Yes, I actually wrote, verbatem, what I wanted to say. If you know me, or were there, you know I didn’t read my notes. I went off script so I don’t remember exactly what I did say, but this is definately what I meant to say during the Smiling Hogshead Ranch Ribbon Cutting Ceremony on Saturday, September 6th 2014…
“Thank you all for coming out on the Saturday afternoon to celebrate with us here at Smiling Hogshead Ranch. I want to make sure to thank Saleen and Paula for coming out. Also, Beyond Brewing Company, Singlcut Brewery, The Queens Kickshaw, V-Spot Restaurant and the Regal Vegan for supporting us with food and drinks for the event. Our friends Kelly Fragale and Robert McMinn are offering some nice music to get into a festive mood this afternoon.
I am absolutely honored to be here talking on behalf of all the amazing people who have actually made the Ranch what it is today. We have been working since early 2011 to create this place. What started, for me at least, as an urge to get back into the soil after a growing season lost. Then discovering that the quickest way to garden in NYC just may be to start a new garden from scratch. I was brand new to the city, I barely knew the landscape and had only met a handful of like minded people. After conveying my need to start a garden before putting my name on a waiting list for a community plot, Stephanos Koullias roped me into a group of realy great Western Queens folks that wanted to get stuff done.
If these founders didn’t do this, than who amongst us would have? I hope you are all saying to yourself, ME. I could do this. I Would do this. Everyone of the folks that we just applauded are just regular people who decided to do something. It doesnt have to be starting a garden, or participating in any sort of direct action or even heavy lifting neccesarily, but I encourage all of you to think about where your passions lie and spark your imagination, ignite your issue, fuel your fire with knowledge. Do it individually or find a like minded group. but do it!
So let me speak breifly about direct action. Since everyone here right now is participating in this particular one, you should understand it more clearly. Doing something like “guerrilla gardening” as cringeworthy as that term is to some of us, is a form of direct action known as Alternative Cooperation. Generally this is where an end goal is envisioned (usually not one that would normally be allowed to happen by law or by rule) and you go ahead and create that reality without permission because you know it is worth it. We have created a really nice little farmden here. But, in my mind at least, this is not the end goal. So, while we have permission now to actually BE here, we still have our eyes firmly set on goals in the distance. So the direct action continues, I would like to thank you all for coming and bearing witness to our ceremonial ribbon cutting. This is our street theatre du jure. It is hard in today’s political arena to garner the attention of the infotainment industry. But we try, and your presence, your tweeting, your liking, your spreading the word helps.
It was early March, 2011. I met most of the folks Stephanos had gathered right over there (motioning) by where row 14 is now. We talked about the results of the soil test, we talked about the legality of it and how we would share the cost and work. We agreed to move forward, the following weekends we cleaned the trash, cleared the brush, worked the soil, removed stones and more rubbish… about that rubbish, one of the most oft asked questions is, where did the name “Smiling HogsHead Ranch come from. Well I was in class on the particular day that Alan found a pigs skull, but I remember everyone suddenly refering to Sunnyside Railyard Garden simply as Hogshead over emails. I liked the brevity of it but someone thought it was creepy and decided the Hogshead needed to be Smiling. Still not enough sylables for others, we became a Ranch.
Back to the time line… Spring turned to Summer and we continued to weed and water. That first Autumn we had a nice Fall harvest. At that time Ocuppy Wall Street was setting hearts and minds aflame across the country and was not lost on us. We decided to give it a go again the following year, with even more passion and urgency.
Then, in the heat of the 2012 Summer, I got a call from the MTA’s Real Estate Division. Who, what, when, where and why, it was a litany of questions. I thought the fun was over. Early on, we had decided not to ask the property owner if we could remove the trash and plant a garden. Honestly, until that point, looking at the property record card on the City clerk’s web site, it was really unclear if this lot was owned by the company that operates these billboards (motioning) here and the MTA had an easment, or vice versa. But I calmy explained, in my most professional voice that, “whover owns the land, we knew they wouldn’t have let us move forward with this project. And we knew that we weren’t going to hurt anything any more than we where going to help. So we waited for the chance to ask for forgiveness.” The voice on the other end began to yeild. It is true, we would never have let a group do this in the past, he said. But we are decomissioning the remaining line on that property soon and we don’t have any plans for the parcel. Some of us have heard about this urban agriculture but thats not our business at the MTA. So we where actually kind of pleases to see this happening already. They wanted to let us continue to do the work we where doing but we had to sign a contract. Later that day, sitting in my inbox, was a hastily cobbled together Garden License Agreement.
