Remediation as Grassroots Biorepair: Smiling Hogshead Ranch

Images by Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez
Images by Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez

At the edge of Long Island City’s largest industrial business zone, members of Smiling Hogshead Ranch receive food scraps and turn them into compost; they cultivate a hearty array of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, and regularly host educational workshops and cultural performances. Their patient efforts to nurture the wedge-shaped site into an urban commons extends to the living soil food web underground. Over the last eleven years, gardeners have worked together with the natural properties of soil, bacteria, and plants to repair ecological relations on this formerly industrial land.

Newly arrived in New York City and scouting for land to garden, a landscape architect and permaculture practitioner came across a promising location in 2010. Only the occasional drug dealer, rough sleeper, and a steady succession of illegal dumpers seemed to lay claim to the unfenced plot at the corner of Sunnyside Yards and an NYPD warehouse for confiscated property. The site held a station house and track switching area before the Long Island Rail Road decommissioned the property in the late 1980s. Before that, one of the region’s first industrial parks was built on fill excavated for the East River tunnel where the 7 train line now runs. Before that, it was a Lenape Canarsie salt marsh.

The search for this plot of land — prompted by long waiting lists to join existing community gardens — reflects the high demand for space to farm and garden in the city, whether for the creation of community, access to nature, or a supply of healthy, affordable food. Even when there is land to be had, would-be farmers and gardeners must contend with the degraded soils that characterize the urban landscape. Residues of former industrial uses, the accumulated exhaust of leaded gasoline or dispersed particles of paint, and contemporary industrial emissions: all deposit trace metals and other contaminants that can be unsafe for people who touch or inhale urban soils, or who eat things grown in them. Yet people wishing to reuse the land also have limited access to testing equipment or advice on safe growing practices. Guidelines for urban gardeners encourage them to remove and replace contaminated soil, cover the ground with mulch, and grow crops in raised beds lined with impermeable textiles. These measures can efficiently mitigate risks, but they only work around the lasting damage to soils.

Smiling Hogshead Ranch demonstrates all these best practices: leafy greens like collards and kale are planted in lined, raised beds. But fig and apple trees, and fruiting crops like tomatoes and peppers, grow straight in the ground, where soils are constantly being nurtured and rebuilt. Instead of contributing to the city’s wastestream by carting off contaminated soil to be dumped elsewhere, the goal of this long-term, community biorepair project is to abet natural healing processes in place. These extend to the farm’s horizontal social practices and deeper work to repair relationships between people and the environment: from weekly gardening chores and gathering days, to bike repair stations, biodynamic growing practices, and celebrations tied to the earth’s natural cycles. Ranch members join other practitioners of grassroots bioremediation in what one of the practice’s advocates calls “earth repair.” Instead of a one-time fix to enable a higher and better use, grassroots bioremediators seek to regenerate ecosystems damaged over centuries of colonization and industrialization. They work with the natural healing properties of microorganisms, fungi, and plants in a longer-term engagement that communities can sustain without reliance on expensive equipment, materials, or experts brought in from elsewhere.

The farm began as a guerrilla operation: its founding friends cleared piles of trash from the site (from construction debris to washing machines to porn DVDs), and sent soil samples away for testing. Then, they began composting. This most widespread and accessible bioremediation practice encourages the growth of beneficial microorganisms, which will eventually break down or bind together contaminants in the soil. On the eastern edge of the farm, compost is applied in big layers called windrows: a lasagna of organic waste and wood chips. Along the rail tracks, where the most lead and arsenic were found in the soil, gardeners dig a trench and fill it with a combination of molasses, compost, and a specific mix of “Efficient Microorganisms” that speed up decomposition. They spread mycelium in the garden, and host workshops with expert mycologists and artists. In the fall, oyster mushrooms fruit along the railroad tracks, while their rhizomes produce enzymes that can degrade and digest pollutants like dioxins and PCBs. Plants used in phytoremediation can take up contaminants or fix them in the soil; the practice has enormous potential, but has been difficult to apply. While sunflowers’ vaunted ability to take up lead from soil has not stood up to scientific scrutiny of larger remediation projects, the farm celebrates International Sunflower Guerrilla Planting Day on the first of May. They are still an important gateway for urbanites to understand and engage with natural processes in their backyard.

The reparative visions of Smiling Hogshead Ranch’s members and friends extend to ecological restoration for increased public access along a larger Long Island City industrial corridor, or channeling mushrooms’ and microorganisms’ abilities to clean up nearby Newtown Creek, where a conventional cleanup is forthcoming. The farm is a space for teaching and learning by trial and error. But the gap between grassroots practice and what is socially accepted as science is one that many would like to see filled. There are scarce resources for research outside the “remediation industrial complex.” Testing soils for common hazards beyond heavy metals is an extremely laborious and expensive process that only a large-scale redevelopment process can support. Many microbial and mycoremediation techniques are proprietary, applied only to big cleanups where there are big profits to be made. Earth repairers would like to test methods, gather evidence, and educate people without following the same engineering and economic logics that have made remediation necessary in the first place. They are practicing grassroots bioremediation on urban farms in the American Midwest and oil spills in the Amazon rainforest. Outside market demands and timeframes, lies the potential to explore substantive ecological repair everywhere in between.

Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez is a Cuban-born illustrator and multidisciplinary artist. He is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he received his BFA and Masters in Digital Arts Degrees.

Mariana Mogilevich is Editor in Chief of Urban Omnibus.

Avery Robertson is a designer, researcher, and writer passionate about the intersection of the built and ecological environments. She holds degrees in sustainable architecture and urban design and is currently a Graphic Designer at Utile, a Research Creator at Future Earth, and she is on the City of Newport’s Energy and Environment Commission.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Cleaning Up?

An exploration of what it means to live in, build on, and design for a city of pervasive toxicity.