Saturday, December 24, 2011

IOBY Launches Our First Fundraising Project

We are please to announce that ioby has launched our first fundraising project, PHASE 1, which you can read about (and donate to) at

ioby is an organization that connects change with resources. They saw a movement brewing, a movement toward people taking back their environment, creating renewed and revitalized areas of their own neighborhoods, doing it all on their own, and out of their own pockets. These were labors of love, no doubt, and happening in pockets here and there but with no cohesion. This is a movement after all and the dots needed to be connected. A platform needed to be created. Enter

ioby was founded in 2008 by Cassie Flynn, Brandon Whitney and Erin Barnes, and as Erin says, “We know people care about the environment, but their most prominent option is to purchase something. Buying a table or a new light bulb leaves a lot of people thinking, ‘Now what?’ They are hungry to get their hands dirty." Having studied water conservation, climate change and community resources at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the three friends knew that the face of change could be powerful and actionable, meaningful and, most importantly, local. enables all of us to invest in change—then see (and live with) the return on our investment. There are no celebrities, no large-scale protests. There are everyday neighbors taking small steps—bringing sunlight, open space, fresh food and greenery into our backyards.

As soon as Paula Segal at heard about our budding project, she alerted Helen Ho, Neighborhood Outreach and Project Support Manager from ioby, who immediately contacted Stella Goodall, our organizer and founder, to assist us with creating the necessary fundraising efforts to get us started.

And so, we bring you PHASE 1 of our community garden project. Funds for PHASE 1 will enable us to break ground, giving us the tools to do so literally and to begin our first project of planting materials that will have an environmentally remediatory (is that a word?) effect on the soil quality of our site. We will monitor improvements, and our space will not only develop into and serve as a beautiful green space to be enjoyed by all but also as an educational environment as we post storyboards throughout the site with our progress on this and all our endeavors.

You can read about and donate to our PHASE 1 project by going to:

If you are inspired by what we are up to, please also share this project with people you know who would like to make a difference in our communities by becoming a contributor to the Java St Garden Collaborative.

Monday, December 12, 2011

596 Acres Organizing Groups Across Brooklyn

At our most recent meeting, we were joined by Paula Segal of 596 Acres whose organization has enabled at least one group so far to go ahead with their community garden project: 426 Halsey Community Garden.

Organizer Shatia Jackson says "We have had two weekends of working on the garden thus far. and I can't believe how far we have gotten! We completed our compost station which has 4 bins, raked up all the dead leaves to use for compost, got rid of about 15 bags of garbage and pruned all the trees to optimize sunlight. The volunteer turnout was amazing: at our peak we had at least 20 people helping out. The community's interest is overwhelming! For anyone who would like to help out, we will have our gates open every weekend as long as weather permits. "

596 Acres is a public education project aimed at making communities aware of the land resources around them. With the goal of a food sovereign New York City in mind, 596 Acres is helping neighbors form connections to the vacant lots in their lives -- from the smallest (throwing a seed bomb) to the largest (hosting a public meeting with the head of a City Agency that owns a vacant lot that was promised to the community as a park, see Thanks to the Center for the Study of Brooklyn, we have learned that many of these lots are actually publicly owned and are developing a platform for negotiating interim and long term community uses for this warehoused public space.

596 acres is how much vacant public land existed in Brooklyn alone as of April 2010. If even a small portion of that was committed to neighborhood food production, we would have an abundance of fresh seasonal vegetables to eat! And think of all the grassy parks we could have! And composting sites! And whatever else Brooklynites and their neighbors know they need.

Contextual information provided by the Center for the Study of Brooklyn.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What Do You Want?

In a couple of my previous posts I talked about the plans we have for 59 Java St. For instance I said we want to remediate the soil using sunflowers and poplar trees. I mentioned that we wanted to try composting in the garden. We certainly have some ideas and if at all possible we are going to give them a try.

Building a little fort is an option.
Having said that, this is a community garden. The land is owned by the city and should be used in a manner which benefits everyone. Also, we need to avoid causing problems for the neighbors. For example, done improperly composting can smell bad and attract pests. Surely the neighbors would not like that!

So what do you want?

Just to be very clear, you do not have to be a member of the Java Street Garden Collaborative to have a say in what happens to 59 Java. We would love it if you wanted to help make the garden happen but we want to hear from the community in general. Especially from people who live nearby, and most of all from the folks right next door!

