Introducing: The Smiling Hogshead Ranch, LIC

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    Skillman Avenue in Long Island City, between Pearson Place and 49th Avenue is a fairly desolate spot. The Sunnyside Yards “Yard A” dominates the northern side of the street. On the other side of the vast rail road complex is Jackson Avenue and the Court Square Subway station, the Arris Lofts, and the brand new Pearson Court Square building with its roof top windmills.

    A block south, you’ll find the sewage choked waters of Newtown Creek’s Dutch Kills tributary, which provided a maritime link to the Degnon Terminal industrial park (which has been discussed in this post). Skillman Avenue forms one of the borders of the Degnon Terminal, and at the corner of Pearson Place and Skillman Avenue – the tracks of the LIRR’s Montauk Cutoff offered locomotive access to the Degnon Terminal railway tracks. This spur is in place to this very day, and there are rails sticking up out of the modern day asphalt which run up elevations to elevated tracks that connected Sunnyside Yard with the LIRR tracks which run along Newtown Creek, through Maspeth and then towards Fresh Pond. If curious about such things – go here.

    That’s a short history of the site, and you won’t believe what’s going on here now.

    More after the jump…

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    The tracks of this spur have never been removed, which I’m told is customary in the rail business. Disused, the property became overgrown with weeds in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and one of the several homeless camps which float along the rail infrastructure of Newtown Creek would periodically appear here. Strictly temporary, the shanty dwellers would be shooed off by the railroad cops and they’d set up shop somewhere else. A population that proved intransigent to dislodge, however, are the colonies of feral cats who had taken up residence here. Area workers periodically set up shelters for them, and fill troughs with cat food. Cat colonies are much better than exterminators at suppressing rodent populations in industrial zones, ask anyone.

    I know all of this simply because I used to haunt places like (and specifically) this, seeking uncommon vantage points from which to photograph LIC and or trains.

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    Sometime in 2011 or so, while walking past the property on my way back from somewhere in Greenpoint, I was surprised to notice that somebody had been working on the site. Food was growing here.

    If you’re not familiar with the area, it’s difficult to describe how surprising this fact was. Across Pearson Place is the former Waldes Koh-I-Noor factory complex, and the busiest rail junction in the United States is found across Skillman Avenue. Soon, I found myself keeping an eye out and looking for signs of habitation here – I had to know!

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    One early spring day, while I’m walking by, this fellow pops up out of the brush with clumps of weeds in his hands. He invites me up the little hill that the rail tracks rest on, and we begin chatting. His descriptions of the efforts here are being those of “a group of friends, who were looking for a piece of land to farm and garden on.” They looked at a few locations, but fell in love with this one when they encountered the rails buried amongst weeds and poison ivy.

    The problem was, they didn’t know who owned the land. Even more complicated, since there are rails here, a bugbear of Federal regulations might apply. They started planting anyway, collecting rainwater to set up irrigation, and building compost bins.

    I formed a friendship with this fellow over time, and the group’s garden expanded. They had tests done at Brooklyn College, to confirm that nothing nasty might be in the ground that could taint their crops, which came back clean enough. 2012 rolled by, and during that summer the owner of the property finally noticed that the self-styled Smiling Hogshead Ranch was operating along the tracks.

    It was the MTA.

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    Founding members Shirley Chai, Jen Kline, Stephanos Koullias, Justin Lau, Alan Lewandowski, Gil Lopez, James Nowakowski, Peter Richter, Leanne Spaulding, Becky Thorp and Mia Vlah found themselves at a crossroads. They had a rare opportunity to go from being Guerilla Gardeners to “respectable citizens.”

    It seems that the MTA Property Managers Office was intrigued by the group and its project. The tracks were decommissioned anyway, and the presence of an urban farm on publicly owned land contributed to an overall increase in green infrastructure for the transit system. Relieved, the Hogshead group was told they’d be offered a lease on the property, should certain conditions be met. Primarily, they would need to carry liability insurance on the venture — at an enormous cost.

    From smiling-hogshead-ranch.tumblr.com:

    We Are A Community Group Planting Plants And Ideas At A Previously Underutilized Space In New York City. Our Goals Include Demonstrating Appropriate Technologies As Functional And Educational Tools, Regeneration Of Strong Urban Ecology And Building Cohesive Community Through Fun, Outdoor Interaction.

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    This is Paula Segal, representing the 596 Acres group. Paula is an attorney who provided early legal assistance to the group on lease negotiations with MTA. She welcomed a very large crowd to the property last Saturday, the 6th of September 2014. Her group has aided in the opening of 24 other community spaces around NYC, and she was proud to announce number 25 here in LIC.

    From 596acres.org:

    We support groups creating community land access tools in their own cities through open source code and hands-on mentorships. We are also the convener of an international Community Land Access Advocacy network that will have its first in-person meeting this spring: save the date for Turning Our Vacant Acres into Community Resources on April 22 & 23, 2014, at the New School in New York City.

    In New York City we are community land access advocates and use one of our tools. Our NYC Land Community Access Program started in Brooklyn in May 2011. Click for a PDF version of our 2011-2012 Recap and these incredible impacts in 2013! There are now 22 new spaces in New York with official permission to transform public vacant lots into something better.

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    Members of the current board of the Smiling Hogshead Ranch are pictured above, taking their places in front of a red ribbon. From left, that’s Jenelle Malbrough, Operations Co-Director, Geoffrey Brock, Operations Co-Director, Mia Vlah, Secretary, and Kelsey Ripper, Governance Officer. On the right is the fellow who popped up out of the bushes back in 2011, President Gil Lopez. Treasurer Colin Anton Samuel acted as the Master of Ceremonies.

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    Gil Lopez addressed the crowd, offering a history of the project, and thanking the community volunteers and members who made it possible. Current dues paying SHHR members include Rose & Chris Moon, Andrew & Tricia Graham, Gordon Douglas, Jennifer Plewka, Kevin Slesenski, Shirley Chai, Peter Ives, Christopher Nacinovich, and Dee Dee Maucher. Membership is $35 per year, by the way.

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    The 5 Boro Bike Club sent a contingent out to the ribbon cutting, and in fact there were more than 100 people at the ranch. As you may recall, this was a particularly bad day weather wise, which made the turnout extraordinary. Incidentally, those wooden poles you’ve noticed framing every shot? The beginnings of a grape orchard the group will be planting here, that’s what they are.

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    Finally, the big moment came — and the shears, scissors and secateurs came out. The Smiling Hogshead Ranch could at least speak its name in public.

    From smiling-hogshead-ranch.tumblr.com:

    Smiling Hogshead Ranch is celebrating the execution of our Garden License Agreement (GLA) with the property owner (the MTA/LIRR). This is our official transition from an informal garden to a fully endorsed public space. Please join us at The Ranch for our inauguration ribbon cutting ceremony as we appreciate those brave organizations who supported us from the beginning, review some milestones and take a peek at what we have planned for the future at our urban farm.

    This event is free and open to the public. Donations will be accepted for light food and drinks graciously provided by our garden members and the following sponsors; The Queens Kickshaw, Beyond Brewing Company, Singlecut Beersmiths, V-Spot Vegan Restaurant and The Regal Vegan.

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    The Ranch actively recruits new members, and welcomes visitors. Your best bet is to try them on weekends – they’re found at 25-30 Skillman Avenue. LIC, NY 11101, at the corner of Pearson Place and the Montauk Cutoff rail tracks. You can get in touch with them via their site.

    Seriously, there are giant flowers here, so check the Smiling Hogshead Ranch out. Maybe even become a supporting or active member? Long Island City can use all the giant flowers it can get.

    Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.

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