By Keith Olsen
After CBGB, the popular punk music club in the East Village, shuttered its doors in 2006, Carroll Gardens artist and filmmaker Christina Kelly was inspired. She summed up her feelings in a grainy hand-drawn cartoon depicting two Native Americans riding their horses past the venue. One says, “Wow! I remember when that was a maize field!”
While modest and simple, the drawing carried a message as clear as its title “New York just isn’t the same.” With its constant reinventions, this is a city that erases its history by building over it.
Kelly sought to recreate a version of that historical memory with her own urban art project in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. At the end of May, she finished construction on “Maize Field,” a garden plot on the sidewalk at the intersection of Smith and Bergen streets, where eventually 40 stalks of Iroquois Gigi Hill blue flint corn will be ready to harvest, creating a new neighborhood attraction for residents and passersby alike.
“I think in The Island of the Center of the World, [author Russell Shorto] mentions there were corn fields in what was once Boerum Hill so many years ago,” Kelly said. “So I just got this idea in my head to do this project, to recognize that. We’re so far away from corn fields now.”
She thought about how to create a work of art that could convey that message. Using her interests in gardening and the environment and her desire to highlight a historical past, she settled on growing a garden of corn in an area that had been a Native American planting ground 400 years earlier.
“Of course there are elements of food, sustainability and the green movement, in this,” Kelly said. “It’s more about changes in the neighborhood and land, and our overall relationship with change though. But above all, I wanted it to be an art project.”
Some residents have already made visiting the cornfield part of their daily routine.
“I think it’s wonderful. I come everyday and watch it grow,” said Dward Fahquard, who lives a block away, while sitting on the blocks that line the garden and petting his three-year-old pug, Ralph. “I yell at it and try to encourage it. I used to live on a farm and it’s taken me back, thinking about it.”
Nestled just steps away from the Bergen subway stop, across the street from a Dunkin’ Donuts and adjacent to a Domino’s, the raised-bed garden has become home to what Native Americans called the three sisters: corn, beans and squash. The term is derived from how all three plants grow by complementing one other: the beans fix nitrogen for the corn and soil, and the squash keeps the soil moist.
After participating in similar gardening activities at the Lefferts House in Prospect Park last year, and in Canarsie, Kelly crafted a grant proposal to fund the project. She chose the Smith and Bergen location after the city expanded the sidewalk significantly. The larger sidewalk would allow for visitors to look at the corn, as well as maintain regular walking traffic.
She first secured an advocate in the Boerum Hill Association, which provided her with public-relations support, insurance, and legitimacy. Kelly pitched the idea at a community board meeting and board members voted in favor of its construction.
“Her project kept with what we like to do,” said the association’s president, Howard Kolins. “We had to highlight a respect for art and the project really does beautify the area. It also makes a statement, it reminds everyone of our history, and it’s a visual refreshment.”
She also lined up support from several local businesses including Greensulate, which makes homes and other buildings energy efficient, The Invisible Dog art center, a gallery that provided water for the plants, and Dig, a Brooklyn community gardening center, that gave Kelly wildflowers and soil.
Kelly then submitted her proposal to the division of the New York City Department of Transportation that approves urban art projects. It ultimately supported Kelly’s idea and provided a $5,000 grant, given to the Boerum Hill Association as the sponsor, to order supplies and cover upkeep costs.
The construction of the bed and the planting of the seeds, which she kept from her previous projects in Brooklyn, were completed at the end of May. Around the edges of the bed, she also installed signs that explain the purpose of the project: a lesson on big city historical impermanence.
The community reaction so far has been extremely positive. “I’m out there everyday either gardening or watering or cleaning, and people come up to talk to me about it,” she said. “I’ve gotten good feedback.” In fact, a local Boerum Hill school heard about the project and asked Kelly to plant the beans with a kindergarten class, as a celebration of her work.
By the end of the project in August, when the 40 stalks of blue flint corn are ready to be harvested, Kelly hopes that residents better understand Boerum Hill’s history as a once highly valued Native American planting ground. She doesn’t have any definitive plans for the harvest yet, but is taking suggestions on the Maize Field website until the crop becomes more prominent.
“We’re part of something bigger,” she said. “No one has a claim on this neighborhood. I hope people can sit around and talk about that.”