Corny island! Woman artist turns Smith Street corner into a mini-farm

Nebraska’s got nothing on one Boerum Hill corn-er!

A small field of corn sprouted on Tuesday at Bergen and Smith streets, a vegetal oasis off an otherwise green-starved roadway.

But the crops are not for sustenance — at least not bodily. Part of an art project called Maize Field, Christina Kelly’s planting is actually a reflection about life’s vicissitudes and a nod to the borough’s rich agrarian past — a stark contrast between what once was, and what is now.

In the 17th century, the area around Kelly’s plot of land consisted mostly of cornfields cultivated by the Marechkawich Indians — a belt of farmland extending from what is today Atlantic Avenue to Baltic Street and from Court Street to Hoyt Street, according to Kelly.

Along with the corn, Kelly also planted squash, beans and sunflowers, in recognition of traditional native farming practices.

If all goes well, the seeds will yield 40 stalks of blue flint corn, which was traditionally planted by the Lenape tribe and made into blue corn mush for ceremonial rites. The Lenape once lived in what is now Gowanus, Sheepshead Bay, Flatlands, and Canarsie.

Kelly not only secured the rare seeds, but also the even-scarcer public funding before Tuesday’s planting day. Her concern now is the safety of her plot, which is surrounded by imposing granite blocks, but still quite vulnerable amid the urban clamor.

“I am a little nervous whether the corn will grow or if someone will stamp on it,” she said.

But concern might be unfounded: the cornfield is already a neighborhood sensation.

“It’s really cool! It’s nice to have this in the city,” said Carolyn Arnovitz. “I walk past it on my way to work, so I’ll watch it grow.”

Jamie Stewart agreed, “It’s kind of a dead space here, so it’s nice to have some greenery here,” he said, adding that the subway beneath Smith prevents the planting of trees along the roadway.

The project, sponsored by the Boerum Hill Association, took root with cash from the Department of Transportation’s Urban Art program.

“I love it,” said resident Ken Vale. “I can’t believe that in a time of budget cuts that we can have public art.”

Tuesday’s ceremonial planting begins Corn Watch 2010, our exclusive look at the growth and harvesting of the tasty crop. Will the young corn survive to see June? Will a pesky pooch plant an unwelcome deposit in the vegetable patch? Stay tuned, as green shoots are expected to show within the next five to seven days. Eventually, the corn will be as high as an elephant’s eye.

To learn more about the project, go to www.brooklynmaize.org.

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