Momentum


In one of his early books, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan struggles against the enemies of weeds and a woodchuck as he cultivates a garden. His daydreams escalate into their total annihilation (gasoline down a burrow hole included) until, chapters later, he pauses to ask, “What sets us apart from other species is culture, and what is culture but forbearance?”

This question has stayed with me. After looking up forbearance in the dictionary (air high five for honesty!), I realize the question is asking us, “What is culture but restraint?” Now I agree: restraint is not a word that stirs passion. Nor is its close cousin “patience” anything to dance to all night.

Yet when it comes to producing food for an ever-growing population, these words are our highest call. They are for long-term vision, not short-term profit. They ask us to be the earth’s guardians. They don’t ask us to maximize food growth via any means necessary – CAFOs, pesticides, etc – only to deplete the resources given to us. In other words, what is culture but the call to act in honor of our highest, collective selves?

Thinking about Pollan led to another book, Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money by Woody Tasch. It examines the harm done when our economic engine runs white-hot, running solely on financial ROI as its fuel. It’s centered on the thesis, “the basis of the economy is soil fertility.” Recently, I was grateful for the opportunity to write about Slow Money as a guest for Mission Markets; please find the full post here.

In the nearly two years of writing Groundswell, I’ve learned two primary things: 1) We have a broken food system, but there are countless people working to change it. Many of them are business owners. These businesses patiently do good and create strong livelihoods. If we can’t figure out how to earn our keep in sustainable food, then the changes we want won’t be sustainable. 2) When the farmers invite you to dinner, go no matter what. It will be the best meal of your life.

Lastly, in Slow Money, Tasch writes, “Entrepreneurs and farmers are the poets of the economy …. Ideas in a business plan; seeds in potting soil; rhymes in search of new reasons.”

As someone with a little bit of humble experience as both an entrepreneur and a poet, and with much respect for farmers, I find a lot of inspiration in this quote. The common trait in poetry and entrepreneurship is that they both make the heart soar. They both fly in the celebratory spirit of the unknown and the possible.

So, dearest readers, it’s time to fly and put Groundswell down for now. If you find you miss this somewhat informative, yet smart-alecky voice, you can find me writing for slowmoneynyc.org. If you’d like to be notified if and when Groundswell starts back up, please subscribe with your email. Simply stated, it’s been a thrill to write about you and for you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading.

Downtown Express recently published an article about the faltering finances of the Seaport Museum New York, the historic component to South Street Seaport, a museum/shopping development opened in the 1980s.  The key phrase was:  “…the problem lies in the clash between the district’s commercial character and the museum’s historic presence.”

In response to the story, I wrote a Letter to the Editor.  They didn’t publish it; all their letters this week address the SoHo Business Improvement District (BID) concerns.  So, here’s the letter now on Groundswell – feedback welcome!

Keep Scrollin’

New Amsterdam Market - Summer 2010

Dear Editor:

Re: “Seaport Museum flounders, but hasn’t yet sunk,” (Vol. 20, Number 41, Feb. 23rd-March 1st)

My family has been in the West Village for over thirty years, and I remember skipping through the fanfare of South Street Seaport as a kid in the early 1980s.  Thinking back on the years that followed, my family returned to the area occasionally with out-of-town guests.  It was a way to spend time with visitors; however, as a local family, it did not have an enduring draw.  During the 1980s-1990s, I went to the Seaport five or six times.  In 1999, while on an escalator to the food court, two visitors summarized my feelings about it, as one said to the other, “I feel like we could be home in Minneapolis.”

I’m not writing to disparage Minneapolis.  On the contrary, I’m writing with great respect for the uniqueness of local communities everywhere.  In our shared city, I have recently returned to the Seaport regularly for one vibrant, new venue:  The New Amsterdam Market.  In the past 18 months, I have visited the market – and its host neighborhood – at least a dozen times.  It’s held in the same place where the Dutch started their markets 400 years ago.  Its vendors are food entrepreneurs from this region.  When I buy produce there from the Queens County Farm Museum, I support the only continuously working farm in New York City since the 1600s.  Now in my weekly grocery shopping, I experience the history of the Seaport and the city.

In this same issue of Downtown Express, there was a great article about the Taste of Tribeca, described as one of the “most anticipated” spring events downtown.  In the Letters to the Editor section, SoHo residents lamented that their neighborhood has become “a shopping mall for tourists.”  Isn’t it evident from these two topics alone that New York City is strongest when we celebrate our extraordinary neighborhoods?

I hope the Seaport Museum New York survives its difficulties.  This is not an “either/or” debate.  Cultural and historical venues always improve our city.  As for this New Yorker, I look forward to returning to the New Amsterdam Market this spring.  I hope the city understands it’s time to give the market a permanent home in the Seaport.  The locals would love that.

