Harlem’s Flower and Chess Man, Forced Into an Unwanted Move

The city has ousted Sonny Gibbs’s flower stand from its corner. Credit Michael Appleton for The New York Times

The city has ousted Sonny Gibbs’s flower stand from its corner. Credit Michael Appleton for The New York Times

For 23 years, Sonny Gibbs sold flowers at the edge of Abraham Lincoln Playground on 135th Street and Fifth Avenue in Harlem and taught chess to anyone who wanted to learn.

Mr. Gibbs and his portable garden were such a presence that he was known as the Flower Man and residents still call the patch of concrete where he operated Sonny’s Corner. It was a bright spot in front of the Lincoln Houses, a public housing community where residents complain of mold in their apartments and the stench of urine in hallways.

But this spring, New York City told Mr. Gibbs that he had to pack up his roses, daisies and biggest sellers, his potted plants. As it turns out, for more than a decade, he had no legal right to be there. Mr. Gibbs — who is long on adages but short on paperwork, like a permit — got by for years with little trouble beyond the occasional summons. But the parks department began strictly enforcing a law prohibiting a business from operating on parkland without formal approval.

Mr. Gibbs was an affable scofflaw in plain sight, not unlike a subway dancer. The collapsible operation that fit in his 1998 Dodge van had no walls, but was every bit the neighborhood fixture, one always taken for granted until it is gone. Mr. Gibbs, 71, might have sold his last flower on Memorial Day.

“Where’s your business?” a passer-by recently asked Mr. Gibbs, who appeared out of place on Sonny’s Corner with no flowers in sight.

Mr. Gibbs replied, “I’ll be back.”

Mr. Gibbs in Abraham Lincoln Playground with Steven Campbell, left, and Masiyah Hines, both 13. He taught them chess.

Mr. Gibbs in Abraham Lincoln Playground with Steven Campbell, left, and Masiyah Hines, both 13. He taught them chess.

But it seems an arduous task for Mr. Gibbs, whose simple approach to life borders on the eccentric.

Mr. Gibbs, whose full name is Prentis Gibbs II, lives alone on a small boat anchored in an inlet in Brooklyn. He spends Sunday evenings beating a bass drum in a drum circle in Prospect Park. For many years he did not have a phone, and he does not own a computer.

The oldest of three boys, Mr. Gibbs said he was about 9 when he asked his father, a street vendor in the Bronx, for an increase in his 25-cent-a-week allowance. His father doubled it. When he asked for another, his father said, “You better get a job.” Mr. Gibbs started selling flowers with an uncle.

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SEPT. 26, 2014

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