Friday, September 24, 2010

Photo Essay: Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm

In my exploration of my new neighborhood, which I've been documenting with a series of photographs, I've found myself on Northern Boulevard a couple of times, mostly to stock up on cheap groceries at Pathmark or Super Stop and Shop. It's the kind of boulevard you don't want to walk on, trucks whizzing by, lowriders seemingly aiming right for you as you cross the intersection. It marks a kind of boundary for the Astoria and Long Island City neighborhoods, a stark contrast to the pedestrian malls of Broadway or Steinway Street with a distinctly vehicular culture, lined with auto shops and parking lots.



And then there's the Standard Motor Products Building.





The hulking building that once housed a preeminent manufacturer of automotive parts occupies a couple of city blocks and looms over Northern Boulevard, its huge water tank blocking the afternoon sun. But if you squint really hard, and look over the roof line and under the American flag, you see the slightest indication of what now makes this building special: New York City's largest rooftop farm, Brooklyn Grange.

People have developed New York City so densely that when they ran out of horizontal space, they had no option but to build up, creating bafflingly tall buildings, added-on floors on top of shorter buildings, and sometimes buildings on top of other buildings (or built over things like bridges). But with no land left, and an increasing demand for locally-grown ingredients (the Greenmarket's visiting farmers from New Jersey, Long Island and the Hudson Valley not being local enough), would-be city farmers have gone to their roofs to grow whatever can survive the wind, lack of shade, air pollution, and shallow soil that NYC roofs have to offer.

I first encountered Brooklyn Grange's ingredients at a special event hosted by Cabrito, which featured the rooftop farm's tomatoes and peppers in a salsa trio, eggplant, and various other greens and veggies paired with the kinds of protein for which Cabrito is notorious.



When I heard that they sell their crops (and hot sauce!) in the lobby of the Standard Motor Products building, and that some days you can actually go up to the roof to check it out, I made a beeline back to Northern Boulevard.

And lucky for me, in my sometimes charmed life, I arrived coincidentally simultaneously with a group from GrowNYC (responsible for the greenmarkets) and the USDA, who were eager to meet farmer Ben Flanner and receive an extended, VIP tour of the farm.

Giddy, I tagged along, introducing myself as a neighbor when I met all their curious gazes with a shrug.

To my delight, there are still plenty of remnants of the building's industrial past...



...including the sprawling fifth floor where the elevator deposits you, a couple of flights down from the roof.







The roof itself is the perfect combination of classic New York rooftop scenery - water tank, skyline, pipes, equipment, metal boxes labelled "Carrier" whirring - and completely anachronistic greenery, a dream garden by anyone's standards.









Up there, you cannot forget that you are in New York City, with the LIRR rumbling by, the billboards looming, the scent of motor oil intermingling with the blossoming cilantro. Everything is even planted in a material that reflects the same confluence of nature and industry: a composite of soil and lightweight, porous gravel (clay, lava, pumice and the like).



Right now the Brooklyn Grange's crops are about 25% tomatoes (50-60 varieties of them!), but you also find peppers, greens, herbs, sugar snap peas, and a variety of other vegetables - some experiments, some planted too late, some sprouting from seeds gifted to the farm.





What they've accomplished up there is impressive, and very much still a work in progress. Brooklyn Grange only just started up in May of this year, and Ben Flanner wasn't raised to be a farmer. He's taken his business acumen from working in finance and combined that with what he's learned from reading a bunch of books and talking to other farmers. (!)



I love this city's trend of people leaving their white collar careers to go pursue some other passion, be it distilling gin or opening bars or growing vegetables. Imagine the industriousness it must take to build a farm on the roof of a factory!

Plus, my neverending search for nature in New York City was satisfied a bit when I found it in the least likely, and the most industrial, space possible. And only a 20-minute walk from my new apartment.

Thanks to Ben for giving me the VIP treatment even though I couldn't help him identify the beetles eating his kale or suggest equipment for cutting his greens.

Brooklyn Grange can be spotted at a variety of restaurants and markets throughout the city throughout the week. Visitors are welcome in the lobby Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and if you're lucky, maybe someone will take you upstairs...

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