Nicole Reed

groundswellblog.wordpress.com

Lunchtime at the Market

Mr. Stokes -- GRILL A CHEF -- Will See You Now

Beautiful Packaging

Later today, a small group of New York City food advocates will gather to share ideas with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.  Tonight’s meet and greet comes on a wave of recent events, all involving city government, to engage local food and urban environment activists.  The Mayor’s office continues to hold public forums on PlaNYC, and last week, before an audience of the city’s most vocal change agents, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn presented FoodWorks, a series of proposals to improve the NYC food system, “from ground to garbage.”

In a phrase:  The cat is now out of the community garden.  There’s talk among those of us working on these issues about whether or not the city is serious in its call for change.  I certainly hope so and can’t help but wonder if officials are already past the point of no return.  As we move forward, I have two requests…yes, two for now.

1) Let’s not be a dysfunctional family.  Let’s work together.  The Mayor’s Office is in, Quinn is in — and based on the NYC Food and Climate Change Summit last year — Stringer is, too.  Yet whenever I hear proposals from a local gov camp, there’s little mention of proposals from colleagues across the street or across the river.  Yes, we are a city of geographical pride (Greenpoint, Brooklyn = Number One 4-EVA!), but we let’s not have our fiefdoms hinder the big solutions.

2) Let’s build on our resources already underway.  In Quinn’s talk, she saved her strongest language for Hunt’s Point, the city’s food distribution hub and the largest such center in the world.  In brief, it was already antiquated when it opened in 1967.  It connects to the city by a mess of highways, and diesel trucks idle around it all-day and night, contributing to ugly air in its South Bronx host neighborhood.  The area consistently registers an alarming rate of asthma sufferers.

City Council Speaker Quinn Addresses the Audience at Food & Finance High

“If we only get one thing in all of FoodWorks right, it has to be this [Hunt’s Point],” said Quinn.

I’m all for it.  But rather than get overwhelmed by designing the perfect solution for food in 2060 at Hunt’s Point, what if we were to begin now by strengthening a decentralized distribution system?   For example, shortly after Quinn’s talk, I got to have coffee with Robert LaValva, the local hero behind the New Amsterdam Market.  Here’s someone with deep skills and experience in creating systems — both as an architect and a market progenitor.  His market attracts thousands of people each week to the space in front of the former Fulton Fish Market buildings.  How can this area be a nexus for our city food system once again?  If the political will is there, as we are hearing, elements like these buildings should no longer be at the mercy of other pressures.

These are initial thoughts.  There’s much more to say on the topics mentioned here, so stayed tuned.  In the meantime, please find the full FoodWorks report here.  And with that, let’s pull up to the dinner table together tonight.

Post-election update:  Unfortunately, Francis Thicke got smoked on November 2nd (and not in the tasty way).   In the final result, Iowans voted 67% for Northey and 37% for Thicke.

As The Iowa Independent stated in their review of Northey’s win:  “…large and small farmers in the state…have found at least current compromise with larger agribusiness and now depend on those relationships to maintain the family income and property.”  Don’t we call that “hog-tied”?

Let’s find the silver lining:  The pounding in Iowa reminds us that there is still work to do.  It has been said — mainly by David Axelrod in Obama’s run-up towards his successful election — “Be wary of the echo chamber”.  That is, if we’re only talking to one another and wholeheartedly agreeing with every word, we’re in a closed communication loop.  We lose the broad view.  Now, coming up over the horizon in that view, can you see the Farm Bill of 2012?  Yeah, me too.

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For people who eat, there’s a bellwether election underway in Iowa.  Voters in the nation’s food basket will soon decide between Bill Northey, the incumbent funded by large-scale commodity farming, and Francis Thicke, a regional dairy farmer backed by a PhD in soil science.  Thicke advocates for sustainability by encouraging farmers to generate their own energy onsite.  He also wants farmers to process their crops, thereby cutting out an unnecessary middleman.  And he’s in favor of giving local communities the right to vote up or down on any new CAFOs in their region.

In the days leading up to the vote, the two candidates are within the margin of error.  Here’s the full article from Joe Frassler in The Atlantic:

Conventional vs. Organic:

An Ag Secretary Race to Watch

On Thursday, October 7th, the Mayor’s Office held its first “community conversation” to talk about what’s working and what’s not in PlaNYC.  To recap, PlaNYC is the city’s sustainability document for the year 2030, an anticipated era of more people and contentious climate.  It came out in 2007, along with the legal imperative to update it every four years.  Now New Yorkers are gathering around the collective table to direct the first round of updates for spring 2011.

