"This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees..."
The lyrics to the Talking Heads song "Nothing But Flowers" bounce around in my head as I tour Riverpark Farms, Manhattan's newest example of urban agriculture and real estate and design ingenuity.
"Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis
you got it, you got it"
David Byrne predicted this in his witty alternate-future lyrics! Nature is taking over New York! Or, at least a sizable plot in Kips Bay on the East side of Manhattan. And, at least temporarily, until the farm built on milk crates easily picks up and moves to its next home. For now, the farm and its 7,000 fruit and vegetable plants, in 85 varieties, are thriving on a "stalled" site, right next to Riverpark, the newest Tom Colicchio venture and proprietors of the farm.
Ubiquitous throughout New York (and everywhere else) these days, a stalled site is a plot of land where construction began on a new real estate venture, but stopped and is on hiatus (thanks, economy). These unseemly, gaping holes and half-built foundations can be found all over, and typically sit unused until money and/or negotiations get everything rolling again.
Sisha Ortuzar, chef at Riverpark, and his partner, Jeffrey Zurofsky, had hoped to eventually integrate a farm into the new restaurant, which opened in August.
"When we were looking at the space, we thought 'this will be a perfect place to put in a farm, really cool dream to do'... but then, how do we go about that," Ortuzar said.
Working with politicians, the community, and especially the open-minded developers of the site, Ortuzar and Zurofsky realized they could have their own farm-fresh produce for the restaurant sooner then they thought. Construction is stalled for now on the Riverpark Farms site, but will eventually resume to become the Alexandria Center for Life Science. No one knows when the economy, and construction, will kick back in. So, the key element of the Riverpark Farm is to be quickly adaptable for tearing down and rebuilding at anytime.
"When we were first talking, I envisioned traditional, big wooden raised beds. I didn't even actually think about the need to for mobility," Ortuzar said, talking about the process. "How do you move a big wooden planter when you need to... well you don't. So that's why, this."
Through GrowNYC, a non-profit farming and educational organization, Ortuzar and Zurofsky quickly connected with Thomas Kosbau of Ore Design to address the design of the farm. Ore, an architecture and design group based in Brooklyn, had worked with GrowNYC on a community garden, and also had a penchant for re-purposing projects, having recently worked on phase one of a Brooklyn market of shipping containers, Dekalb Market.
Thinking of the necessity of portability for the farm, Kosbau said, "We started with, 'Ok, how much can a person carry?' and we went from there. I think we sat down, and almost immediately thought of milk crates."
Even though Ore thought of milk crates early on, they did their research to see what else was out there. Lack of time (they started in February, and needed to plant by May) and the need for something mass-produced led them to look into virtually every container possible for planting. But, they kept going back to the milk crate, and its near-perfection for the project. In size, material, structure—the milk crate is built to be carried, and is rigid and tough enough to hold the weight of dirt and plants.
Ortuzar said the crates even work symbolically, for a farm restaurant. "Milk crates are a ubiquitous element in every restaurant kitchen and it's one of those things - they are always around, piles of them. So, to have another use for them, it's perfect."
The open structure of a milk crate also works perfectly as a plant bed. Soil needs aeration, so some sort of drainage system had to be built in. The crates needed something that would keep the soil in, but still allow it to breathe. Rather than create a complicated and highly technical liner, Ore sourced a non-woven fabric commonly used in landscaping, GO Textile, to line the crates.
They created a pattern to fit the crates, hired seamstresses in Chinatown in New York to sew them, and came out with simple, portable plant beds. As another simple solution to increase aeration and drainage, they flipped over more empty milk crates, creating a raised base for the crates with plants.
A huge variety of plants—from solid mainstays like tomatoes, eggplant, and squash—to more rare, like lemon verbena. All crops were started in their crates with the help of farmer Michael Robertson, of Grady's Farm in Hudson Valley, NY, and then transferred in-crate to the Riverpark site. The Riverpark team quickly fully realized the value of the portable crates, when Hurricane Irene hit New York in August, and the employees moved all 7,000 crates inside for protection from wind and rain.
Riverpark moved inside during Hurricane Irene (photo by Ore Design)
A conduit for lights runs underneath the rows of crops, illuminating the farm at night, when diners can reserve the highly-coveted farm table and eat among the plants. The long, wood and galvanized steel farm table sits on a large wood deck in one corner of the lot, surrounded on all four sides by greenery. The sun was setting as we finished our tour of the farm. Imagining eating at the table, with rows of tomatoes to one side and lettuce to another, the deck suddenly seemed very far away from the grime and hustle of New York. Even temporarily, Riverpark succeeds as a representation of the re-invigoration that can happen quickly with simple solutions in this economy—turning an empty, unused, concrete lot, into a living, breathing, flourishing space that provides food, fresh air, and hope.
"Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers" - Talking Heads