Formerly abandoned Brownsville lot reclaimed as an educational farm
Brownsville, a neighborhood located in southeastern Brooklyn, is often associated with the former Margaret Sanger Clinic (opened in 1916, it was the first birth control clinic in the United States), the 1962 union strike at Beth El (now Brookdale) Hospital, and the bitter Ocean Hill-Brownsville school strike of 1968. In the first half of the 20th century, Brownsville was renowned as the home of the largest community of working-class Jews in New York; since the second half the 20th century it has gained notoriety for its high density of public housing complexes, and its complex web of social, economic and political challenges. But between the tall towers and formidable statistics is a resilient neighborhood with a long history of social activism and a strong network of community organizations. Among the newest are Nora Painten and the Brownsville Student Farm Project, an 8,000 square-foot educational farm that now anchors the corner...
Brownsville, a neighborhood located in southeastern Brooklyn, is often associated with the former Margaret Sanger Clinic (opened in 1916, it was the first birth control clinic in the United States), the 1962 union strike at Beth El (now Brookdale) Hospital, and the bitter Ocean Hill-Brownsville school strike of 1968. In the first half of the 20th century, Brownsville was renowned as the home of the largest community of working-class Jews in New York; since the second half the 20th century it has gained notoriety for its high density of public housing complexes, and its complex web of social, economic and political challenges. But between the tall towers and formidable statistics is a resilient neighborhood with a long history of social activism and a strong network of community organizations. Among the newest are Nora Painten and the Brownsville Student Farm Project, an 8,000 square-foot educational farm that now anchors the corner of Rockaway and Sutter Avenues.
Brownsville got its start as a German farming community, but in 1865 Charles S. Brown began erecting low-cost frame houses with the intention of attracting working-class families out of Manhattan. The area developed slowly thanks to Brownsville’s low, marshy terrain, and its proximity to malodorous factories and the city’s largest garbage dump. Indeed, according to the late economist Marcus Alexis, these physical characteristics “precluded the option of building an upscale residential neighborhood.” However, even the lack of sewers and paved streets did not prevent Brownsville from becoming a crowded enclave of working-class Jews, many of whom labored in the garment and building industries. Although much of the housing stock was poorly built, by 1910 Jews and other recent immigrants were drawn to the suburb because its living conditions were still better than what existed in the Lower Manhattan tenement districts.
By the 1920s, African Americans began moving to Brownsville in large numbers. Attracted by the area’s affordability, and seeking respite from discriminatory housing practices elsewhere in the city, Brownsville’s African American population grew rapidly in the first half of the 20th century. The 1920s to the 1940s are often considered the neighborhood’s heyday. The community was a diverse (although not seriously integrated), working-class hub of labor and social radicalism.
Brownsville’s shift toward public housing began after World War II, when local leaders focused their energies on enhancing housing conditions in the hopes of spurring economic development. According to Alexis, the irony was in the fact that “when city officials finally turned their attention to Brownsville, they determined that there wasn’t much left worth saving.” So much of the existing residential stock was replaced with large housing projects. Among the earliest were the Brownsville Houses, whose six to seven stories were still human scale enough to engender a sense of community. The Brownsville Houses were considered a success. Public housing projects were initially seen as a way to stabilize the high-turnover rate of neighborhood residents. But long delays in construction, combined with the reluctance of tenement landlords to repair existing, soon-to-be-demolished housing stock, compelled many residents to move away from Brownsville. Neighborhood conditions began to decline, and soon significantly larger public housing projects were implemented as slum clearance. The result is a neighborhood with the highest concentration of public housing in the United States within a one square mile area.
Brownsville has been historically under-served, particularly in terms of recreational space for children. Betsy Head Park, which opened in Brownsville in 1914, was the only park in the neighborhood for the first half of the twentieth century. Betsy Head was originally designed as a play center with a secondary lot for small children, which included a farm school with five-hundred plots to grow crops. However, according to historian Wendell Pritchett, Betsy Head “was overcrowded the day it opened.” But the problem was not only parks. Pritchett adds, “schools, too, had little open space for its students, with few playgrounds.” As a result, creating safe, recreational, and educational spaces has been a high priority for area activists.
