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Flatbush Grows Greener with Gentrification

The Sustainable Flatbush team stands next to its compost bin in the Church community garden. (Photo: Stephanie Vatz | City Beats)

With a crime rate that increased by five percent since last year and the percentage of residents who receive federal aid doubling over the last 10, it would be difficult to describe Flatbush as a community in the throes of gentrification. But the five coffee shops, the six gourmet eateries and the organic food co-op within a six-block radius on Cortelyou Road tell of a more affluent and eco-centric community on the rise.

Local businesses and organizations like Sustainable Flatbush, Compost for Brooklyn and the Flatbush Farm Share are using green initiatives to reach out simultaneously to both communities—old time residents, who tend to be poorer and non-white, as well as newer residents—in an effort to maintain diversity while catering to the interests of young and hip newcomers.

However, there are some difficulties. Sustainable Flatbush, a group devoted to creating open spaces and teaching environmentally sustainable practices, has been successful in gaining a fan-base among newer residents but seems to have trouble reaching the pre-existing community.

In late September, members gathered for an event called “Moving Planet” at the community garden they planted at the Dutch Reformed Church, a Flatbush landmark that was built by the Dutch at the end of the 18th century.

Flatbush residents were supposed to tour the garden, see some composting demonstrations and drop off their own compost, but halfway through the event, only nine people were present and every one of them was already a member of Sustainable Flatbush.

While shoveling dirt around his newly planted flora at the entrance to the church courtyard, Chris Kreussling, who calls himself the Flatbush Gardener,” explained that the violas, lilies and goldenrod flowers that were native to Flatbush were having a difficult time growing now. The soil had changed too much over time, he said.

The neighborhood, too, has changed. Between 2000 and 2009, the U.S. Census reported, the number of white residents in Flatbush increased by 21.8 percent, and the number of Asian residents increased by 18.3 percent, while the percentage of black residents dropped 15.3 percent and Hispanics by five percent.

Income has changed as well. In 2000, when Cortelyou Road was found to be the most diverse tract of land in the United States by the Census, average family income was $30,985. Now, the average is $40,942.

Similar to Sustainable Flatbush in its green practices, Compost for Brooklyn specifically focuses on composting. This organization was founded a year ago by NYU graduate student Louise Bruce who wanted to turn one of the many deserted plots of land in the neighborhood, then filled with trash, into a community garden.

Many of the food scraps that Compost for Brooklyn turns into soil are collected at the Flatbush Farm Share, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that provides organic produce from upstate New York to members who, depending on income, pay between $85 and $330 for 22 weeks of produce delivered on a weekly basis.

Despite its sliding scale, the program has had problems gaining membership because members have to sign up for all 22 weeks and pay in advance. However, Flatbush Farm Share member Natalia Sucre said the membership is almost evenly divided into upper- and lower-income members.

“The idea of the CSA may have begun as a kind of transplant, brought in by relatively new community residents,” Sucre said, “but by now, it’s harder to speak of ‘we’ and ‘them’ – or rather, it’s easier and even more realistic not to.”

Amid the green organizations, a new sustainable and low-income housing development called CAMBA Gardens is also being constructed in East Flatbush near the King’s County Hospital. The 209 housing units will have community space and garden areas for tenants, energy efficient systems such as heat and electricity and equipment to provide healthy air quality.

“Tenants in the building will benefit for health reasons with the clean air and close proximity to the hospital and lower electricity bills which is key to their financing,” said Margaret Tabby, CAMBA Housing Venture’s project manager. “And from an agency perspective, we understand that it’s a responsible thing to tread a little bit lighter.”

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