Community Advocate Addresses His Peers; PlaNYC

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was encouraged by a personal email from someone at the Mayor’s Office.  Now after having attended, I recommend it to anyone who wants to be a part of building the next phase of NYC life.  At the Brooklyn event, I’d estimate there were about 130 people in attendance.  The evening was adeptly facilitated by the PlaNYC team; they said we’d be done by 8:00 pm and we were.  It was well-paced with good energy.  No rambling.  No whining.  Quite the opposite:  I met neighbors who want an open dialogue for a better city, despite upcoming tough developments.

The evening started with a summary of PlaNYC achievements to date.  For example, did you know that New York is home to the first municipal Office of Environmental Remediation in the country?  Me neither.  Later, the audience funneled into a large room with several round tables.  Each table was labeled with its particular PlaNYC topic of concern:  Water, Transportation, Energy, etc.  People selected their tables, introduced ourselves, and got talking.  The city’s team stopped by frequently to make sure our goals were, in their words, “ambitious, practical, and measurable.”  Then, each table selected a speaker to tell the room about the best idea from their discussion.  One by one in round-robin style, we heard from each table.  It was fast and focused.

In summary, if you have the opportunity to attend one of these community conversations, DO IT.  Yes, I too wonder how these conversations will eventually fold into city policy.  It was an empowering evening, but where will we go from here?  I’m not sure of the answer.  What I know is that as the room dispersed, and we all took our steps onto the Brooklyn streets, I could hear my community saying, “If you don’t participate, you can’t complain.”

Postcards Given Out Prompt Everyone to Text PlaNYC Ideas to the City

To the food activists of New York City:  Tonight we ride!  Shortly, starting at 6 pm at 1368 Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy, the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability will convene a town hall meeting for feedback on its PlaNYC.  Introduced by Bloomberg in April 2007, PlaNYC is the blueprint for an environmentally-sustainable city, looking towards a population of 9 million in the year 2030.  According to a local law, PlaNYC is required to be updated every four years, and the first one will be published in February 2011.

Together we can write that update now.

Most local Earth advocates cheer PlaNYC, and in my opinion, rightly so.  Yet there is one glaring omission:  In this strategy to create “a greener, greater New York,”  it does not address the role of the food system.  It doesn’t mention urban agriculture, community gardens, or the use of rooftop farming to absorb storm water, to name some examples.  Also, other ideas from city government have been compelling — Christine Quinn’s FoodWorks initiative, for example — how can we fold them into PlaNYC?  What else do we want to see included?

When I RSVP’d for this event, I asked about food issues in my email.  To my happy surprise, there’s an Oz behind the curtain, and I got this reply from a gentleman at City Hall:

“…As for food and PlaNYC, we have spent this summer and fall meeting with experts, advocates, city and state agencies, and other related stakeholders on the issue of sustainable food systems.  We are currently exploring the role that sustainable food systems can play in PlaNYC.

The community conversations we are hosting are part of this effort to determine that role.  During the Community Conversation event tomorrow night [Now read: tonight] there will be breakout groups where community members will work together to determine a goal for a number of specific areas including all existing parts of the plan as well as others not already included.  One of the areas that will have a breakout group is sustainable food systems.  Please, come prepared to help the group rally around a shared goal for food sustainability in Brooklyn and, also, think about the ways that community groups and neighborhoods can help promote that goal.”

Readers, if you can’t make it tonight, don’t fear.  This is the first in a series of meetings by the PlaNYC team.  Please find the list of meetings, including one in every borough, here.  With that, I tuck my copy of PlaNYC under my arm and head out the door.  Stay tuned!

Under the Vines and Above Our Heads

The poet Mary Oliver once wrote of “the patience of vegetables and saints.”  Yesterday, above the endless activity that is New York, I caught a peek at this patience.  It’s there, in a squash blossom, under the vines and care of Ben Flanner.  This little flower is one of the many saintly jewels growing at the Brooklyn Grange, an 18,000 square foot rooftop farm located in Queens.  (Our guess is right: the name came before the location.)

It is pure inspiration to walk a rooftop farm.  As we look to use our urban space better, as well as shorten the travel distance for our food, I hope the these farms become commonplace.  I also hope that we’ll always keep the feeling of awe that they spark.  The contrast of green leaves fluttering against a backdrop of skyscrapers is striking and lovely all at once.

You may remember Ben from a story last summer about his initial rooftop farm project in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  I got curious to see his latest effort — a farm three times the size as last year! — so I stopped by the market at Brooklyn Grange.  It’s open every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon in the lobby of the building, among other times and places.

The market trip reminded me of another quote, often said by a friend of mine:  “May you live in interesting times.”  Indeed.  How wonderful that a trip to pick up tomatoes and Swiss chard included these images:

From the Street: First Sign of Grange

A New Way to See the Citicorp Building

The Contrast of City Street and Leafy Green

American Ingenuity

The Subway as Backdrop

Peppers and Visitors

To the Market!

Market Choices in the Lobby on Northern Boulevard

Why, Hello There, New York City

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