Last Friday (August 12, 2011) I attended a fieldwork session created by spurse in conjunction with the BMW Guggenheim Lab (which you should definitely check out!). This was one in a series of charette/vinettes that spurs is calling “Live Feeds” the focus was on Co-Opting Place. It was the FeedForward session connected to the FeedBack session two days before that focused on gentrification + segregation = “segrefication”. Fridays Lab was framed as a fieldwork assignment with a site visit to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx and was entitled, .”Co-Opting Place“.
Hunt’s Point is ground zero for one of the largest industrial food distribution sites in the world. It has an extensive infrastructure surrounding the warehouses that take in and ship out all sorts of food from fish and seafood, poultry, pork, beef and other meat products as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. The infrastructure also entails packaging, cardboard/pasteboard box production, waste disposal, transportation, production, processing, refrigeration, conveyance, distribution centers, work force housing and a slew of others. The whole industrial complex is absolutely mind boggling and brutally dehumanizing in scale once the bus plops you right in the middle of the huge buildings surrounded by blank walls and chain link fence.
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The folks with the spurse collective intentionally left the details of the site visit vague so the 25 folks who gathered at First Park in the Lower East Side really had little idea what they where getting into as we walked toward the Bleeker St. subway station. Upon entering our car on the 6 train we where told to look over the reading material we had been provided. On our clipboards was a copy of this essay on the art of dwelling and the importance of the commons by Ivan Illich.
The group took to reading then discussing the essay before arriving at the E 149th St. station in the Bronx and transferring to a Bx6 bus which is a dedicated line for the workforce going into the food market. The Bronx is vastly different from the Lower East Side to begin with, but there was an even more evident contrast from our vantage point in the bus as we transitioned from the densely populated urban streets into the seemingly dead zone of the food markets. Store fronts set just off the sidewalks turned to small factories and processing plants set back from the streets and surrounded by chain-link fences then these gave way to huge warehouses and distribution centers with walls reminiscent of the sound barrier walls seen adjacent to highways and interstates. These walls worked to channelize the environment and as the streets widened the sidewalks seemed like a pitiful afterthought. The bus stopped in what seemed like the middle of nowhere and we exited into the harsh sun and paved autoscape.
We where at the entrance to the Hunt’s Point Food Coop facilities, walking across the street we gathered on the railroad tracks and got a crash course on Hunt’s Point. We where gathered at one of the largest food distribution centers in the world to co-opt the space and turn it into a commons. Our assignment was to walk the rails in search of wild edibles. Thus harvesting our own food from the publicly accessible spaces. Subverting the system and questioning the logic behind the social and economic structures which have been put into place in this disadvantaged neighborhood.
Ironically, a manager of one of the massive coops noticed our group as she was driving by in her car. Pulling over to greet us, she imparted her knowledge about how many producers, distributors and food purveyors work together as food arrives from all 50 states and many more countries around the world. Statistics rolled on from the number people employed and gross dollar amounts exchanged. She was very proud of what has been created in this place, once known for it’s prostitution and drug pushers. We finally invited her to join us and discover what we where up to but she wrapped up her bottled speech, hopped back in her car and was gone.
So we took to the rails, armed with printouts of several varieties of edible native “weeds”. We collected, admired and speculated about nature. It was the last thing I would have imagined myself doing here. After a bit of this we gathered in a massive parking lot behind the seafood market at the waters edge. The discussion referred back to Illich and the “revolutionary act of eating”. Across the Long Island Sound was Rikers Island, on the other side of the industrial landscape was a minority community denied access to it’s waterfront.
I enjoyed the outing and the thought exercise it provoked. Foraging in this industrial landscape definitely subverted the ideas the built environment all to well enforced. I realized that the simple act of walking the rails, collecting wild edibles and sitting on the rocky waterfront at the edge of a vast parking lot actually transformed all those spaces into the commons. Despite ownership by the railroad company or the fish market. We, as a group, reclaimed those lost spaces, if only for a couple hours, and co-opted them into the commons.and discussions will inform the outcome of the BMW Guggenheim Lab as an experiment itself and look forward to seeing how this fieldwork and the other charettes and brainstorming sessions will come together to inform the Lab as a whole. This will eventually come in the form of the Live Feeds Atlas.