A Temporary Urban Farm Grows in Brooklyn
On the former site of Williamsburg's Domino Sugar Factory, a group of urban farmers are tending to a unique project: an edible garden with planned obsolescence.
All photos Christopher Borrok.
If you walked along the Manhattan side of the East River sometime in the last 100 years and cast your eyes across the water, you likely saw it: a grimy white building adorned with a big, yellow "Domino Sugar" sign—an emblem of another time.
At the height of its success, the Williamsburg factory refined over half of America's sugar supply and employed around 5,000 people; the foundation of your grandmother's cakes and your favorite breakfast cereals were likely sugar-spun inside those walls. Following a long labor strike, the factory closed its doors for good in 2004, leaving a symbol of American industry to crumble and decay as the neighborhood around it transformed. Glossy high-rises replaced factories; upwardly mobile young people replaced drug deals and working-class residents. Last year, artist and provocateur Kara Walker erected a 75-foot-long black female sphinx made entirely of bright white sugar inside the factory and called it "The Subtlety," though it was anything but subtle. It was a pointed critique of America's addiction to the sweet stuff, and who and what was sacrificed in order to make it.
This past March, despite the outcry of locals and preservationists, construction workers tore down the Domino Sugar Factory, leaving nothing but molasses-covered rubble and, for the first time since 1882, a clear view across the river. This being Williamsburg, the clear view won't last long: Two Trees, the developer responsible for turning DUMBO into the highly coveted, highly priced neighborhood it is today, is building a $1.5 billion complex on the land. The plans include yet another shiny high rise as well as a mixed-use commercial space in the adjacent, still-standing brick building, and five acres of public park along the river.
There's still two or three years until that park and the adjacent apartments and offices materialize, but change is afoot on this stretch of land on the Brooklyn waterfront, which Two Trees has leant to a for-profit enterprise called North Brooklyn Farms. Spearheaded by two young urban farmers, Henry Sweets and Ryan Watson, the farm's team of volunteers and their stable of shovels, repurposed building materials, and plants have been doing a delicate dance with one of Brooklyn's most ambitious developers for the past three years. They're growing okra, arugula, eggplant, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes, cut flowers, and vines—all without knowing how long they'll be able to hold on to their patch of soil.
Until this summer, the farm has been planting food on a smaller, squarer plot of land just across Kent Street at South 4th Street known as Site E, which had been sitting empty behind chain link fence for almost ten years—a familiar site in New York. David Lombino, the director of special projects at Two Trees and a lifetime New Yorker, still bitterly recalls the unused construction sites of his youth: the developer Sheldon Solow's long-untouched lot along the FDR highway; a former Gimbels department store on 86th Street; a Bloomberg Towers building on 58th Street that was left vacant for a decade. "This city is littered with sites that lay fallow for a few years before construction," he told me.
Site E didn't have the waterfront access or the crystalline views of Manhattan that the new farm plot does, but when Two Trees offered the Sugar Factory's former parking lot up for proposals from the community in 2013, Watson and Sweets jumped at the chance to shape a little corner of their city. The two men are no strangers to farming: Sweets, whose long hair and full beard make him the portrait of a Brooklyn farmer, is a native of Kentucky who worked in landscaping and gardening in his home state before apprenticing at Stone Barns, the farm and educational center in Westchester, in 2011. Watson, tan and tousle-haired, worked previously at the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning. The two met while working at an urban farm in Battery Park City in 2012, and before long began looking for their own growing site. In the fall of 2012, the city denied Watson's proposal to grow vegetables on a narrow plot of land behind Williamsburg's McCarren Park pool. When they were awarded Two Trees' temporary land in October the following year, they knew they'd hit green gold, though their contemporaries weren't as sure.
"Initially, when our proposal was approved, people in the urban-farming community were like, 'Why would you want to farm for a year?' They thought we were crazy," Watson said of their Site E project, which they farmed for two years. "But we knew the impact it would have. We knew it wouldn't matter if it was only for one year. We changed kids' experiences of their city."
Indeed, the farm drew a stable of devoted volunteers and neighborhood fans; they held Sunday suppers around bonfires, taught children about growing healthy food, and gave people a place to walk their dogs and lay in the grass on the weekends.
The farm is also injecting fresh, local ingredients into the community with their "magic boxes," which Watson describes as "a complete meal in a box orchestrated by farmers." Going a smidge beyond the usual CSA model, the boxes feature additions like New York State rye pasta, barley, and black-eyed peas from local farms, as well as fresh herbs and a bouquet of flowers.
"It's rounded out my life in a way I didn't anticipate," Emma Gonzalez, one of the farm's earliest volunteers and its current chef, told me. "You can be a city person and still need to touch plants on a regular basis. It's hard to find places in New York to experience your own feelings or to get in touch with the natural world. Green space alleviates that; it relieves a tension."
Williamsburg and neighboring Greenpoint residents have been feeling that tension acutely as they remain locked in a bitter battle for more green space that has been going on since 2005, when the city rezoned the two neighborhoods. In exchange, officials promised to build Bushwick Inlet Park, conceived as a 28-acre East River-adjacent belt of emerald green grass, playgrounds, and walking paths, just 12 blocks away from the Domino development. Disappointingly, only five acres of Bushwick Inlet Park has been built to date, and New York has slid even closer to being crowned the city with the least green land per capita: it has just 197 square feet of park per person—the second-lowest ratio in the country, after Chicago.
There's been some movement across the country to make space, albeit temporary, for gardens, parks, and farms like North Brooklyn. In 2014, Milwaukee passed legislation to turn city-owned, foreclosed homes into urban gardens; cities like San Francisco and Baltimore have given tax breaks to developers who loan their land to community organizations and individuals. But similar legislation has had trouble gaining traction in New York. The state assemblyman Joseph Lentol and State Senator Dan Squadron tried to push through a bill in 2014, backed by New York City Councilmember Stephen Levin. It was shot down at both the local and state levels. When Lentol reintroduced the bill at the state level this year, it was referred to the state's property taxation committee, where it has yet to be voted upon. "I believed that giving property owners savings of thousands of dollars per year on vacant property would entice them to temporarily hand it over to the public as an open space," Lentol told me June, referring to the bill's initial failure. "I guess I was wrong."
Councilman Levin, however, sees North Brooklyn Farms as an example of what's possible. "This space has shown how eminently doable it is to activate privately owned sites in a relatively inexpensive way for owners," Levin told me back in February. "The North Brooklyn Farms experiment brought in people from all over the city, and it was a hugely successful one."
Marina Trejo, the project manger for Two Trees' Domino project, agrees. She lives on the Upper West Side and works in DUMBO, but the park's impact isn't lost on her. "It's clear the neighborhood loves it. They volunteer for different events and every time I stop in, there are people enjoying it. Sometimes I'm surprised when I hear friends or peers of mine say that they've come to the park or that their kids are learning how to ride bikes or garden there. It started as very community-based, but it's been so successful that it's bled further than Williamsburg."
Though the park is open for the summer, and will remain along the water for the next few years, the time will come when the community will have to lose it again. Sweets and several of the farm volunteers recall how the park's patrons were far more devastated that they had to move off Site E last year than their team was.
"A bunch of kids who had great experiences in that park are now asking why that amazing space they loved is gone," Sweets said. "And their parents are going to have to explain why our culture doesn't value green spaces."