Last Tuesday night, the Bed-Stuy Community Garden was a bit livelier than usual. Passersby craned their necks to see what was popping underneath the racket of steel drums. But George, the omnipresent senior presiding over the spot was holding court per usual.
“Lock your bike!” he croaked at me. But his grumpy-old-man abruptness subsided into a smile when I approached him. “Pose for a photo,” he instructed me and another woman I’d never seen before. Without hesitation she gripped my shoulder and smiled big into George’s iPhone. “That’s it!” George howled with laughter.
Though Nightlight, an ongoing project of Flux Factory that “explores creative uses of the sun,” has moved in for the month of July, in many ways the community garden is still running the show, so don’t expect to get past the gate without subjecting yourself to one, maybe two or more photos from the gatekeeper. “He’s definitely highly involved with anything that happens in that space,” said Alex Nathanson, co-curator along with Carina Kaufman and Danae Lagoy.
George may be the garden’s watchdog. As he explained to me, his mother started it and he’s been running it for almost 40 years. “Well, he said a few dates,” Alex laughed. “But it’s definitely been decades, multiple decades, longer than we’ve been alive.”
Nightlight’s first event involved taking over a Long Island City community garden last summer with solar-powered, interactive art installations. For its second iteration, Apocalypse Chow, the three Flux Factory curators have teamed up with New York Restoration Project to install in the Bed-Stuy garden an oven that cooks food solely with the power of the sun.
Each Tuesday this month, a different chef or team of cooks, chosen by the Nighlight crew, will prepare a free meal. And don’t expect hot dogs and corn. Last week, Danae explained, “We dehydrated kumquats. We cooked beef tongue, a really slow braise for about four days. We had kale, couscous, flatbread– though we didn’t cook that in the ovens. We even made fresh ricotta cheese.”
Food? Art? Somehow it all makes sense, and the fusion isn’t exactly surprising when it comes to Flux Factory’s programming, which includes monthly potlucks and gatherings like last week’s rooftop grilled cheese party. “Food is a big part of our programming,” Carina confirmed. But how did Nightlight, a solar panel project, get here?
“We were approached by the New York Restoration Project to do another solar based installation, and we thought that the translation of going to a community garden, which is full of food, it just seemed obvious that we could build solar ovens and that would satisfy our desire to want to cook for people and sort of incorporate all those elements we were working with already,” Danae explained.
The New York Restoration Project, though more of a silent partner in Apocalypse Chow, actually plays a huge part in the venue’s existence.
“In the ’90s, Giuliani was going to bulldoze a bunch of gardens, so a few non-profits purchased them, NYRP was one of those organizations that purchased those gardens from the city so they wouldn’t get turned back into empty lots, essentially,” Alex explained.
During the ’60s and ’70s, when New York City was shrinking and abandoned lots were the norm, community groups, many of them in blighted neighborhoods, took over these forgotten areas, often squished between buildings, overgrown, and filled with garbage, and turned them into green space.
In the late ’70s, the city’s Green Thumb program put a stop to the dubious, squatter-like legality of the community gardens (the city’s first, the Liz Christy Community Garden on the Lower East Side has a long, but really fascinating history), and in an effort to protect them, enacted city ownership over these formerly vacant lots. But instead of controlling exactly what went on in these spaces, the program granted leases to the community groups that were already occupying the lots and sort of let them have free reign.
But city ownership of these gardens came back to haunt them, when in 1998 Mayor Giuliani announced these formerly vacant lots would be auctioned off to developers, reasoning the space would be more valuable in the long run as housing sites than community garden spaces. Of the more than 700 community gardens across the city, 112 were set to be sold at auction.
But the day before the auction was to proceed, Bette Midler and her non-profit organization, the New York Restoration Project (the actress also happens to be an outspoken advocate for community gardens) brokered a last-minute deal with the city to buy 51 gardens for $1.2 million. (Another non-profit organization, the Trust for Public Land– also with financial backing from Midler– bought up the rest of the 112 lots for $3 million.)
Many community gardens were able to breathe sighs of relief under the Bloomberg administration, which was a little more balanced when it came to allowing some development to proceed while protecting some community gardens. But things were never quite solved. Some activists and community leaders are moving to install greater protections for the gardens, so the future of green space will not be as tentative as it’s been for the past few decades. In January, Community Board 3 requested that the City designate a Community Gardens District in the interest of protecting garden plots from development.
While advocates for community gardens face an uphill battle against powerful real estate interests, initiatives like Apocalypse Chow help garner new interest in the city’s green spaces. And the programming is anything but dull. Tomorrow at the Bed-Stuy garden, the Zodiac Dinner Club (which does not share membership duties with the elite secret society, as far as we know) will play host.
“They do dinners based on the twelve signs of the sun, sort of taking the characteristics of the zodiac and turn that into a culinary experience,” Carina explained. Appropriately, the precise details of Tuesday’s menu have been kept secret. But we do know the sign in question is Cancer and that some of the artists involved in the Zodiac Club are into making Ouija board art.
“It’s always really weird,” Alex said. “It’s always like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could make food in that way.'”
Each dinner is accompanied by some form of entertainment. Wesley Marcarelli, a local artist and electrical engineer, has built a special solar-powered synthesizer that he will perform on tomorrow night. “He uses solar panels as the interface,” Alex explained. “By covering them with his hands he’s controlling the electricity going into the instrument, which effects the sound.”
The final Tuesday in July, Nightlight will incorporate a solar-panel workshop into the menu of pork shoulder and vegetables, both served by a local solar educator, Cynthia Tomasini. “She’s actually the cook who is the most practiced with solar oven cooking, she works with public schools and she’s sort of like a teaching-artist, teaching-cook,” Alex said.
Since this is the curators’ first time cooking with a solar oven, it’s taken some getting used to. “Our goal is to boil water,” Carina laughed. “That’s the ultimate goal.” So far, they’ve only reached 220 degrees. “We’re experimenting with what techniques work best, so we’ve been braising, dehydrating, cooking in an oven bag, things we can pass along to the next chefs.”
Flux Factory, an arts organization in Queens, has an ethos that stands out from most. It’s a mix of skill–share, DIY, and low-budget functionality that makes for programming that’s exciting, accessible, and reproducible. “Education sharing is a big part of the project and general knowledge sharing,” Alex explained. “”We don’t have big budgets but we just make it work by dumpstering stuff and coming up with techniques that allow us to pull off ambitious projects with few resources, something other art spaces wouldn’t necessarily be able to do. So it’s really nice to be able to share that, and that’s a huge part of what we do, just making that process more transparent.”
The whole idea of the project, then– sharing food, exchanging recipes, opening up the process of solar cooking to anyone who might be interested in the idea– ties back into the environs, a free flowing public space, pretty directly. While the future of community gardens in the city is uncertain, the Nightlight curators are dreaming up some interesting ways to keep the community engaged in green spaces that most people might take for granted.
“One of the unique things about working with solar is how variable it is, and how it can be sort of precarious. Whether we’re working solar panels or solar ovens, the final variable is the weather,” Alex explained. “And that’s really exciting from an artistic, curatorial perspective — that hopefully it works, but there’s always that chance it won’t. And that tension is really awesome sometimes.”