“When you’re growing anything in an urban environment, you have to be aware of heavy metals, hydrocarbon and all kinds of nasty things that live in the existing soil,” says Ryan Watson, cofounder of North Brooklyn Farms (NBk Farms). It’s a fact that he and fellow cofounder Henry Sweets know better than most. Together, they’re in the middle of building an urban green space in the rubble that was once Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar refinery.
Located in Brooklyn, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, the old Domino Sugar factory was built in the mid-19th century and once produced about half the sugar consumed in the US. But it’s been abandoned since 2004. In cooperation with the property developer Two Trees, NBk Farms is building an urban green space that’ll fit in an area slightly smaller than one square acre, which, according to Sweets, is just a fraction of Domino’s eight-acre property. Different from a community garden, the urban green space (when operational) will sell organic and sustainable produce at pick-your-own farm stands, supper clubs (which Sweets says will be their biggest revenue generator) and other sponsored events that’ll take place at the farm. They’ll also sell other plants and flowers.
“We are using agriculture to create green space to take unused space and turn it into something for people to use.”
Their goal is to create an active park that engages people, as opposed to being something passive like most city-run parks. Community members will be able to volunteer in the garden. Local schools will use that farm as an educational space. And, as this was once a desolate lot of rubble, the farm will provide a verdant community park where people can walk and relax outdoors. (There will also be a bike path adjacent to the farm, which is being constructed by an organization separate from NBk Farms).
“We are using agriculture to create green space,” says Sweets, “to take unused space and turn it into something for people to use.” He and Watson also plan to work with farms in Upstate New York and get them to help supply some extra produce down in Williamsburg. After all, only so much can be grown in a lot that spans less than an acre.
The vision that Sweets and Watson have for NBk Farms is ambitious, no doubt. But for those that question whether it can actually come to fruition, know this: it’s not the first time they’ve done something like this. In fact, for the past two years they built and managed Havemeyer Park in the refinery’s old parking lot, which is just across the street from where they are now. They were forced to move when Two Trees commenced construction on a new building at their old site. Two Trees have since allowed NBk Farms interim use of the waterfront property in which they currently reside.
So they have the property and the end goal, but building an urban green space isn’t an easy proposition — especially considering the area’s past.
“There are horror stories about the Williamsburg bridge, having contractors sandblasting it and not tanning the paint,” says Watson. “So they were spraying lead paint off the bridge — this was in late ’90s, there was a big story.” With their foundation being almost directly below the bridge, Watson is quick to point out that the new property developer, Two Trees, did not have the permission to knock down the building until all the contaminants were taken out. And as an extra level of precaution, Watson and Sweets are laying down landscape fabric on bluestone, which is layered on top of the rubble.
Once the garden is in full swing, the landscape fabric will be under a couple feet of topsoil and highly nutrient-rich farm soil. When the plants’ roots grow deep and potentially penetrate through the landscape fabric, “they’re going to stop at this bluestone,” says Watson. The bluestone creates air pockets that prevent the roots from reaching the rubble. This foundation will ensure the that the plants and vegetables won’t have any contaminants in them.
When I visited their construction site during the first week of June, Watson and Sweets had over a dozen volunteers from all over helping lay down landscape fabric. A lot of work has to be done in order to get the space operational by their goal: July 4. Sweets told me that they’ve already started planting seeds (which they’ll transplant from their nursery to the garden). They hope to have farm soil and sodding within the next week to make that possible. But it’s going to be a time crunch.
Toward the end of my visit, Sweets took me to their nursery on the opposite side of the lot. It was small, but filled with budding plants that they hope to transplant when more fertile soil arrives. “After all,” he chuckled, “aren’t we all transplants?”