Open Earth and Feral Land: A Typology of Bushwick’s Dwindling “Vacant” Spaces

Top row: A selection from “triangular corner lots at diagonal intersections”, Bottom row: A selection from “Lots displaying large painting surfaces”

To start with, of course so-called “vacant” land isn’t really vacant. Yes, it lacks the all-encompassing artifice associated with consistently maintained, human-centered habitats. It’s also void of certain culturally recognized markers of progress, from cement and steel foundations masking and stabilizing the earth below, to the promise of rising property values for contiguous real estate. But it’s full of many other things. Looking beyond plastic bags, candy wrappers and the occasional abandoned mattress, the companion species that flourish in humanity’s shadow come into focus, filling these “empty” spaces to the brim.

A feral urban meadow growing in a square corner lot on Central Avenue in Bushwick. Early season plants include winter annuals like dandelion, shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), and Persian Speedwell (Veronica persica).

Islands of non-human life in a sea of concrete swarming with humans, separated from the mainland and each other, these spaces support communities of hardy plants, insects, and an assortment of urban dwelling vertebrates, like starlings, raccoons, and lately, even coyotes. Although they don’t provide a species assemblage resembling “wild nature” in a conventional sense, these landscapes are biodiversity hotspots in a landscape otherwise dominated by and shaped to accommodate a single apex species. As our city’s built environment increases in density (a desirable trajectory in some sense), we lose out on the benefits provided by open, unmanaged earth, from storm water retention to stress relief.

Transitioning lots on Evergreen Avenue near the M train line.

Each year the waves of New York City’s growth-driven economy seem to wash a little deeper into Bushwick, and as they do, these far-from-vacant spaces are sinking into oblivion. One week milkweed sprouts and I’m on the lookout for monarchs, the next, the cement trucks arrive to pour a foundation. Countless islands of feral wilderness have disappeared from the blocks around me over the past ten years, so I’ve decided to document those that remain. I started a few weeks ago, early in the spring growth cycle. Acknowledging my debt to the Bechers and New Topographics, I’m photographing as many spaces as possible in and around Bushwick this spring. I hope to do it all again in late summer when plant growth is at its peak.

Some less conventional entry and exit points into large feral lots near Flushing Avenue and Gerry Street in Bedford Stuyvesant

Below are a few more samples of what I’ve done so far, along with a map of where I’ve been (green), where I need to go again (pink), and where I’ve yet to visit (orange). I’ve also started adding lots that are in the process of being developed (purple). If you know of other sites I should visit, leave a note or send me a tip. Additionally, I’m hoping to write a little more about the language and semantics around some of the slippery terms I’ve used here: “empty”, “vacant”, “feral”, “wilderness”, “nature”, “artifice”. They all deserve another look in the context of a growth-oriented urban landscape. In the meantime, others are contemplating these ideas as well. Recent inspirations for this exploration come from Brandon Keim (“The Wild, Secret Life of New York City”), Christoph Rupprecht (“Informal Urban Green-Space”), Emma Marris (“Handle with Care”), Michael Pollan (“Why Natural Doesn’t Mean Anything Anymore”), and Jason Munshi-South (“The Rat Paths of New York”), among many others.

The Feral Lots of Greater Bushwick/Ridgewood/Bedstuy/Williamsburg: An Archipelago of Dwindling Greenspace. Interactive Map here.

After a few weeks of shooting, I’m in the midst of developing typological categories based on what I’m finding as I work through my photographs. Thus far some of them include “square corner lots”, “triangular corner lots”, “mid-block sandwiched lots”, “informal parking lots”, “large lots seen in pieces through fences and gates”, and “lots displaying large painting surfaces”. I’m guessing more will emerge, each with their own tendencies in terms of aesthetic, ecological and cultural impacts on the surrounding built environment.

Above: a selection from “large feral lots seen in pieces through fences and gates”.