Barry Benepe

Tastemaker

Barry Benepe

IT'S SAFE TO SAY THAT without Barry Benepe, Union Square Greenmarket, or indeed any of the city's current Greenmarkets—would not be as prominent and successful as they are, if they existed at all. He's retired now—if you can call it that—living in Saugerties with his wife (and fellow farm market advocate) Judith Spektor. But the route Benepe's life took, before he became an outspoken preservationist, progressive planner and agricultural activist, was anything but straight.

Barry Benepe: The first definitive step I made was in college in my junior and senior years. I shifted from a very dry interest in economics (I thought I was going to go into my father's business)—I took an art course and then I went to Europe and saw where we come from as a Western culture. That just turned my head around. Fortunately, because I was traveling by ship (which people don't do anymore), I had five days in which to store my experience. I knew that I had to become an art major at that point. So I went to see the head of the department, who happened to be a terrific guy, and he welcomed me into the department. He recommended me to head up an art department at a private school, but I felt I didn't know enough about art to teach it. So I decided to go to Cooper Union.

At Cooper, which didn't give a degree, I got into three-dimensional arts and art which has something to do with people. That lead me toward architecture. I worked in an architect's office for a few years but gradually moved into planning. I became my own planning consultant.

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I did a lot of work in historic preservation, zoning, land-use development. I went to Newburgh to work for the [planning] agency there, and at a certain point they abolished my title to get rid of me (they couldn't fire me—civil service). So at that point (about 1968), I founded a nonprofit organization for the historic preservation of Newburgh. We called it Newburgh Now—we did a survey of historic buildings and discovered it was just a hothouse of Downing and other well-known nineteenth-century architects.

What fuels Benepe's tenacity and enthusiasm is a deep and knowledgeable sense of history. He's been around the block a few times, as they say—which gives him a perspective on issues far beyond that of many younger activists.

BB: My father reminded me what I had forgotten. He bought a farm in Maryland, and although he was a gentleman farmer, he wanted the farm to pay for itself. I spent a good part of my youth on a farm; I sensed, without it having been made explicit to me, that it was very hard for farmers to survive from the income of their farm. You know what an auction is? At auction a farmer drives in with a load of beautiful tomatoes or beans, and the auctioneers (representing, presumably, competing businesses) would bid—the better the item the higher the price. But, in fact, I remember my father saying they colluded and took turns buying. Obviously, many farms were going under and it was a reasonable assumption they were going under because they weren't getting a fair price. That experience, I think, stuck with me.

John Hess wrote a lot about food and markets. He often lamented about the sources of food, how New York State used to have all kinds of cheeses, but the wholesale manufacturers, the big people, persuaded the state agencies to pass laws to make it impossible to make cheese. To the people who had perfectly clean operations, made decent cheese, they said it's a health hazard, you've got to tile the walls, do this, do that. And put them out of business. That's still going on, goes on all the time. They always cry "health."

One of the things I pointed out to somebody who is doing a book was that the city used to be heavy with farm markets in 1920. They were very successful and they were supported by the city—not financially, but space was found for them, they were encouraged. Mayor LaGuardia came and got rid of them all because the retailers were complaining. He used health—the outdoors, that's bad. So he built indoor markets.

But there's a pragmatism at work here, too. Politics, economics, sociology, engineering, architecture, art—they each played a role in Benepe's life. His problem-solving ability came handy in the early stages of developing the Union Square GreenMarket, arguably one of the most successful in the nation from both an economic and logistical point of view—at least so far.

BB: We weren't going to do this for nothing. We raised money. The two foundations we talked to—the J. M. Kaplan Fund and the Fund for the City of New York—said that they didn't think the city in the 1970s could be capable of running a farmers' market, that we should run it ourselves. So we went back to our planning boards with our proposal to run a farmers' market, increased our budget from $7,000 to $35,000, and then looked for an eligible sponsor to take the money because we weren't a nonprofit.

We settled on the Council on the Environment for New York City, and that turned out to be a fortuitous choice because the Council on the Environment not only was involved in the environment but also was a semi-city agency—it was a privately supported citizens group in the office of the mayor, and the mayor sat as co-chair. Abe Beam was there when I first started, but Koch came on very soon after, and that meant that we had entré to all the city agencies. In fact, the city agency heads were put on the board of the council. So it meant we got instant cooperation—and we needed it, too.

The next thing was to get the farmers. Ocean County, New Jersey, started by saying that none of their farmers would go to New York because they'd go there with full trucks and come back with empty pockets. They saw New York as Crime City—that there were people at the tunnels to shake you down if they see a truck coming in with food.

The counties had lists of farmers interested in direct marketing, but usually they were not the best farms because they were already into farmstands and things like that. For those farmstands they were buying food—in fact, one of them had California broccoli in January! So we had to develop rules pretty fast. Our first rule was pretty liberal: You could buy 25 percent of your display from local farms (in fact we still have that), but we weren't too strict. One person came in with bananas and had to say they were from Long Island, and somebody else would have some toys. We realized pretty quickly what we were going to have to do.

Union Square came as a result of the city planning department calling us—Union Square was being disinvested and they had developed a plan that showed tennis courts on the northern end. They called us and asked if we'd bring a market down there. We said fine, if you get the permits from the department that controlled the meters. They did.

I'm about preservation of farms. I'd like to move more farmers into this area... as opposed to people who just want the green space.

