Everything is Temporary – The Loss of Urban Green Space And The Seventh And Final Season Of North Brooklyn Farm | Come to Life
Almost a decade ago, Henry Sweets was walking home by what was then the parking lot of Domino Sugar. He saw an expansive field of grass just blowing in the wind and he thought, “What if we filled this place with flowers?” In 2013, Sweets, along with co-founder Ryan Watson opened North Brooklyn Farms, a pop-up agricultural park and community space in Brooklyn. Large plants clean the air; a pollinator border attracts bees, butterflies, and birds, while vegetables grow in rows through the middle. Kale, peppers, mugwort, chamomile, lovage, and medicinal herbs thrive in a space that once contained only rubble. A multi-colored glass greenhouse by the artist Tom Fruin sparkles like a gemstone. Sweets and Watson successfully took an area of the city that was dead and turned it into something living. That was close to seven years ago, and since then the space has transformed, moved locations, and grown wildly beyond anything they originally imagined. Along with their success though comes the end of their temporary lease. “When I think about [the] impermanence of green space in the city,” says Sweets, “I think about the life cycle of plants and the death and rebirth that happens every year.” At the end of their seventh season, at the end of November, North Brooklyn Farms will permanently shut down but the seeds of inspiration that they’ve planted in Brooklyn will continue to sprout.
Over the course of the farm’s existence the neighborhood around it has changed dramatically, with sleek condos growing faster than their sunflowers and the 5-acre public Domino Park butting up against their perimeter. Within the neighborhood that continued to gentrify, the farm built a tight-knit community. They have been funded wholly by people: donations, memberships, events, and gatherings. Tiered memberships (starting at $1) offer incentives like monthly visits to the farmstead for veggies, flowers and herbs and tickets and Members’ Parties. On any given day, you can find residents sprawled on the grass or sitting in benches, breathing in the flowers. “I think that when we have healthy communities and have healthy spaces, people feel more of a sense of balance and more of a sense of connection,” says Sweets. “And I think it’s easier for them to live healthy lives.” There are even volunteer hours where visitors can get their hands dirty by helping plant.
Where North Brooklyn Farms really shines is with events: glorious farm dinners in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge where their in-house farm chefs prepare seasonal menus highlighting vegetables and herbs grown onsite. There are Sunday Suppers, educational events and Chef Dinners and all the proceeds go towards the maintenance of the farm. Sitting in the outdoors, almost directly under the JMZ train, watching the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline, munching on freshly picked radicchio from a three-course vegetarian menu is a unique experience. Parked at a table, you can’t help but look to the stranger sitting next to you and smile. You aren’t attending an event but becoming part of an alliance centered around better food systems. “What we’re doing here is just trying to demonstrate how valuable green space is to a community,” says Sweets. “We’re up against really intense economic forces here. This is one of the most capitalistic places in the world and I think instead of being angry at the system, we’re trying to put that energy into creating something vital and important that captures the precious moments that exist here and make the most out of them.” The summer night may end with s’mores at the campfire, but the inspiring values from the farm stay with you when you leave.
An important, and perhaps surprising, aspect of North Brooklyn Farm is that it was never meant to be a permanent fixture in the neighborhood. “This project here is a temporary pop-up park,” says Sweet. Originally, the farm was only meant to last one or two years, so learning that this would be their last was not a surprise. “We believe that sharing the idea of what a city could look like is going to create more important spaces in the future and will inspire people to come together to turn a vacant lot of rubble into a lush garden.” The ephemeral farm is essentially like building a sand castle on the beach, where a child spends hours building just to see it wash away in the current. The farmland will ultimately become a public plaza, part of Domino Park. “Having [a] sign out there that says ‘Everything Is Temporary’ is basically helping people let go of their attachment to anything,” says Sweets. “And maybe also helping them understand like, “Hey, I actually value this space a lot.” And if you can get people to start to be intentional about what they value, you’re setting yourself up to really advocate for projects like this that create green space, healthy air, plants, [and] healthy food.”
There are very few empty lots these days in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but there are other needs in Brooklyn and beyond. “I was living in fear of the [final] year and now that it’s finally here, I’m able to see the project for what it really is: an experiment on capitalizing on space and time and trying to envision what future cities can look like,” says Sweets. Thinking outside of the box will be paramount, and far-thinking projects like North Brooklyn Farms inspire the communities they nourish. “That’s really what we’re focused on here, showing people that it’s possible.”