The Hot Seat: Eric Brelsford


Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we interview folks involved with Brooklyn real estate, development, architecture and the like. Introducing Eric Brelsford, part of the team at 596 Acres. 596 Acres seeks to inform Brooklyn residents about the vacant lots around them, many of which are publicly owned. In turn they help residents turn those lots into usable community space. 596 acres is how much vacant public land existed in Brooklyn alone as of April 2010.

BS: What neighborhood do you live in, and how’d you end up there?
EB: I live in Prospect Heights. I got here accidentally, but it didn’t take long to appreciate my neighbors and the neighborhood’s proximity to places like Prospect Park.

BS: Can you talk about how 596 Acres came to be?
EB: My colleague Paula founded 596 Acres after getting the original dataset from the Center for the Study of Brooklyn at Brooklyn College while working with the Brooklyn Food Coalition. The CSB is a great resource–it helps community groups access and analyze data that is otherwise quite inaccessible to those outside of city government or universities.

Paula asked for all public, vacant land, and when she got the spreadsheet from the CSB she added up the area column to get the number that gave the project its name. She was pretty astounded, of course, and thought this was important knowledge to share.

Using money raised on ioby, she printed newspaper-sized posters, and we wheatpasted them to foam and other media and put them on the fences that seal a handful of these lots. We included the contact information for the agencies that controlled the lots and the project’s email address. We weren’t sure what would happen, but the people who live around those lots got in touch with us really quickly, we got those people in touch with each other, and the project started to take form.

I wrote our site, which includes a map where people can search for lots near them and get in touch with each other. Our focus is still on our print posters because we know that they’re the best way to get in touch with people who live near the lots.

After the jump, Eric talks about “gutterspace,” what happens when people come together to transform these lots, current projects in Brooklyn, and a lot in Bushwick with tons of potential…
BS: The website mentions these empty lots are known as “gutterspace.” What does that mean? Typically, how do these lots end up staying empty for so long?
EB: Gutterspace takes a number of forms, but for the purposes of our map we call any piece of land that can’t be accessed from the street or another vacant lot–that’s essentially landlocked–or is tiny, gutterspace. It’s frustrating searching around your block for potential open space only to find that the lot is actually in the middle of a block, or so small that it would be ridiculous to try to do anything with it. We were lucky enough to get a FEAST grant a few months ago and hire someone to (painstakingly, I might add) remove each one. Our goal is not only to make this data accessible to everyone, but to make sure that it’s relevant. The city isn’t doing a particularly good job on either of these fronts, so that’s where we come in.

Back to gutterspace: it’s land that either through surveying errors or the way lots have been chopped up that has slipped through the cracks. The city owns it, and I’m not sure why it doesn’t get consolidated into the adjacent lots. In the 70s, Gordon Matta-Clark bought a bunch of these in Queens and Staten Island and called them his Fake Estates. He once said that the description he found most exciting when at property auctions was “inaccessible.” There is something fascinating about them, so we still have them on the map as a layer.

BS: A part of what 596 Acres does is really straightforward: data aggregation and alerting people of said data. (The signs you put up on empty lots, for example.) How successful has that tactic been?
EB: The signs have been extremely successful. While our site charts the progress of the projects happening on these lots (from “organizing” to “having access”), a significant chunk of the lots that are active had posters on their fences. There isn’t much distinguishing these city-owned lots from privately-owned lots. Some of them have been vacant for decades, and when someone who has lived in the neighborhood for their whole life passes it and sees our poster on it (as opposed to the weeds and trash that tends to be present), they notice it! The people who notice the sign and have been thinking about doing something with the lot see this as their opportunity and get in touch with us.

BS: How does the act of taking over unused space and turning it into something positive change how people view, and interact in, their neighborhood? Why is reclaiming space especially important in neighborhoods where you see so many of these empty lots?
EB: The experience affects everyone differently. When you’re working with your neighbors toward a concrete goal that will directly impact the lives of each neighbor, at the very least you’re talking to people you probably weren’t talking to before. You’re sharing time, space, and food with your neighbors before you even get access to the target space. You’re making decisions together, and too often you’re starting from scratch because decision-making has largely been taken away from the community.

It’s not always pleasant. There will be disagreements, there will be very different people coming together. Space is a contentious issue in most of the neighborhoods with green on our map, where gentrification is being felt most acutely. Working on reclaiming a vacant lot, though, provides an avenue for neighbors to get to know each other and work through issues directly. This is an avenue that is mostly absent in this city, and my hope is that stronger neighborhoods are a result of these projects, though it’s far too soon to tell.

BS: What current projects is the organization working on that Brooklynites should know about?
EB: We’re very busy. Here are a few:

1. Bed-Stuy garden network – There are five lots in Bed-Stuy that are at various stages of organization. We’re excited to see so much happening, and in a dense enough area that the projects will complement and reinforce each other. I would encourage anyone in Bed-Stuy to check them out and get involved with the one that interests them most.
2. Myrtle Village Green – This is a huge water tunnel access site that the DEP agreed to turn into a park once they were done with it. For coming up on two years, the neighbors around it have been organizing to turn it into the park that was promised to them. The group’s timeline has more details about the lot’s history.
3. All City Acres – Okay, maybe this isn’t the most relevant one for Brooklynites, but we’re working on the data for the other four boroughs (this answers our most frequently asked question). We’ll be using the same tactics that we have used here in Brooklyn to spread the knowledge to the other boroughs and seed new open spaces there.

BS: Finally, your favorites: your favorite neighborhood in Brooklyn, favorite public space in BK, and the vacant lot you’d most like to see transformed in this borough.
EB: I still love Prospect Heights and Prospect Park, though I think I use it less as a public space and more to get lost in the woods.

It would be great to see something happen on 143 Stockholm just off Broadway in Bushwick. It’s over a tenth of an acre, sunny, and in a part of town that could seriously use more open space. The NYPD has owned it for 26 years and has yet to do anything with it. There are a bunch of people who live near the lot who have raised money (nearly $1500), petitioned (with over 1200 signatures), and cleaned up the lot significantly. But, when asked for access to the lot the NYPD decided it was time to build the parking lot that it apparently had in mind when it took the land in the 80s. No one is buying this, everyone is frustrated, and I’d like to encourage anyone who lives nearby to get in touch with the group organizing there.