Commons: A Proposal
Bayridge Branch Freight line
Before colonialism, the Haudenosaunee and many other indigenous tribes didn’t view land ownership in the same way Europeans did. Land was communally owned and distributed based on need. It took a war between the tribes of the Haudenosaunee Federation to get to this point. The war was ended by the women of the tribes, who came together to create the Great Law of Peace. It provided the Federation a list of values to live by, which included but was not limited to righteousness, diversity within unity and commons and ecosystem services. Due to a major catastrophe, the Haudenosaunee were forced to reevaluate their morals. Like the war, climate change is our society’s catalyst for a major paradigm shift.
The Bay Ridge Branch freight line was opened in 1876. The line runs through a ravine in South Brooklyn. Most residents are unaware of the track because it is rarely used, mostly underground and hidden by dense mostly invasive vegetation and several overpasses. It passes directly behind Roosevelt and Ingersoll hall on the Brooklyn College Campus. The line connects the LIRR grid to the 65th Street Yard in Bay Ridge. Passenger service on the line ended in 1924, so currently, the track is only used for freight trains.
Recently, attention has been brought back to the freight line as the city has been looking for ways to improve infrastructure. Two ideas have been proposed by transportation officials. The first I disagree with strongly because it’s unproductive and supports the current neo-liberal development plans for New York City. They want to increase freight train shipments on the track to bolster the local economy. Noise and exhaust fumes from the freight trains would be a nuisance to nearby residents. They’d likely suffer a decline in their overall quality of life and lose money due to decreasing property values. The ravine the track goes through has been heavily eroded over the past decade. If the erosion is not dealt with, parts of the track will be damaged.
The second idea is to convert the freight track into a Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) line, which I prefer. It would connect Bay Ridge to East New York and make life so much easier for thousands of people who travel along that path to get to school and work. The problem is the freight line only has one track, so only one train could travel at a time. Also there isn't enough electrification on the line for a train to run through smoothly. It would take billions to convert the freight track into an MTA line. At the current time, the MTA does not have sufficient budget to adequately maintain the existing lines.
We have another idea for the freight line, which aims to restore the wild nature of the ravine, while also utilizing the space for nearby communities. We propose to turn the ravine into common land for agriculture and community service purposes. This underutilized landscape can be transformed from hills of invasive species to garden terraces with a combination of annual and perennial agriculture. Further plans could include raising in a holistic fashion that not only gives the chickens a good life but improves the health of the environment well making New Yorkers food sovereign. Chickens produce eggs, and can help build soil well also tilling garden beds. The vast open spaces of the tracks provide plenty of space for safe beekeeping away from houses but close to flowers. Brooklyn has the highest rate of food insecurity of any borough, over eighteen percent. A swathe of agricultural commons running right through the heart of Brooklyn would increase food security amongst borough residents and act as a narrative point for a larger decolonization movement. By creating agricultural commons, we’d also be following in the steps of the Haudenosaunee and hopefully moving toward a more sustainable and equitable society. The commons can be used to promote the same values that made their society so successful, which adds an additional narrative point about bioregionalism and indigeneity.
Creating an agricultural commons would localize the food system. Communities could produce food that’s culturally significant to them, all well cutting down CO2 emissions associated with food transportation. It would also decrease food insecurity across the borough. These common agricultural lands would give people food sovereignty, which is the right of people to control their own food systems. One of the values stated in the Great Law of Peace is sovereignty within an interdependent world. This value can be applied to the agricultural commons because it’ll connect New Yorkers to the food production they usually don’t see. Even if you aren’t doing farm work in the commons, you are still connected to it by virtue of it being right in your background. Residents can be sovereign by producing the food and resources they eat, but by doing so they are also connected to a larger system that brings people together.
Agricultural commons would combat the fundamentals of capitalism that have led us to our current crisis, because we’re asking people to question who owns the land we live, work, play and worship on. New York City is neo-liberal, only beholden to the interests of real estate and not the voting constituency. The city government pushes through projects like the Highline, which causes green gentrification thus further stratifying our society. Since I am proposing an agricultural commons, we are not beholden to real estate, instead the commons would be under the control of the local community. The commons could be the central point for a local agricultural movement in Brooklyn. If the movement were to gain support and grow into a powerful collaborative network, it would help strengthen our communities against gentrification.
Participating in farm work would reconnect city dwellers to the land and soil itself. Ceremonies could be held in the commons to celebrate everything from the changing seasons to harvesting produce. Students can be brought to the commons to participate in activities and events, such as planting, turning compost and tending to animals. The events would be centered around giving back to the commons and learning about the environment. Since the tracks have been abandoned for so long, piles of trash have accumulated in the ravine via illegal dumping. To eliminate this trash and begin farming down there, we could have community action events to clean up and restore areas along the track.
We propose for the Bay Ridge Branch freight line to be converted into agricultural commons. Our proposal upholds values from the Great Law of Peace; commons and ecosystem services, diversity within unity, sovereignty within an interdependent world and clear responsibility for the commons. The creation of agricultural commons would support the democratization of our food system and provide the community with a space to connect to their bioregion. The other proposed ideas support the neoliberal development of Brooklyn. Under different circumstances, an MTA line would be the best idea, but we are in a climate emergency and we must act boldly so as to positively ameliorate the projected changes. Our plan contradicts the capitalist ideas that New York City is known for and pushes people to reimagine what the city could look like if we incorporated sustainability and environmental ethics.