Reclaiming Unused Urban Space

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

596 Acres, a group devoted to mapping and re-claiming unused public land, decamped for the Rockaways from August 20-September 6, 2012, in partnership with Rocaway Resource Recovery. The Rockaways have the highest concentration of vacant public land in Queens, and 596 Acres worked to identify and relaim that land for community uses.

By Paula Segal

Some moments during our residency in the Rockaways felt like disaster tourism. We put signs up on Beach 84th Street with the sun beating down on the 10th consecutive cloudless day. Children played in the street, listening to a mother tell us about her son who has a brain tumor, with a brackish puddle of ocean and sewer water filling half the block. We listened to the man who owned a free standing bungalow in the middle of a mid-island meadow in the Beach 30s describe his closest neighbors, the residents of a bungalow six city lots away across a field of grass, as "terrorists" and "squatters." Sidewalks abruptly disappeared, and displaced fire hydrants sat off-kilter along the roads. 

(Grocery outside Marina 59)

But there was also the fantasy Rockaway—the glorious sunsets and the delicious ethnic food on the boardwalk made with really incredible ingredients. And the 72 degree ocean. And the day that we spent on the boardwalk making signs to post around Rockaway and talking to anyone that approached us that felt like we were in the center of the center, the August 2012 version of Times Square for New Yorkers. Every borough, every neighborhood represented on the sandy boards. We were all here together, the most local of tourists in the most perfect of places.

(596 Acres at Beach 96th Street Boardwalk)

It is difficult to organize sustainable community coalitions that can care for public land and its users. Historically, Rockaway was a summer community. Bungalows and tents on the beach. People with other, insulated, homes for winter. And even today, some of the most visible players in Rockaway are summer people. Summer people who live and love this place alongside neighbors who stay year round, neighbors who face down December storms and can tell you stories about when the bay met the sea. And among them all are dreamers:

“Hoping to start [a] conversation about this lot. Attend the church across the street and know community members that may be interested in utilizing this space. I think it would be great for a garden. Here comes change.” — Keisha F.

"Hello, I am an artist social entrepreneur, Founder/Executive Art Director of Sewing The Roses, Inc. My mission is to use art creation and expression to heal, inspire and empower women, youth and children to connect with "Self", with the focus on victims and survivors of Domestic Violence. I am interested in building a Theater, Classrooms, Conference room and a Community Garden in this space to enrich the local community with healing arts, education, culture in a diverse environment setting bringing together and enriching the lives of the population in Queens through Arts and Culture."—Marcela C.

"Our intentions are to consume and convert the largest portion of organic matter from the fast growing food enterprises that have been populating and energizing the Rockaways as well as collection from the residing community. In doing so, we reduce the carbon emissions from transport of waste and produce (locally) a fertile rich soil to distribute to residents and gardeners."—David S. 

Bringing 596 Acres to Rockaway, Queens, from its home turf in Brooklyn is an eye opener, and a lesson in a very different kind of New York. Over two weeks this August and September, we labeled every vacant piece of public land in Rockaway that had a fence around it—and as many as we could that didn't.

(Beach 43rd Street, Bay Side)

Simple things are challenges: in Brooklyn, all the lots are fenced. Their inaccessibility is part of the frustration; but here, vast stretches of under-resourced real estate sit open to whomever chooses to wander through.

(5 acres, beachside, abandoned basketball courts)

In other parts of the borough, a temptation like that – a lot with no fences – leads logically to a ranch.

(Smiling Hogshead Ranch, Long Island City, Queens)

In two weeks, we put up signs on 26 lots. We met a lot of people. We gave two talks and hosted public meetings. We sat in on an island-wide conversation about whether the more than 40 civic associations that represent the Rockaway communities should form one organization that can speak for them all (opinions differed). A month after our residency began and we started the process of making information about public land holdings visible where those holdings actually are in Rockaway, there are 10 land-based community projects sharing visions and working on making them real. At the edge of sea, maybe there is room for everyone's fantasy in New York, even the fantasies that involve pet memorials and community composting, not just the skin-sun-sand ones of the boardwalk visitors.

Looking to activate the left-behind parts of your city? Find out where they are and connect with the people who live the closest. Put up signs. Hang out on the sidewalk and talk to people who walk by. Draw pictures that create a sense of the possibilities. 596 Acres can help – see our resources for other cities.

Save the date: 596 Acres' first ever benefit event will be at Sun in Bloom on October 6, 2012.



Paula Segal is a lawyer and a founder of 596 Acres.

[In-text photos courtesy of Paula Segal; urban gardening cover photo courtesy of Mark Max Henckel]

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