Fresh Food Or Fresh Apartment?
By Daphne Zhang(Congcong Zhang)
The Bushwick City Farm may be the latest battleground in a fight between grassroots community projects and development and gentrification in Brooklyn, New York. The farm received a letter from its landowner earlier this month telling them to vacate the area by August 31st. Residents of the area believe the land will be used to build new condominiums.
“Everything has been already developed here, it is in the soil, the space, the community. You can’t pick it up and move it somewhere else,” said Spike Appel, a volunteer at the farm since 2010. “I don’t have another 7 years to wait for the fruit trees to grow.”
The clock is ticking for the Bushwick City Farm (BCF). The Volunteers started a petition to save their lot in early August. On Sunday afternoon they held a barbecue to celebrate the harvest and invited advocates and politicians from the community to help them save the lot.
“Now in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick there is more of a food swamp; it’s not a food desert,” said Keith Carr, the community engagement manager of city harvest in Brooklyn. “There is plenty of food here, but the food is crap and that’s why people are sick, not sick and dying but sick and living.”
“That’s why we need community gardens. The more local your food is, the healthier your food and you are going to be.”
The volunteers lost their first space in 2013, when they were evicted from another lot on Broadway. That space now has a high-rise construction springing up.
A Green Oasis
Volunteers moved the farm to its current location, a 9,900 square foot piece of land on Stockton street, after they got permission from the landowner. The place used to be an eyesore for the community, with alcoholics, drug addicts and murder incidents.
lashallah Burgess, director of an education center at City University Of New York, had lived in the area for 40 years.
“All my life this has been a deserted lot. And they came in and developed this it in to a useful, educational beautiful land,” said Burgess.
Now volunteers call it a green oasis. This six-year-old urban garden provides free food to the community and is home to 50 ducks, chickens, turkeys and guinea fowls.
In the summer, the farm produces 15- 35 pounds of vegetables and fruits each week and gives away 9–12 pounds of eggs to lower income families in the area, according to volunteer Marissa Metelica, who has been working there for four years.
“We encourage folks to come in an take what they need. There is no expectation,’’ Metelica said.
Locals say the farm does not just provide food, but gives the neighborhood a community bond. Kids feel a sense of ownership of it.
“Barbecues happen here almost every week. When it’s not one occasion, it’s another. Birthday parties, someone’s anniversary,” said Roberto Campos, a superintendent in a nearby building for ten years.
“We’re always getting together here and sharing food.”
Laurel Leckert, who has been volunteering for seven years, says her most cherished memory is doing gymnastics together with a boy from the neighborhood on the farm. He dreamed of becoming a dancer but lacked the space or resources to practice elsewhere. Last year, the boy was admitted to School of Dance at The University of the Arts in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Where Will the Children Play?
Volunteers and neighbors are asking what it will mean for the kids if this farm is taken away.
Kids who first came to the farm when it was open six years ago are teenagers now or even in college. They have learned to grow fruit trees and vegetables on the land, help design and build the swingset on the playground and mix cement for the grill oven, said Appel.
“The children of this neighborhood deserve the chance to go to a farm, to learn where their food comes from; they deserve the same things that every other American child gets in the suburbs or obviously in the country,” said Nick Rizzo, a district leader in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at the barbecue event on Sunday.
But residents stress that the key thing this place offers to the children is safety and protection.
“We live in a dangerous area and there is always shooting around here; it will make me feel sad and mad because I will have nowhere to go,” said Perla Polanco, age 13, who has been coming to the farm since February.
The Bushwick City Farm belongs to the 81st Precinct of New York City. Over the past year, 1547 crimes — including 6 murders and 19 rapes — were reported in the precinct, according to an NYPD report. The farm sits directly across from the Sumner Houses, an affordable housing complex where two men were shot just over a year ago. The Sumner Houses are part of the 79th Precinct, with a slightly higher crime rate.
However, crime rates have been declining and this is a popular area for developers in recent years. The Parking lot and basketball court across the street from the Bushwick City Farm (BCF) will be gone in spring 2018 to make way for the development. The neighborhood was informed about this at a community board meeting in early 2016.
“It was not a discussion, but just to tell us what has already been decided,” said Evelyn Williams, volunteer from the neighborhood.
A Hot Bed for Development
Realtor Adrian Cardona from Rapid Realty called the area a “trophy neighborhood.” At $200–250 per square feet of land, the price is much higher than 5 years ago. Also with the L train closing down next year, more people will potentially move down to this area and commute by the J M Z train near Myrtle Ave.
“This area is really hot for development, so any vacant space, people are snatching up and trying to build. Four community gardens closed down in the area last year,” said Keith Carr.
Nearby on Broadway at Linden Street, a 36-year-old community garden was razed in June to make way for new construction; volunteers at the Eldert Street Community Garden went through a drawn-out legal battle for the right to stay put, Dnainfo reports.
Volunteers say that BCF landowner Roshdash Farmarz lives in Queens or Long Island, New York. It is assumed that he wants to use the land to develop condominiums. Although he has assured volunteers that he will not sell the land, interested developers have been coming in and inquiring about the lot. The contact information of the owner was not shared to the public because of a confidentiality agreement between the owner and the volunteers.
Shawn Whitehorn, program coordinator of Citizens Committee For New York, which has given a grant to the BCF, said many community gardens face eviction when land previously controlled by the NYC Housing and Development Preservation is sold to a developer.
Mystery of the Landowner
An individual named Roshdesh Famrz acquired the lot from a Spanish church on March 11th 2004 for $80,000. He sold it for the exact same amount on the same day to Toxo and Arrow Property LLC, which was established three days before the deal was made.
An employee, who gave his first name as Jack, confirmed that there is a mailbox number 252, but said he is not authorized to reveal to whom it belongs. The owner of the next door convenience store said he had never heard of the Toxo and Arrow Property company in all his years working there.
Mr. Terence, a New York Public Transit employee who comes to the BCF every weekend and used to live in the area for over 30 years, believes that the main cause driving the community garden evictions is gentrification.
“Yuppies are moving here, younger people are coming down to buy the place. They find out it’s cheaper; you just run down the street and you jump on the train 10 or 15 minutes, and you can be in Manhattan.”
The Last Stand
The volunteers say they have not yet had a chance to talk to the community board, which meets once a month. The developers will ultimately need to present their plan to the community board to get a permit to build on the land, if they wish to do so.
Volunteers have asked the owner if they could stay until February, a more feasible date that they believe would allow them time to move everything they have built for the past six years. The owner replied with a clear no to any extensions, according to Evelyn Williams.
Their ideal scenario is to have the city government give the owner another lot to develop or to have a private donor buy the current lot so that they can keep it permanently. If not, they at least hope for permission to stay there longer.
“We are running out of time. After the 31st, are we going to be squatters? We are just going to be be here 24 hours to make sure no body changes the lock on us,” said Evelyn.
For Spike and his wife Mariel, who met and married on this very farm, and for their baby Sandino, the farm is still a beacon of hope.
“ Every day is worthwhile, everyday is the reason why I work so hard in this place, because every day is so important for the kids,” said Spike Appel.