Our composting project is a great example of how feedback can be useful. If we want to compost then we need to get our hands on something to compost. At our meetings two suggestions have been made. We could accept clippings from the neighbors. We could also have a compostables-only trash bin. Would either of these services be useful to you?

There are some problems with both of these suggestions as well. If those clippings came from plants growing in polluted soil then we would be adding toxins right back to the site even as we removed them. Obviously a garbage bin has odor and pest-attracting issues as well. Does this concern you?

Community gardens are never open 24-7. We will open the garden during specific hours which will depend on the number of volunteers we have. If you live in the area, do you feel that there particular times when the garden really should or really should not be open?

We want to plant at least one tree in the garden. For those of you who live adjacent to the garden, are you concerned about losing sunlight during the Winter months? Or are you in favor of a tree to block the Sun during the Summer months? Perhaps we should plant an evergreen instead and decorate it for Christmas?

As always you can contact us at We also normally meet on Tuesday evenings but during the holiday season we will not be meeting as regularly.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why Aren't There More Parks in Greenpoint?

Greenpoint started out forested, then became farmland. In 1775 exactly five families lived in Greenpoint and they all had really big yards.

By the late 1800s Greenpoint had evolved into a major manufacturing center. Most of the land which was not already used by factories was turned into housing for the ever growing population. By 1890 there were only a few farms left in Greenpoint. Perhaps for exactly that reason the City of Brooklyn began buying land to turn into public parks at that time.

Here is a quick rundown of the parks and playgrounds of Greenpoint:

Then CalledNow CalledBought InNotes
Winthrop ParkMsgr. McGolrick Park1889Brooklyn was not part of NYC at the time.
Greenpoint ParkMcCarren Park1903-1905The Greenpoint/Williamsburg boudary now runs through this park.
???Sgt. William Dougherty Playground1924Renamed in 1948. I could not find the original name anywhere.
Right Triangle PlaygroundGreenpoint Playground1925There was once a "Greenpoint Playground" in Greenpoint (nee McCarren) Park
Newtown Barge PlaygroundNewtown Barge Playground1942Yes, it opened during WW2.
American PlaygroundAmerican Playground1955Leased from the American Manufacturing Corporation from 1927-1955. Rent was $1 every three years!

There are also three small green spaces which are basically spruced up traffic islands. The oldest is Fidelity Triangle which dates all the way back to 1921. Next comes Father Studzinski Square (dedicated in 1989) which I propose should be renamed to Father Studzinski Right Triangle. The other is the Calyer Isosceles Triangle, which was renovated within the past few years as part of the Greenstreets program. As I mentioned previously there are also a few community gardens though the Lentol Garden is the only one at street level.

One trend which might not be apparent from the above chart is that in the last century each new green space has been smaller than the last. No parks large enough to play a game of catch have opened since the 1950s. Basically all of the new green spaces which have opened in Greenpoint recently have been carved out of nooks and crannies.

Of course if you are reading this you probably know about Transmitter Park and the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront Access Plan. For the rest of you here is a quick summary (the full master plan is here). Basically, in 2005 the City of New York rezoned a large chunk of industrial land along the waterfront for residential use. In addition to new buildings Greenpoint and Williamsburg were supposed to receive several new parks and a "green corridor" along the waterfront connecting new and existing parks.

As with many plans hatched during the mid-2000s the economy has thrown a spanner into the works. Some rather large residences have been built and some rather nice parks have opened. These are all in Williamsburg.

Who wants to play catch?
Not as much has happened in Greenpoint. Some land has been purchased or freed up in other ways, and of course a ferry terminal opened earlier this year. No parks have been built. Transmitter Park is underway but still very much under construction. We hope that it will be open soon, but there are no guarantees. At least one chunk of Waterfront Park in Williamsburg is literally a construction zone wrapped in fence and tarp with no timetable for completion (see right) so we're not going to assume anything.

So okay, the economy sucks and is not getting better all that quickly. Right now we cannot count on any plans which involve the city spending money on projects which, in all honesty, are quality of life projects. Paying for the construction of parks creates jobs in the short run but there are probably better uses for that money right now.

So for now what should we do? Do It Ourselves (DIY, because DIO is something else...). And so we are. We need permission from the city to get access to 59 Java St, but we will do all of the work. We will raise the funds, we will do the planting, we will put up a permanent fence, we will do the maintenance.

