No Smorg! Northern Brooklynites seek to reclaim park from popular food fest

North Brooklyn residents are seeking to reclaim East River State Park from the popular open-air market Smorgasburg.
Scott Lynch

These people are fed up!

Residents living around a Williamsburg state park want to take back the green space from the country’s largest outdoor food market, Smorgasburg, which they say monopolizes the public space at the expense of locals. 

“The fact that we have a great shortage of parkland in North Brooklyn and that huge piece of your park filled with little shacks isn’t really a park use, that’s a commercial food venture,” said Community Board 1 member Tom Burrows at the panel’s monthly meeting on Jan. 14.

Smorgasburg reserves a slice of the seven-acre East River State Park located on Kent Avenue between N. Seventh and N. Ninth streets on Saturday from April through October, bringing thousands of visitors to the waterfront lawn every weekend.

And while the event has grown to become one of Brooklyn’s staple fair-weather attractions, some folks living around the park have quietly petitioned officials to revoke Smorgasburg’s permits during either July or August, complaining that locals should take priority over visitors from out of town.

“A good 85 to 90 percent of those people are tourists. They are not community people that live in this area,” said Dave Ocaña. “I have asked numerous years to give the community one of those months.”

But the state Parks Department’s regional director described the complaints levied at the community board’s January meeting as overblown, claiming that her office had received a trivial volume of complaints that do not warrant serious consideration.

“I’ve heard exactly two calls for this time off [during July or August],” said Leslie Wright. “The answer is no, in 2020 there’s no plan for that.”

Smorgasburg has proven itself a reliable partner since the festival began leasing parkland back in 2011, according to Wright, who added that organizers have funneled some of their proceeds to help fund jazz performances and the upcoming construction of a public restroom at East River State Park.

Moreover, she emphasized that East River State Park is an amenity for all New Yorkers, and that opponents of the wildly popular food fest represent a distinct minority in terms of both visitors — and locals. 

“As ardent as you are in framing your question, we have people with equal ardency who are also residents of the community and visitors to the community who like it the way it is,” said Wright. “The minority of voices we hear are critical.”

Smorgasburg co-founder Eric Demby joined Wright at the meeting, and — while the Parks official addressed concerns relating directly to the market’s concession with the state — the festival organizer appealed to his critics’ sense of fairness, saying he’s a Brooklynite just like they are.  

“We are not some corporation from some other part of the world, we live and work in Brooklyn,” he said.