A co-op tour of Brooklyn

You get used to certain things when you live in a place for 5 years.  When you live in Madison, you get used to bike paths, the largest farmers’ market in the US, a huge grocery co-op, and three-dollar pints of craft beer.  Ah, the life.
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After 5 years there, my desire to take in new surroundings and a different job market outweighed the benefits of staying.  Brooklyn was an enticing destination; part of its appeal for me was that it was NOT going to be a walk in the park (or the arboretum).  More importantly, it is one of the most diverse places on the planet and full of young makers and artists– strong ingredients that create one of the most eclectic places to work with food.

I moved here in October with a specific plan: find a job on goodfoodjobs.com, live in a housing co-op, join a food co-op, and write about food.  By November, I was still looking for co-ops, which by principle, are owned by their members and are environmentally and socially more sustainable than traditional housing and food markets.  They operate somewhat outside of the profit-driven treadmill of capital and power.  In Madison, there are cooperatively-owned businesses, banks, grocery stores, farms, houses, apartments, and botiques.  It was important for me to counteract my participation in New York City commerce with transactions – for food and housing – that were meant to sustain a more socially-just community.

I started in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where a friend took me out for ramen along tree-lined  avenues.  Soon thereafter I discovered the Park Slope Food Co-op, one of the nation’s oldest and largest food co-ops.  Its 15,000 members enjoy the most affordable local and sustainably produced foods one can get New York.  There’s rumors that you can buy 89-cent organic avocados there.

In the membership office I learned that becoming a member required an online sign-up that filled as quickly as it was made available.  An online lottery.  I imagined myself bringing bags full of their produce home to a sunny kitchen and wondered if it was still a worthy goal.  How could the nation’s most celebrated co-op be so heartbreaking?  Where I’m from, the food co-ops are as accessible as grocery stores, member or not.

Instead, I frequented Sahadi’s, a Lebanese grocery store on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn.  It’s handwritten Arabic script, beautiful glass bulk jars of spices, grains, and nuts, and Wisconsin cheeses drew me in.  I imagined supplementing co-op produce with this exotic array of dry goods.

By January, I settled into a creamy yellow four-bedroom on the corner of Monroe Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, with three craigslist-aquaintences.  Miraculously, we shared interests in co-ops, house meetings, and sustainable agriculture.

I knew the area well – the intersection of Greene Avenue and Franklin, just up the street, was already one of my favorite spots in Brooklyn.  There, I found a second home at Bedford Hill, a garden-level café bar whose ten tables are always crowded.  It felt like Madison or Chicago.  Milwaukee-roasted espresso beans were filtered into strong americanos to the sounds of Aretha Franlkin, the Roots, and T.L.C.  Facing the café is Greene Acres community garden – a New York Restoration Project. Its honeycomb-shaped raised beds recently bloomed into herbs, fruits, and greens that are shared among gardeners and community members.  And, not far from there, I found the Greene Hill Co-op.  I offer my writing skills to their newsletter department in exchange for access to their selection of sustainable dairy, produce, and dried goods.  These are some things worth getting used to.

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