Long before the dawn of the rooftop farm era, there was the Added Value Red Hook Community Farm. Founded in 2003 on the site of an abandoned two and a half acre playground, it was one of the city’s earliest urban farms, and is still one of its largest.
Two years ago, the farm lost their fall harvest to a freak hailstorm that shredded the produce to pulp in a matter of minutes. This year, they suffered another late season loss when Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge sent the waters of Erie Basin and Gowanus Bay roiling up to meet atop the field.
We met with the farm’s founder and director and long-time Red Hook resident Ian Marvy to hear his account of the flood and its aftermath and to learn more about the fate of the farm.
So Ian, walk us through it. How did the storm unfold for you?
Well, we knew it was coming. We did as much as we could to prepare here, but obviously you can’t really sandbag a two acre field all that effectively. [laughter.] We were working on securing as much as we could, and then the word spread really suddenly that the city had issued a mandatory evacuation order, ordering everyone out of the neighborhood by Sunday night.
So work on the farm kind of stopped then and everyone went home to figure out what they were going to do. People from the City Housing Authority were going door-to-door encouraging people to leave, and taking note of the names and locations of everyone who said they were staying. They were mapping out the community in advance of the storm.
My partner has two wonderful kids, and she made the decision to leave, which was absolutely the right decision. I decided to stay. My home is here, my farm is here and my office is here. I’ve been here for twelve years and I love the neighborhood and there was no way I was leaving. So, I stayed.
On Monday before the storm hit I was at Bait and Tackle at about five in the afternoon. A bunch of people from the neighborhood were there, having a beer or just hanging out. There’s a guy Tom who lives in the neighborhood who works on the tall ships over at the Seaport in Manhattan. He was over there to see the ships through the storm. He had all his scanners and everything going, and he was making calls into the bar to keep everyone updated on what he was hearing.
As high tide was approaching he was looking back across the East River from the Seaport and he saw the lights start flashing on a bunch of cars parked at the cruise ship terminal just over that way. He figured the only thing that could mean was that the waters of Buttermilk Channel had started flooding into the terminal lots and was hitting the engine blocks of the cars and setting off their alarms. He called the bar and said, “It’s starting! Get everyone out of there!”
So we all left. We didn’t see any sign of flooding yet on Van Brunt, so I went across the street to Home/made. I sat down with a couple of friends and the Home/made ladies, and drank a little wine and had some pistachios and then I went back to my house. The wind was whipping pretty well but there was no water in the streets, so I just started making dinner – a quick curry. A few minutes later I went over to the window and thought, “Ok. Here it is.” The water had arrived in the street.
I watched it for a minute and could see that it was coming up pretty fast. I made the decision to turn off the gas so I ran down to the basement and shut that down, then I came back up to the first floor, quickly packed up my curry and went upstairs.
I was just kind of thinking, “OK. We’re about to see what’s going to happen here. Whatever it is, it’s happening now.” And then I heard a loud crash and glass breaking and I was like, “Ohhhhh, now it’s coming in.” The flood must have picked something up and slammed it into the window. Right after that a bunch of car alarms started going off at the same time out on the street and headlights started flashing everywhere so I knew the engine blocks were underwater – that’s about two feet of water. So I just sat down at the top of the steps and watched the water come into the house. I called my partner and just kept telling her what was going on. I was like, “OK, it’s at the second step. Now it’s at the third step. Now it’s at the fourth.” At about nine forty at night I was still on the phone with her and it stopped.
I just said, “It’s done. I’ll call you tomorrow.” And I went to bed. I looked out the back window and saw the backyard under water and I went to bed.
On Tuesday, Barry opened up Bait & Tackle. Everyone sort of trickled out of their houses and showed up there. People were in a little bit of shock and many maybe weren’t quite ready to start cleaning up. We helped him clean the place out. He got a generator going, turned on the music and started pouring people beers. Soon enough there were a good hundred people or so just hanging out in the middle of Van Brunt outside the bar, taking good care of each other’s spirits and being neighborly and laughing and having a beer and literally dancing in the street. That’s Red Hook, you know?
And then the cleanup began in earnest. Generators came out, pumps came out and everyone started pumping out the water and pulling out all the wet stuff. The whole neighborhood was filled with the sound of generators and water spilling into the streets.
The restaurants down here obviously aren’t going to be working for a while, so on Wednesday night they all got together and set up a big tent right on Van Brunt and grilled all the meat and fish that hadn’t been ruined and we had a big barbeque. There were easily three hundred people at that one. A lot of really good energy there. But things are still a little roller-coastery for a lot of people. People will get together and have a beer and then someone will jump up and grab their Sawzall and run off muttering, “Gotta get back to work.”
You’ve lived here a long time. What’s your sense of how people are handling it?
