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.