In the press release for Chautauqua: Creating Community Through Food, the latest series of imaginative food events by Derek Denckla, I’m drawn to a simple phrase tucked in parenthesis:  “and vice versa”.

The full line reads, “Chautauqua aims to create community through food (and vice versa), assembling a series of innovative and diverse events and exhibitions harking back to historical cultural gatherings started in NYC and held in rural farm communities all over America.”  The series begins with a Farm City Book Club meeting on Tuesday, February 22nd, and will explore food via art, sustainability, history, and more on a weekly basis for the next five months.  He’s got an incredible line-up and you can find it all right here.

Denckla Speaks Chautauqua at 61 Local

What I like about the vice versa is that it makes a two-way street; an exchange.  Yes, through these events, we’re going to break bread and expand the table.  Yet in the vice versa — creating food through community — we’ll also create sustenance.  This two-way exchange leads to a trademark in Denckla’s work that I always appreciate: “…collapsing the distinction between maker and consumer” (phrase also from press release).  It reminds me of Denckla saying that his 2010 Farm City series sought to get people to realize we don’t have to be “alienated consumers.”

These ideas recall a conversation I got to share last summer with Professor Joan Gussow.  We were sitting in her garden, after roasting freshly-harvested eggplants, and she was asking me a series of questions such as, “Did I know how to hem a pair of pants?”.  While I was busy thinking of the tailor I’d call, she answered for me by saying, “It’s disempowering not to be able to do things yourself.”  Thus implied…and vice versa.

So, let’s make some food — and ideas, conversation, and connection, while we’re at it — in these coming weeks.  The venue is Local 61, a new bar/restaurant at 61 Bergen Street in Carroll Gardens dedicated to local food and beer producers.  The place is warm, cozy, and exquisite.  See you there.

Inviting...

61 Local Sign Says It All: Drink, Idea, Food, Conversation, Connection

Brooklyn in Proper Perspective

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

All the scarecrows I know are good at singing and dancing — and eventually — math equations.  And like a good English noun, their name explains their function.  They scare crows.  Songs, math, and directions back to Kansas are frills.

But Brooklyn always has a different take on the usual.  Recently, from the windows of a friend’s house in Williamsburg, I enjoyed seeing what we’ve come to call The Urban Scarecrow.  Or shall we say, The Scarepige?

These are two beautiful urban backyards where the owners have been planting for decades.  The plastic bags are used to scare away pigeons.  I’m told the birds go after the tomato plants, but as you’ll see in the photo below, the spooky bags have them dining elsewhere.

Happy Monday in another lovely week of summer!

Pigeons Be Gone! (Note: Deer in photo is not real)

Somewhere, deep into hour two of shoveling, I started to have visions of fierce machinery tilling vast fields.  A part of me understands why big companies took over farming:  It’s hard work.  But in evading the process ourselves, we lose a vital understanding.  Where better to remember than at school?

BK Farmyards is the inspired urban farming initiative by Stacey Murphy and Bee Ayer.  They describe it as “decentralized” — they plan to farm several lots around Brooklyn, including private brownstone backyards.  Right now they are digging their flagship project, a one acre farm at the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights.

On a recent Saturday, a crew of about twenty people, including many members of the Farm Club, continued to crack open the school’s front lawn.  They’re early in the weeks of growing food for the school’s 20-member CSA.  By fall, the farm will be incorporated into the health, science and art classes.

But one day at a time.  At the end of this Saturday, Bee happily summed up the group’s accomplishments: “We have our first crops in the ground – kale, beets, carrots, salad mix and marigolds, sunflowers and zinnias.”

Continued below

Bee Ayer Instructs Students On How To Create New Soil Beds

Acting on Instructions!

Like the nascent plants, many of the students involved are freshmen.  They will be the stewards of this farm for their whole high school experience.  Imagine the learning curve coming up for everyone.  Kassandra Midy, Class of 2014, said it best with a few words and dirty hands, “I was scared of worms last week, but now I’m holding one.”

At one point, Stacey took a minute to take it all in.  “This is months’ worth of talking and planning.  To see the physical evidence of all of the work and all the fund raising is pretty incredible,” she said.  Pointing to the active shovels nearby, she continued,”It’s as simple as that person turning over the soil.  This feels really great.”

Now would you like to be a part of it?  I bet you would.  If you’re in New York and ready to work it out in the dirt, BK Farmyards is the perfect place.  You’ll work hard, enjoy yourself, and sleep like a baby when the day is done.  They have volunteer work days every Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm for the next several weeks.  Click here for the full calendar and details!

The Front Yard Becomes a Front Farm

Learning from Bee Ayer & Her Mad Skillz

Digging in for The High School for Public Service

Pausing a Minute to Pose

Rooftop Gardens in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Rooftop Farms in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

It sounds like directions to your next mafia hit:  Walk to the most northern edge of Brooklyn, down a side street ’til you get to the river, then into the warehouse on the left.  You’ll find what you’re looking for at the top of the stairs.

The good news is what you’re looking for is a 6,000 square foot edible garden known as Rooftop Farms in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  Founded by Ben Flanner, Annie Novak, and Lisa and Chris Goode of Goode Green, the farm is having a triumphant inaugural season.  They have gotten press coverage from many major outlets — including the BBC News.  Every week some 100+ people come to the Farm to tour it, work it, and buy its produce.

One element of the draw is the juxtaposition of a green field against the stunning Manhattan skyline.  The other magnetic force is the people.  Ben and Annie greet everyone like family.  They also have a reservoir of kindness and patience for novices who are eager to get their hands dirty.

As Nicholas D. Kristoff recently wrote in his New York Times Op-Ed piece (8/23/09), “…I think I figured out the central problem with modern industrial agriculture.  It’s not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all.  More fundamentally, it has no soul.”

Rooftop Farms provides green space, local food, and a big heart antidote to the process.  I was happy to get a few thoughts from Annie about it:

Why do you think Rooftop Farms is so popular now?

Greenpoint is community-oriented and it’s been a great year for local food.  Our number 1 goal is that our food speaks for itself.  We’re not selling you anything other than a tomato.  We’re not selling the packaging or the claim that it fights heart disease.  Just the tomato.

Why do you think the Farm important?

Greenpoint has terrible soil on the ground level.  We’re offering people a green space.  It’s an oasis for people – and flora and fauna, too.  And pollinating insects.  We want to put the jungle back into the concrete jungle.  (Laughs.)

What are your plans for expansion?

We hope to be a model for green roofs, local food, and learning about plants.  I think the Farm proves we have endless possibility.  We want people to do this everywhere.  Come, learn about what we’re doing, and take it back home.

To learn more and sign up to volunteer at the most beautiful farm around, go to www.rooftopfarms.org.

Take the Stairs to the Farm

Take the Stairs to the Farm

Annie Novak Instructs Farmhands (A.K.A. Volunteers)

Annie Novak Instructs Farmhands (A.K.A. Volunteers)

In the Dirt

In the Dirt

Field Backdrop: Williamburg Bridge

Field Backdrop: Williamburg Bridge