It was so messy, written to me, Gil Lopez, as the licensee. With language I could barely get through, I believe it is called legalese. The founders mulled it over and decided we would stall for a bit. But we no longer had to be so hush-hush, the property owner knows now, nothing left to hide. So we announced workdays on Facebook and Meetup groups like Crop Mob NYC. As new faces came and worked with us interest grew, teachers wanting to bring their school groups, non-profit organizations asking to team up and do green jobs training programs. Sure we hosted a couple school groups and intertained the jobs training idea, but in the end, a certain amount of legitimacy was needed to really make these things happen. So we regrouped and decided that it would be best if we figure out how make this real. We had reached out to 596 Acres early on and now Paula Segal really helped us revise and interpriet the Agreement. It was revised and we came up with a game plan to make it happen. We needed to incorporate, so a legal entity that represents the group can purchase insurance and be named as licesee on the GLA. I won’t bore you with the details but we finally found an insurance company that would give us a quote, we finally found the money to purchase the policy, we finally incorprated and we finally found a 501c3 fiscal sponsor to accept the money from our benefactor. We finally got our stuff together and incorporated as a non-profit. We negotiated the Agreement and on August 1, 2014 we recieved a countersigned contract from the MTA.
All that paperwork was a distraction for some, an annoiance to most. We came together for multiple reasons, paperwork was not one of them. We rationalized the learnign curb involved with all this legal legwork because, New York City has too many vacant lots for there to be wait lists for community garden plots. If this is what has to be done than so be it, we stupped up to the plate, now that we where on base it would be crazy to just run back into the bullpit.
What we are all here today taking part of is a truly urban farm. The Ranch different from a community garden, this industrially zoned area we standing in is also a different type of community, with a different ebb and flow. Yet it weaves together so many aspects of the city, from the nearby Long Island Expressway, Newtown Creek, the soon to be completed Skillman Ave. bike lane, the Sunnyside Railyard across the street, warehouses, manufacturing, materials processing and handling facilities, Fresh Direct, FedEx, Queens NYCHA up the street and the NYPD next door. It’s different than your neighborhood and the Ranch is different than most community gardens. But this area is bristling with vital activity, we want to add to and enhance our neighborhood.
I have a vision of Smiling Hogshead Ranch as a collective of collectives, running a farm, offering some bike workshops and basic services, reclaiming organic biproducts from nearby kitchens to build and clean the soil, maybe grow some delicious mushrooms on some spent grain from Singlecut and Beyond Brewing, how about a community tool lending library, we want to host more community events and hope to build an ampetheatre next year, (motioning) back there between that building and the, currently active, elevated freight rail.
We also dream of taking over that rail spur once it is deactivated and transforming it into a green industrial park. Not an industrail park your probably imagining somewhere in the suburbs, but a literal “industrial”-“Park”one that is redefined by the ideals of the landscape urbanism that have informed the creation of places like the HighLine and Brooklyn Bridge Park. But not as polished or purely recreational, but truly re-creating industry in the next itteration of the green, come sustainable and now reginerative ilk. To reimagin our “waste” streams and see them as they really are, resources that we are wasting. Imagine the stormwater coming off the elevated portion of the LIE a couple blocks away being diverted from the sewers, where they just combine with real sewage to create our urban phenomenon known as Combined Sewage Overflow into the Newtown Creek. Instead, we could have that water go through a series of natural filtration processes, known as a water purification chain. Starting with a settling tank to separate out solids, then, living filters that grow algea (an up and coming fuel source) which begin cleansing the water of dissolved contaminats, followed by planted areas where microbes in the plants rootzone continue cleaning the water, eventually that water can support fish, which in turn excrete waste, otherwise known as nutrient, that can feed plants. Since the water has now been cleaned to the nth degree, these plants could potentially be edible crops, and if not, hey biofuel and plant plastic. Now we cn terrace the slopes and have rice paddies if we like, as demonstrated on Randalls Island Urbgan farm that we visited this morning on our urban ag bike tour. Water then flows down to irrigate the rows of crops we currently have growing and then, anything lect over could be fed back into the Dutch Kill. It would be the first source of freshwater to the Newtown Creek in decades.
