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Brooklyn Proves It’s Easy Being Green

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish?
—T.S. Eliot

Heroes at concrete plant. Courtesy of Sustainable South Bronx.

A mid-February stroll past the acre-and-a-half Wyckoff Farm in East Flatbush does little to evoke an image of what life here looked like before 1901, when most of Brooklyn was a working plot of fertile farmland. A dozen or so fledgling apple trees have been planted in rows near the corner of the lot that advertises the “Fixed Flat Tire” services of the neighboring junkyard. The worn, shingled farmhouse sits back from an intersection noisy with sirens and the rumble of school buses headed next door to P.S. 135. A wide lawn, still littered with fallen leaves, is empty save for a few park benches and picnic tables and a small stack of firewood under a blue tarp.

The vacant winter scene hardly resembles an idyllic image of Dutch colonial farm life. But behind the house, six garden beds covered loosely in hay promise a more bountiful spring. Seeds are being planted here this month for a crop of okra, sweet potatoes, and calilu—a grain popular among the farm’s West Indian neighbors.

A seed is also being planted for a new phase in what is quietly becoming Brooklyn’s green movement: local organizations tilling the borough’s soil with practices from composting to photovoltaic (solar) roofs to sustainable beer. While most of the country looks to the West Coast and Colorado as the greenest of the green thumbs—leading in off-the-grid technology, sustainable architecture, and renewable resource programs—Brooklyn is modestly taking its place as a contender at the forefront of urban-agricultural renewal.

“We’re definitely part of a larger movement in Brooklyn that I really think is starting to gain steam,” says Phil Forsyth, resident farmer at the Wyckoff House.

Digging an empty lot. Image courtesy of Greening for Breathing.

Some people say that one of every four Americans has roots in Brooklyn, and locals such as Forsyth are working to dig up those roots to plant a greener borough. Led by the example of such groups as Sustainable South Bronx and the Lower East Side Ecology Center—organizations working to harvest the city’s waste and promote eco-friendly practices—Brooklyn is turning some of its vacant lots and dilapidated factory buildings into models for sustainable city living.

“In terms of social and political infrastructure, certainly there are other cities leading Brooklyn” in the green movement, observes Ian Marvy, cofounder and codirector of Red Hook’s Added Value. “But there are some very exciting things taking place in Brooklyn, and they’re happening below the radar.”

Marvy’s program in Red Hook has helped draw Brooklyn’s green streak out from under the radar and into the spotlight. At Added Value, local high school students farm a half-acre patch of land in Red Hook’s Coffey Park through a program called Herban Solutions, selling baby greens and herbs at a local farmer’s market and to neighborhood restaurants such as 360.

Nearly three years into the project, Marvy still seems surprised that the city handed over the land to a couple of urban agriculturalists who were double-dared by a 16-year-old to grow their own food in the neighborhood. “This is city land,” he says. “It was a huge investment on the part of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation to give us control of an entire city block.”

Marvy’s goal is “shrinking the ecological footprint of Red Hook,” and his idealism is shared by many other Brooklynites, including the Brooklyn Brewery. On N. 11th in Williamsburg, energy from a wind farm in Fenner, New York, fuels the operations of the brewery and the daily production of 17 beers—from the flagship lager to the seasonal Monster Barleywine.

“Contrary to popular perception, we don’t have a windmill on our roof,” says general manager Eric Ottaway. Though the upstate wind farm—Community Energy—approached the brewery with a proposal to transfer 10% of its power to wind, the company decided in 2003 to shift operations to 100% wind power, despite an 8 to 10% premium in electric bill charges.

Working in Bryant Garden. Image courtesy of Greening for Breathing.

“We all need to grow up and realize that New York City does need more power, and that power has to come from somewhere,” says Ottaway. “Our concession was to pay a little more to use an alternative source.”

That people are willing to pay a little more for earth-friendly initiatives has been demonstrated around the corner in Williamsburg at Sustainable Living—a trendy design boutique catering to decorators with a soft spot for renewable and recycled resources. Neighborhood hipsters can be seen in the shop perusing biodegradable dining sets and inside-out car tires that serve as planter boxes.

But Brooklyn’s greening isn’t limited to sustainable lager and urban farm stands. In some parts of the borough, architects and designers are launching sustainable initiatives from the ground up: gutting old warehouses and brownstones to be renovated as role models for green building.

In Crown Heights, Brooklyn’s own “Green Cinderella” team—Susan Boyle and her husband Benton Brown, awarded the fairytale title in a grant from Keyspan Energy Company—have transformed a defunct 1850s warehouse into eco-lofts. The building, once a brewery and ice storage house, now features a rainwater collection system, insulated floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and a high-efficiency condensing boiler.

On the roof, a 2,400-square-foot patch of soil nurtures hardy, low-maintenance plants that improve air quality and cool the urban “heat island” effect—the extra 10 degrees of summer heat created by pavement, buildings, and a lack of vegetation in urban areas. A black splash of peel-and-stick solar panels provides nearly half of the building’s electricity.

Solar energy will also help run another large building in the Crown Heights neighborhood: the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. The world’s first children’s museum when it opened in 1899, the renovated space will be the country’s first “green” children’s museum when it reopens in 2006. The museum will feature geothermal wells that reduce energy requirements and make the building more temperature efficient by drawing on the earth’s natural temperature. The two deep well pumps will eliminate the need for cooling towers.

The renovated museum will be the first New York City cultural institution to tap into geothermal wells for its heating and cooling requirements, according to Frances Gretes, director of new business for the project’s architect, Rafael Viñoly Inc. Together with the solar panels, the geothermal energy source will save New York City—which owns the building—more than $100,000 per year in energy costs.

When the bright yellow, L-shaped addition is completed, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum will set the standard for “green” children’s museum projects—already there are five more under way across the country. Office lights will be controlled by heat- and motion-detectors, and sensors will regulate artificial light so that rooms dim or brighten based on readings of natural light. The building’s ventilation system, too, will adjust according to occupancy sensors to accommodate the number of visitors in a space at any given time.

At Wyckoff Farm, Forsyth and executive director Sean Sawyer are more limited in their sustainable endeavors by the building’s historic preservation status. The farmhouse is the oldest building in New York State—originally constructed in 1652—and Forsyth and Sawyer envision grounds that will reconnect Brooklyn with its history as some of the most productive farmland in the United States.

The mission for the Wyckoff farmstead is to reflect the sustainability of colonial farm life: pressing cider from the young orchard of antique-variety apples, making jam from the berry garden along the wall to the east of the house, and selling homegrown produce to neighbors at a farm stand run by volunteers. Plans for the site include reconstructing a 19th-century Dutch-American timber-frame barn from Somerset County, New Jersey, where neighborhood kids will learn how to churn butter and make ice cream.

And while the sight of the dormant midwinter farm makes a bustling colonial marketplace seem as lofty as a brewery powered by upstate wind, Forsyth is inspired by Brooklyn’s neighborhood success stories.

“The challenge is bringing sustainability back to the city,” he says.


Marjory Garrison


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2005

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