Brooklyn Grange

Earlier this Summer I visited the Eagle Street farm, a 6,000 square foot garden on a warehouse rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was the first rooftop farm I had seen and I was very impressed by what they were able to accomplish and grow. Two weeks ago I went out to Long Island City to see the Brooklyn Grange Farm and was expecting something along the same lines as Eagle Street, perhaps a bit more ambitious. As I walked along Northern Boulevard and looked up at the building, I wondered what portion of the roof they were actually using for the garden. Walking out onto the rooftop of the farm I was completely unprepared for the magnitude of what I saw in front of me, essentially the whole roof of the building was taken up by the farm, 40,000 square feet, almost an acre of rooftop, was devoted to rows and rows of vegetables and crops.

Both Farms were started by head farmer Ben Flanner, a Wisconsic transplant, who along with his partners, broke ground on the Brooklyn Grange Farm back in May of this year. The farm was originally intended to be in Brooklyn, but let’s face it, Brooklyn sounds better than Queens anyway (I was born in Queens so I can say that). It utilizes 1.2 million pounds of soil, and if there is one question I regret not asking, it is how they got it up there. Nonetheless, the structural integrity of the roof was tested and supports a drainage system and even has a barrier layer to prevent roots from penetrating the ceiling below. Scattered around a mélange of rooftop pipes, pumps, fans and water towers, were crops of okra, kale, eggplant, jalapeño peppers, carrots, spinach, assorted greens and an abundance of tomatoes. There was even a beehive located in the SW corner. The organic farm is a for profit venture, selling to restaurants and to the public through their various produce stands. It is open also to the public, and if you ever think you have seen it all in New York, go out and take a look at what is fast becoming the future of urban farming and the new look for New York rooftops.

9/11 - The Twin Towers

I’m going to deviate a little from the normal subjects we cover, with the 9th anniversary of 9/11 coming this Saturday, I wanted to commemorate the passing of all those souls that lost their lives that day by featuring a tribute to the buildings that has come to symbolize that terrible event. People in Washington DC or Pennsylvania, may have a different vision for their memories, but to most of the nation and especially to New Yorkers, the World Trade Center showed us how quickly a building and our hearts could crumble.

As we watched the mortar, steel and concrete disintegrate beneath them, we saw the two buildings fall, but we felt 3000 lives perish. A friend of mine died that day, Captain Pat Brown of the FDNY. The things I knew about Pat were that he was a Vietnam war veteran whose recounts of action were chilling and horrific. He was also the one of the department's most decorated firefighters, a true hero, serving at Ladder Company 3, which lost 11 members that day. He also studied yoga and gave of his time to teach it to kids. He lived a life of service! When I saw the towers fall, I remember thinking that Pat was in there, I knew it, not out of any psychic reasons, but because that is where he would be, leading the charge up the stairs to rescue others as he had done for most of his life. I was sadly right.

I had a twenty-year plus relationship with the Twin Towers themselves, I had photographed them almost from the time they were built. I shot them from the eastside with the Brooklyn Bridge; the westside from Jersey City across the Hudson; towering aerials from above and looking up from below as they touched the sky. When they were built, they were not everyone’s favorite, in fact many thought they were a blight on the classic lower Manhattan skyline, but they grew on us and became an iconic part of the New York cityscape. I think it was Ric Burns who said that after the towers were gone, it was like losing a limb, you keep reaching for it, but it is not there. That was how it felt to me, I didn’t recognize the city loved.

I hope you enjoy looking at these photos that I took over the years, I never got tired of photographing the World Trade Center and skyline, I amassed hundreds of them during that twenty year period. I also had the honor of gracing the New York Post’s ( I know it is not my favorite paper either) 1 year anniversary issue memorializing that tragic day. We are nine years away from that Tuesday, but it is just as haunting and heartbreaking as it was then. It is good to remember, it would be better if we could learn.

The Science Barge

A few weeks ago I talked about the idea of converting urban rooftops into urban farms. The benefits go beyond just having more locally grown food, a reduction in transportation costs and mitigating the urban heat island effect, it helps people understand how food is grown, something too many of us have lost in a world of packaged foods, fast foods and ready to eat everything. But learning to grow a garden, let alone an urban farm can be a big jump for people. There is the issue of working in small, sometimes confined spaces, and how do you set up irrigation systems and get the energy to run them. These are challenges that got some people thinking a few years ago at an organization called New York Sun Works, and so they set out to create some prototypes for urban gardening that would help them and others understand how to create agricultural systems that work in an urban environment. They created the Science Barge.

The Science Barge was launched in May, 2007, and over the course of the next year or so, was moored at several spots along the Westside of Manhattan on the Hudson River. It is now run by Groundwork Hudson Valley and has found a permanent home in Yonkers. Visitors and schoolchildren are welcome to visit and learn about urban farming and sustainability, enabling them to create a vision for urban living that so far had been reserved for their rural neighbors, namely growing their own food. The barge is powered by two raised solar panel arrays, some micro wind turbines on the roof and bio-fuels. Water for irrigation is gotten from rainwater collected in a 1,200 gallon cistern, and Hudson River water that is run through a reverse Osmosis filter that purifies it for use.

The day I visited, I saw greens, lettuce, tomatoes and melons growing from a variety of Hydroponic and Aquaponic systems along with a few examples of vertical farming. Aquaponics is a bio-integrated food production system that is a combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics, which basically means that the waste products of one biological system serve as nutrients for a second biological system. The first bio-system contain fish, the feces of which are broken down by algae in a second tank which then distributes the nutrients to the plants, the second bio-system. The plant system filters, cleans and recycles the clean water back to the fish in the first tank. The fish and algae create the nutrients the plants need, and the plants prevent a toxic build up of nutrients that would eventually harm the fish, essentially recreating a nutrient cycle normally found in nature.

Nearby was a table of greens being grown using the Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponic system using a shallow stream of water containing nutrients that continually recirculates past the bare roots of the plants which are held in channels or gullies. There were also a series of plastic pots containing cucumber plants using another hydroponic system, a drip process call the Dutch Bucket system.

The Science Barge had over 3100 students visit last year  as part of the barge’s formal education program. They also have a High School internship program that employs students from Yonkers. The general public can visit on weekends, here are their hours. Educating others on the benefits of urban farming is going on in many places around the country, including a number of Master Gardener Programs that bring this information directly to communities, but the Science Barge is a particularly assessable way to witness and explore this growing trend. The systems employed on the barge also happen to be high yield, and low impact as far as it’s carbon footprint, and maybe most importantly because it utilizes greenhouses, it is climate independent in that it can yield crops all year round. I keep saying it, but imagine a city of green roofs and greenhouses feeding the residents of the apartment complexes below them, what a site and what a step forward that would be.