What I have just described is one means of bioremediating polluted water. It is not a new idea and it is not a radical idea, it’s just a little out of the ordinary. But it could happen. As much as the city is embracing green infrastructure, I’m sure it will happen, it’s just a question of who, when and how. Well we want this bright green future! But we want it now, in the present. There is no time or reason to wait. We are already informally bioremediating the soil with the mycelium of mushrooms back there (motioning) underneith the railroad tracks. We would love to partner with an environmental science school with the right lab equipment to run tests and provide the scientific and academic facts to support and formalize this experiment. We would like to prove that this can work so the idea can proliferate. Until the means of scientific proof comes, we will continue to do what we know is the right thing, we will continue to educate anyone interested in the minucia and details of our many projects and programs.
Which leads me to highlight Smiling Hogshead Ranch as a keystone species…
In the urban ecology of our city’s green infrastructure landscape, the Ranch is developing air, water and soil remediation techniques while building cultural meaning and social capital by reskilling a segment of the citizenry that are ready to step up their civic engagement and ecological awareness. We appreciate, respect and utilize the good work of the many city agencies such as Parks, DDC, DOT, DSNY and so many other agencies. Now as a nonprofit organization on sanctioned land we know the line does not end at the governments doorsteps for improving our living standard. NYC is an interesting city and I have been amazed at all the private/public partnerships. As a nonprofit encouraging stewardship of our natural recourses in the city, we are joining the ranks of TreesNY, NYRP, City Parks Foundations and others that galvanize the citizenry for the betterment of our own communities, interpersonal relationships and individual wellbeing. But we are not those organizations, we are a little more scrappy, a little more progressive and maybe a little more of the moment. But our moment has come and our time is now.
As individual citizens, we must take personal interest in our surroundings and neighborhood conditions. If we leave it up to the state to take care of us we begin traveling down a slippery slope of dependance. But the state must also let us take active interest in our communities conditions. 596 Acres is providing a lot of information for people and offering transparency tools for better governance. 25 wins for 596 Acres in NYC. Hogshead is just one manifestation of what can happen when passionat people work together towards something bigger than themselves.
We have just begun, the hardest part of making this dream come together is sustained imagination of what can be and cultivation of THAT world in which we want to live in.
So here we all are, celebrating what has happened thus far. Today we bask momentarily in the glow of the past, but we will not let our gaze fall from the horizon. Now that we have entered into this Garden License Agreement with the MTA we are no longer tresspassers on this property and we can officially offer farm tours to school groups, we can partner with other non-profit groups to expand our programming for things like green jobs training and refugee garden therapy programs. With the relatively sure footing of a year to year agreement we can start building programs that can support our values and goals while striving for a financially sustainable, education based, urban farm business model. We can make infrastructure imporvements to the property secure in the knowledge that they will not be bulldozed without warning.
The city’s open spaces may be maintained by the Parks Department, the streets by DOT, empty residental lots by HPD and the water by Nestle. But these spaces, these resources are ours. Unless we claim them and make use of them, we run the risk of forgetting who they actually belong to and possibly losing them altogether. But all is not lost. Our story is one case amongst many that are demonstrating a positive shift in the undercurrent of our society. But it is up to all of us, not only the renegades or the squatters. And we here at the Ranch aren’t some shade ball band of hoodlums. Well, no more so than any of you and your circle of friends are. But we where the ones who made this happen, through the calculated use of rulebreaking, good ol fashioned hard work, some charm and lots of enthusiasm. We have transformed this forgotten corner of the city into something worth celebrating.
…So here we are, cutting this ribbon in ceremonial fashion. I have only so many pairs of scissors and the ribbon is only so long. But I want to ask our invited guests, founding and current members please join,
Founding Members: Shirley Chai, Jen Kline, Stephanos Koullias, Justin Lau, Alan Lewandowski, Gil Lopez, James Nowakowski, Peter Richter, Leanne Spaulding, Becky Thorp & Mia Vlah
Board of Directors: Gil Lopez, President; Mia Vlah, Secretary; Colin Anton Samuel, Treasurer; Geoffrey Brock, Operations Co-Director; Jenelle Malbrough, Operations Co-Director; Kelsey Ripper, Governance Officer; Justin Lau
Current Members: Rose Moon & Chris McHale, Andrew & Tricia Graham, Gordon Douglas, Jennifer Plewka, Kevin Slesenski, Shirley Chai, Peter Ives, Christopher Nacinovich, Dee Dee Maucher and the previously mentioned board members.
Alright, here we go again, for the camera and for posterity, symbolically repeating for all to witness what we have already done with shovel and seed, a secret and a smile. We have already cut throught the red tape, through a stack of legal paperwork and financial hurdles, through the doubt and through the pessimists. This time with less trash, less illicit activity, this time with more beautiful plants, more moments for learning. More friendly faces gathered around and cheering us on.