Postscript: I believe that in the long run the city should stick to the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront Access Plan. There are people pressuring the city on this issue. I agree with them.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Our Presentation to Parks and Waterfront

EDIT: Never mind. Apparently Parks and Waterfront already has a full agenda for the meeting. We will not be presenting the project to them at the November meeting.

The original blog post:

We are tentatively scheduled to present the 59 Java Street Garden Project to the Parks and Waterfront subcommittee of Community Board 1 on November 16th at 6:30pm. The meeting will be at 435 Graham Avenue (at the corner of Frost Street).

We expect that representatives from Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the Parks Department (specifically the Greenthumb program) will be there to support us. We would very much like your support as well!

I don't know how the seating arrangements will work or how many people can attend the meeting (sorry!) but please show up if you can.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cleansing The Soil

Like every big city New York went through an industrial phase which left its mark on the place. Shadows of that era can be glimpsed in the names of neighborhoods such as the Meatpacking District, historic buildings such as the Domino Sugar Factory, and the still-active industrial waterfront in places such as the Gowanus Canal.

Parts of Greenpoint feel mellow, maybe even suburban, and personally that is one of the things I love about it. But this is something of an illusion. Greenpoint is part of the big city and shares its industrial history. Greenpoint still has an industrial zone which lines the waterfront along the East River and Newtown Creek. A street called "Monitor" runs past a statue representing the USS Monitor, the famous ironclad ship built on the Greenpoint waterfront which helped the Union win the war. On a less uplifting note the Greenpoint Oil Spill is still around. It is the largest of several chemical spills in the area.

The Java St. garden site is not on top of any particular chemical spill. The fact that some plants are growing there now suggests that the soil is not irredeemably toxic. Good! But this does not mean that the soil is clean or particularly safe for planting. Surely we would not want to plant carrots or potatoes in soil with a high lead content even if they were capable of growing there!

In general we would like to have as few toxins as possible in the soil, but in practice we have to work with specifics. We need to know exactly what kinds and quantities of toxins we are dealing with and we need to have specific targets for the reduction of these toxins.

One of the first things we did when this project started was to take a soil sample from the plot and sent it to Brooklyn College for analysis. This week we received the results of that analysis. We now have a good idea of the concentration in parts per million (ppm) of toxic heavy metals (e.g. arsenic) and metallic nutrients (e.g. calcium) in the soil.

This is not helping
Our goal will be to meet the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Soil Cleanup Objectives (SCOs) for residential use. These are target levels in ppm for contaminants such as chromium, arsenic and lead.

It appears that 59 Java contains acceptable levels of several heavy metals but has a bit more chromium (38ppm) than the objective (36ppm). While the lead levels (299ppm) on the plot are below the objective for residential use (400ppm), lead levels below 100ppm are recommended for growing fruits and vegetables. We should probably aim for the latter even though we might well decide to grow food crops in raised beds.

So now what can we do about this? We will not remove and replace the topsoil. That would be expensive, not to mention wasteful. The best answer for a small community garden like 59 Java would appear to be phytoremediation. This refers to planting species which can absorb toxins from the soil and render them harmless in various ways. Some plants (or their associated microbes/fungi) can convert certain toxins to less harmful forms. Some can absorb and release volatile contaminants (e.g. benzene) as gases. What we want are plants which will store toxic heavy metals within them, rendering the toxins harmless. Depending on the plant these may be removed so as to remove heavy metals from the site, or left in place to simply lock the heavy metals away.

For now our plan is to plant poplar trees and sunflowers. Both have been shown to take up toxic heavy metals from soil. The former will likely remain a permanent fixture of the garden. Poplar trees grow quickly and will pull a lot of those heavy metals out of the soil. Sunflowers also absorb heavy metals but can easily be removed. Perhaps visitors will be allowed to take a cut sunflower home? Both the poplar and sunflower will need to be pruned and will drop leaves and petals. All of these clippings can be removed.

The downside of this approach is that nutrients are also removed from the site when plant matter is removed. However it is relatively easy to add these back in. We can apply fertilizer to the garden or add potting soil. Perhaps we can add compost? We are currently looking into the possibility of either composting at the site or taking in compost from elsewhere.