In the summer of 2011, Nora Painten decided to create a place that could fullfil all of these needs. At the time, Painten was leading a summer camp at a farm in East New York. “Everyday I would walk to East New York on this street [Rockaway Avenue],” she recalls, “and I would see this vacant lot and think it was so big and sunny, and could be a really great amenity for the neighborhood.” Where many saw blight in the overgrown, garbage-strewn parcel, Painten, a veteran farmer, saw potential. She used OASIS (Open Accessible Space Information System, see link below), a geographic information system managed by the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research, to find out that the lot was owned by NYC’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD). Painten contacted HPD and discovered that the agency had no immediate plans to develop the 75’ x 100’ property. She was elated when HPD granted her permission to create a farm on the lot, and she was relieved when they connected her with a GreenThumb liason who amiably negotiated the terms of her contract.
As easy as it was to get the project off the ground, getting the equipment and necessary support systems into the ground was another matter. “It was a nightmare to clean the lot,” she admits. When she and her partners, architects Saranga Nakhooda and Devin Lafo (founders of growingCities, a research and design think-tank for urban agriculture), finally got into the space, they found it covered in asphalt and concrete. They rented a jackhammer to break up the ground cover, and were soon wrestling with an insufficient water supply.
However, a cadre of friends and community members came together for long hours of clearing, digging, hauling, constructing and, of course, planting. The Department of Sanitation provided soil and compost from New York City parks, and a local seed company donated seeds and 250 seedlings, all of which went into the raised planters on May 17, 2012. As of August, 2012, they are yielding magnificent harvests of purple string beans, eggplants, cherry tomatoes, herbs, kale, collard greens, cucumbers, and hot peppers.
In addition to the compost and seed donations, GreenThumb supports the farm with trash pickups and soil deliveries. The agency made an initial lumber contribution, and Build It Green, an Astoria-based company that recycles building materials, also provided several hundred boards – nearly all of the wood that the farm needed for its raised plots - pro bono. Years of training had prepared Painten for the real cost of building and operating a farm, so she ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that funded almost everything else, including a heavy-duty saw, a shipping container to store the saw and other tools, screws and bolts, and all minor farming supplies like stakes and ties. She now buys all of her materials through the Slow Food network, “but it all adds up.”
Fortunately, the land was free. In order to use citys property, Painter either had to start a community garden or a school garden. As much as she appreciates the community garden model, she says “I was really interested in developing an educational aspect. So I chose to connect with a school, and they’ve been really enthusiastic about our collaboration.” The K-8 school, P.S. / I.S. 323, is located just around the corner. Throughout August 2011, Painten repeatedly approached the school’s principal about taking on a farm collaboration, but she couldn’t seem to make any inroads. To prove that she was serious and knew what she was doing, Painten went back to the school bearing a basket full of produce grown in her East New York garden, and finally, she found an attentive audience in the principal. Since then, the farm-school alliance has taken root. Painten plans to meet with teachers before the school year begins in September to assess how they can best integrate the farm into their regular classroom modules. In addition, the school has received a stipend to participate in a Manhattan-based study on food and garden curricula. This fall, several fifth and sixth grade will receive professional development toward using the farm as an outdoor classroom. Painten is already running a pilot summer program for youth who convene on Wednesdays to do farm chores, and on Thursdays to harvest ready produce and sell it a small farm stand. In the fall, student leaders will steward many of the farm activities while mentoring younger schoolmates.
Ultimately, Painten says, she has big plans for the farm. She would like to turn it into an urban farm training center, where adults and teens can learn what it takes to start farms of their own. She is also thinking of a vocational component that would include compensation, “but that’s way down the line.” Soon the farm will feature a pavilion for students, a chicken coop, a composter and sinks. Almost as imminent, unfortunately, is the end of her first lease with the city. Although HPD has been highly accommodating, they reserve the right to take the property back at any time, and her contracts must be resigned yearly. “It’s really scary,” she says. “I had a period of freaking out about that, but then I thought that this was worth it.” The Brownsville Student Farm Projects future is uncertain, but like the corner of Rockaway and Sutter Avenues, its looking brighter every day.
The Brownsville Student Farm Project is transforming an empty lot on the corner of Rockaway and Sutter Avenues into a gorgeous, bountiful resource for the community. Volunteers and community members have spent the spring and summer building raised planter beds, filling them with dirt, planting in them and harvesting the results. There is already a summer program for local youth on the farm, and when school starts again this fall, the farm will be integrated into the curriculum at P.S./ I.S. 323, with student stewards taking leadership roles in caring for the farm!
This farm represents the growing movement to -- as the farmer Nora Painten, puts it on the website -- "transform every inch of sunny, idle land in the city into food-bearing and community brightening space." The chicken coop is nearly completed, and a hive of bees already calls the farm home (safely, in a box).
This was one of hundreds of empty lots, but it has been reclaimed and is turning in to something fantastic. Unfortunately, the city could always take the land back, though hopefully it wont.