. But something else happened.
“This perfect, wonderful cast-iron cat had appeared in the same position where Sadie had been,” Keith said. Then Keith came across a cat statue that looked like it could be that cat’s kitten.
“I put it out there with the first cat and that just kicked it off,” she said. “Two days later another cat appeared, then a copper panther, than a tiger. It just snowballed.”
Not that the poaching, as Keith calls it, has ended. Every once in awhile an animal will disappear, but new ones always show up to replace them.
Early last month nearly a dozen animals were taken: a tiger, panther, Mickey Mouse, two Mini Mouses, an entire cat family and “froggie.” But as soon as Keith put up a sign noting the disappearance, more animals joined the flock.
Now, with about two-to-three dozen animals in attendance at any one time, the menagerie garden has become a required daily stopping place for many an area child.
“They’ll put the frogs together, the dogs together. They really interact with the garden,” she said. “Every time they look at it, it’s like they’re looking at them for the first time.”
“The children’s curiosity about the animals is what really sustains the garden,” she added, and “I think when adults gather there they’re seeing it through their own child-like eyes.”
To Keith, the menagerie garden is more than a fun diversion, it’s also a symbol of how the neighborhood has changed.
“It kind of defines the culture of our neighborhood here. Through the years I’ve watched our neighborhood evolve," she said.
"I think the presence of so many children has brought people together in a way that children can,” she added. “People are friendlier, they stop and talk. Now we are an outgoing neighborhood.”