The best thing about phytoremediation is that it does not make the place look like a construction project. Those sunflowers and poplar trees will contribute to the beauty of the garden. We can clean the soil and start growing the garden at the same time! We just have to be a little bit clever about it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Green Tour of Greenpoint

The name "Greenpoint" is not a relic of the area's industrial past. It dates back further to a time when the whole region was called Bos-ijck (now anglicized to "Bushwick"). The forested Northern tip of Bos-ijck was called the "Green Point". People clearly lacked imagination back then, but "Greenpoint" it is a charming and evocative name which is no doubt why it was retained.

Alas, Greenpoint is no longer particularly "green". Brooklyn is the big city now. Some streets are lined with trees. Some houses have planters in their front yards. Many do not (for example, the photo to the right is the South side of our block of Java Street). Some homes have nice back yards but these are, of course, private. Then there is the industrial zone around the waterfront. With sadly few exceptions the open space in the industrial section of Greenpoint is covered in dirt and detritus.

Take a look at the map of Greenpoint, specifically the part North of Nassau Avenue. It looks a bit depressing. There are only a few green spots (representing parks) and they are mostly paved playgrounds. Playgrounds with more benches than bushes and certainly no grass or flowers. There is something called Transmitter Park but it is not open yet. When it does open much of it will be paved as well. Hopefully not too much.

This is not to suggest that Greenpoint is just one big slab of concrete. There are some parks in Greenpoint. McGolrick Park absolutely stunning, and half of the massive McCarren Park is also within the boundaries of Greenpoint. Yet these are the only two large green spaces in the area and they are both well South of Java Street. Is North Greenpoint really the greyish grid it appears to be on the map?

Parks and playgrounds are a city planning issue. Sometimes with the city's planning leaves something to be desired the solution is community action: adding green space to out community by developing a community garden. The goal of the 596 Acres project is exactly that - to turn empty lots throughout the city into community gardens.

Greenpoint already contains a few community gardens including the Eagle Street Farm, Lentol Garden, and the Greenpoint Church garden. We want to add to that list. In particular we want to create a real public space, a street level garden which is open as frequently as possible.

This is not a trivial goal. We have to get permission from various city departments. We will need more volunteers than the current ten. We will have to fight the weather (snow in October?) Perhaps most importantly we may have to cleanse the soil before we start planting. At some point we will have to start raising funds to buy supplies and seeds. But one step at a time. Getting permission from the city comes first.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Nature vs. Nurture

Wild Growth at 59 Java

Have you ever seen a truly "vacant lot"? One which is literally nothing but dirt or gravel? They are surprisingly hard to find in that state. In the absence of human intervention it seems that plants will grow everywhere.

We see them around Greenpoint not only in the planters and parks but also in the cracks and crevices. Flowering ivy twists and climbs along our fences. Although there are few lawns here there is no shortage of grass; it grows in the gaps in the sidewalk. And of course where there is a large open space something green is sure to grow.

Half of the lot at 59 Java Street is green with wild grasses and flowers. Even from outside the cage which contains them (or perhaps protects them?) some of them are quite lovely (see above). Some are less so. Some conceal a dirty napkin or sit adjacent to a discarded cup. Some of the plants have been crushed into the earth by the wheels of a heavy vehicle. A literal path of destruction can still be seen preserved in the dirt (see below).

Sadly there is rarely an "absence of human intervention" in Brooklyn. The housing complex next door is still under construction. For 59 Java that makes it a source of destruction. Garbage arrives from many sources. It may be blown in by the wind or thrown in by careless passers-by. There was a chunk of sheet metal on the lot the last time I was there, but at least no-one has dumped an old mattress yet.

Worse, the land itself is none too clean. Greenpoint has a long history as an industrial center. A history of shipbuilding, oil refining and storage, textile dyeing, and dry cleaning. A varied and colorful history which has no doubt left the soil with a varied and colorful chemistry.

A pristine parcel is perhaps a bit too much to ask for in the big city. We're going to have to do a little nurturing.

We are called the Java Street Collaborative and we are working with the Green Thumb program and to create a community garden at 59 Java Street. Right now we are in the early stages of the process. We have finished creating our basic media package (a sign for the site, flyers, and of course this blog) and are now working on a presentation for the Parks and Waterfront Committee of Community Board 1. We are also still discussing ideas for the garden. Is composting a possibility? What are our options for remediation of the soil?

If you want to help out we can be reached at Drop us a line!