People are worried. People are staying, but I know some people who aren’t sure. Some of the houses on Dikeman Street and Pioneer Street, where I live, are not inhabitable. A neighbor of mine is talking about taking a break and spending six months somewhere else. Those of us who live here tend worry about the neighborhood. It’s such a special place and a lot of people have some worry that it’s going to change underneath us due to forces we can’t control. So there’s some concern that this will put some pressure on the housing stock, that developers will swoop in and buy damaged properties and turn them into luxury condos. There’s some worry about that.
If somebody doesn’t get a favorable payout from their insurance company, they might not have a choice but to sell. But I think the community will survive. People say Red Hook has been inhabited by our culture since the 1600s, and for long before that by others. I’m sure it’s flooded many times before, and badly. So I don’t see that changing at all. I see people gritting it out. It’s a gritty neighborhood. Red Hook’s not going away.
What’s the situation here on the farm? What’s the degree of damage?
We’ve definitely got a total crop loss. We lost some structures, some equipment in addition to that. And beyond that there are a number of questions that will have to be answered.
It appears that we had about two and a half feet of water over the whole farm. It looks like it came in from the Gowanus side more than from Erie Basin, just by the way things flowed and settled when the water went out. It’s kind of odd. It looks like the two flows, one from Gowanus Bay and one from Erie Basin, met right about here. All the wood chips were in a big pile in one corner of the farm and they were somehow moved all the way to the other end and then spread all over the place, with basically no trace of a wood chip in their original location. So something kind of magical and clearly destructive happened here.
What else? We have a beautiful linden tree that came down out front. It was planted in 1937. You can’t replace something like that. The community tent is gone, although that’s more of a spiritual wound – it was a semi-permanent outdoor structure, so we’ll build another one. The walk-in cooler was picked up and floated about thrity five feet on the flood waters. We’ll need a new grill so we can gather and eat together after a long day’s work.
Our office was in that shipping container. I thought shipping containers were watertight! I mean, they’re built to keep products safe while perched atop cargo ships crossing the ocean, right! Apparently they’re not watertight. Ours filled up with two and a half feet of water, and floated a little bit and tipped so everything tumbled into the water and got soaked. So we lost all our computers and printers and files and furniture and those sorts of things. What else? The bees are gone. The worms are good. The cats survived, somehow.
But the biggest immediate problem is the crop loss. We’re done for this year, and it’s unfortunate because we had been having an amazing fall. The harvest has been unreal. Just over there you can see that beautiful savoy cabbage, that beautiful napa cabbage, still in the ground. Our eggplant was still ripening. It’s amazing because if you just glanced at it you wouldn’t think anything had happened here, but it’s all got to come out and go to compost.
You can’t sell produce that’s been flooded. Even if you wanted to, the USDA wouldn’t allow it. The same thing happened to a ton of farmers upstate last year after the flooding from Irene. You have to assume there’s fuel and sewage and those sorts of things mixed into the flood waters, and it would be too complicated and expensive to try to test everything to determine its safety. Over the next week or so we’ll be pulling everything out, chopping it up and make a big salad for the local fungus, bacteria and insects. They’ll clean it all up and turn it into some really nice soil for us.
The bigger potential problem is soil contamination. We’re going to have to run a bunch of soil samples, to look for petroleum and VOC’s and other pollutants to see what’s been left behind in the dirt from the flood waters. If the tests aren’t good and the soil has been contaminated by the flood, we’ll have to bulldoze it all off to the side, inoculate it with spores and let it sit for a few years while the fungi, bacteria and insects do their thing and clean it up. After Katrina, a lot of the farmers who had soil contamination planted mushrooms to fix the soil. Regardless of what course we would take, that situation would basically mean starting over. It feels odd to even contemplate that, but it is a reality we could be facing.
We have about seven hundred cubic yards of dirt here. It would cost between eighty and a hundred dollars per yard to replace, with the shipping costs included. I don’t even want to do that math. I avoid doing it. But it would be a major expense, a huge challenge.
How’s the cleanup going?
People have been showing up to help. And it’s pretty cool that almost all of them are people who aren’t from Red Hook. Red Hook is a really close-knit community of small business owners, artisans, craftspeople who also live here. Normally if something happens to someone in the neighborhood, everyone helps out to get them back on their feet. With this, everyone’s been flooded. Nobody has more than an hour or so to give to anyone else’s nightmare because everyone’s dealing with their own nightmare.
It’s been pretty amazing to see all of these people pouring in from outside the neighborhood to help. It’s wonderful. It’s amazing to have all of these people who aren’t living this nightmare come down here and make such an effort to help us get out of ours. It’s pretty inspiring.
Added Value’s Red Hook Community Farm is located on Halleck Street between Oswego and Columbia, directly across from Ikea, in Red Hook. They are seeking donations to recover from Sandy.