The Farragut Houses don’t quite belong to any New York neighborhood. The public housing project is physically isolated from Fort Greene by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and economically isolated from nearby DUMBO. On the north side of York Street is one small market with a single aisle of produce, a bodega and a Chinese restaurant with bulletproof glass across the counter.
Yet Farragut’s eastern edge will soon see a major transformation. New York’s first Wegmans supermarket is slated to open on the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s southwestern corner in 2018. The decrepit Admiral’s Row will be torn down and a 74,000-square-foot supermarket will take its place.
And people in the Farragut Houses are more than ready.
“I’m excited, hopefully there’s going to be a meat market,” said crossing guard Celestine Pitt. “I hope they make a fish market too, I miss fish.” Pitt mans the busy intersection of Navy Street and Flushing Avenue, keeping children safe in the shadows of the old Admiral’s Row—overgrown houses surrounded by multiple fences and littered with graffiti. The new market will occupy this corner.
Many residents of Farragut must walk over half an hour to Myrtle Avenue to find a small supermarket. To find meat and buy products in bulk, many of them get on a bus and head to Costco. “There has never been a major grocery store in the area and there is limited public transportation for residents to reach supermarkets,” said City Harvest communications manager Samantha Park.
Yet the area is not considered a food desert, at least according to the federal government. In fact, zero census tracts in Brooklyn are considered to have inadequate access to healthy and affordable food. The federal government defines an urban food desert as a low-income census tract where a significant number of residents are more than one mile from the nearest supermarket. The Farragut Houses don’t fit this definition because of the small grocery store on York Street. However, it is clear that the limited size of markets in the immediate area make it hard for Farragut residents to access food. The federal government doesn’t consider “quality of food, if you are a senior citizen or if you are physically disabled,” said Meredith Almeida, Executive Director of the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership.
“I call it food swamps instead of food deserts,” said Tanya Fields, a Bronx food activist. “People take issue with me as a black woman using the term apartheid, but its true. If I wanted to get good food, I could but I would have to get on a bus to some wealthy place.”
In some areas, local organizations are stepping in so residents don’t have to get on a bus to get healthy food. City Harvest, a citywide organization which delivers food to feed hungry people, recently began a food pantry in Farragut in concert with the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership. According to Park, there are four food programs in Farragut but “one is closed to the public, one only serves once a month, and one only hands out dry goods.” City Harvest hands out the fresh fruit and vegetables that are necessary for a healthy diet.
While City Harvest is new to the area, the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership has been active in Farragut and the other nearby public housing sites for years. The group has attempted to recruit new supermarkets to the area, build community gardens, trained local chefs and operated a farm stand.
While Myrtle Avenue’s efforts have been relatively successful, getting food into the hands of residents remains a challenge. That’s where the big new supermarket comes in. Unlike some other big-box chains when they attempt to move into New York, Wegmans has not been met with derision. Food activists and local residents are hopeful about the Rochester-based chain’s labor practices and commitment to the community.
“I like them as a supermarket, they are family owned and New York owned,” said Melissa Danielle, a Brooklyn food activist. “They have excellent quality of life and their own farms. They prioritize local relationships, educate customers about food waste and availability.”
Wegmans plans to hire 600 employees for the new store and a third will work full time, according to a Wegmans press release. Farragut residents will have another local option for employment.
“Any large supermarket chain is not a magic bullet for any food access issue,” said Fields. “But most of my food-oriented friends are excited about it.”
Admiral’s Row was used as naval officers’ housing until the 1970s, and the 11 homes along Flushing Avenue have been vacant ever since. Trees and weeds grow freely inside the structures to create the feel of a jungle inside urban Brooklyn. Large fences block the view for motorists, but the structures pique the interest of pedestrians who stare at the vine-enveloped houses along Flushing Avenue. Despite opposition from a few local residents, the houses have been slated for demolition for years.