It was very poor there for years. There were drugs in the park and we were suffering just as much as the property owners. We just stuck it out. Gradually the area began coming back—the real estate people would all say [the market] had a major role in having the area come back. There are now over 100 restaurants by that market. If we had chosen the wrong site the first time we opened, if we had opened in some non-descript area, it might not have ever taken off. The fact that we picked a good site at the very beginning helped us get a good head start.

I am still involved in the design of Union Square through the Union Square Community Coalition. The things they are proposing people have not thought through well at all.

Benepe likes to get to the heart—or roots—of an issue and begin discussion from there. There would be no GreenMarket, for instance, without farms—the objective isn't only to build more markets, it's to save more farms.

BB: I'm about preservation of farms. I'd like to move more farmers into this area. I went to see about a farm I spotted—a beautiful piece of Dutch architecture and barn. One of the elderly misses who lives there said they had this actively on the market for about eight years and kept on lowering the price. Got down to $154,000—this is for a 64-acre farm, with a stone house and wonderful barn. Now she says it's off the market. She wouldn't give me a reason. They're holding back on these big pieces of property because they expect monied people to buy large spreads. In a way that's a good thing because it means there's less speculation by developers. On the other hand, if I could convince her and she could consent, I would like to say, come on, sell it to a farmer—we need farmers, not just estate people.

It's not too late. You really have to talk, find out who's living on the farms and how much they want to keep agricultural. A surprising number are practicing agricultural pursuits as opposed to people in Westchester County who just want the green space.

When he moved to Saugerties, it wasn't long before he was involved in the start-up of the farmers' market and local preservation issues. Small town or not, the politics and economics are the same everywhere.

BB: I was spending a lot of time in Woodstock. I'd spend weekends there; I got to love the country. I began looking [for a house] in Woodstock. I told the Realtor my limit was $30,000, so he took me to Saugerties. I looked at four houses. This was the fourth one and I decided this was the right house. I put 30 grand into it—the windows are new, for example, and the floors are new, but it had a heating system, it had plumbing. I had to put in a new bathroom. I had the very good fortunate of being visited by the daughter of the builder—she brought me photographs, she brought me history. It's great to connect with history.

I never intended to start a market here, personally. But I always looked at this specific site in Saugerties and said to myself that if there were ever a market here, this would be the best place. Rickie Tamayo [of Saugerties' Cafe Tamayo] initiated it, called me and said we'd like to start a farmers' market here and have you on the committee. She had some different location in mind. I said, there is only one location in Saugerties that would be good. It has one detriment: It's very hot; it has no shade. The village had planted one tree a couple of years ago. It was knocked down by a car this past winter. We planted two trees last year and one of them already has been knocked, I think by storm damage. But eventually we'll do it.

The irony is that I wanted to bring local farms in first, but they were all too busy with their own roadside stands. They didn't have anybody to send. So then we reached out farther. The response this year was really great. We have five new farmers—filled out all our remaining spaces.

We go to every farm for two reasons: We want to know who we're dealing with and what their farm is like, and we want to make sure they're growing what they say they are. Other markets often bring in things that have nothing to do with farming—like coffee and soap and pasta—a sort of gourmet market. [We're] strictly growers and bakers, though there's an inconsistency—the bakers aren't going to have to grow their own flour. But that's the exception that proves the rule.

We're out visiting the farms and it's really impressive to see what's happening. Went to a garlic grower on the other side of the river. She has 150,000 garlic growing, doing it practically alone.

Everybody says organic, organic. Just buy local, whether it's organic or not. Why buy organic lettuce from California and not get a non-organic lettuce here?

Rules are a big part of farmers' markets. The interesting thing is the president of the historical society asked me [if they could] have a space at the farmers' market; they want to really publicize what they're doing. We had earlier decided that we would only have people connected to food and farm and nutrition and the environment. So we discussed it and we thought, New York City Greenmarket also includes local community groups, but we wanted to avoid having to cater to every special interest group. So Rickie, who is our chair, said, well, the historical society is really preserving the character of the area, its historic character, which includes the landscape, so we'll stretch it to that point.

Now our job is to get the people there. We've had a hell of a time getting publicity; the Woodstock Times blacked us out last year—would not write about us. We sent a release to the Saugerties Times—they didn't put in the release. They ignore the issue of farming and farms and food. They did one issue last year about farmers, didn't mention any of our farmers' markets here.

Nor does Benepe pull his punches. Just say "organic," for example.

BB: Everybody says organic, organic. Just buy local, whether it's organic or not. Why buy organic lettuce from California and not get a non-organic lettuce here?

Eating is a political act—that's a great quote. And that's true if people understand that. You don't have to be persuaded, the food should persuade you.

Most people don't understand what organic is. It has to do with soil tilth and how you handle soil in farming—it's not just whether you spray or not, it's what you fertilize with. But to the average person, organic means it's not sprayed with deadly poisons. It becomes a mantra, "Is it organic?" We tell our neighbors we're going to have a great meat person coming in. "Oh, is it organic?" It's local meat! It's not from some factory out in the Midwest or some big chicken factory down South.

The thing about the produce in a farmers' market in general is that the varieties of foods you get are different, more varied and interesting, and taste better than anything normally bought in the supermarket. You're getting it picked fresh by the person who has grown it—picked in a mature state, if that's what is meant to be, not too green or too hard, sweet, full of nutrients. People get turned on to vegetables when they buy them in farmers' markets.

Still, Barry Benepe is somewhat of an icon in GreenMarket and preservation circles. The beauty and simplicity of his historic Saugerties farmhouse belies the amount of activity in his life, still. The phone never stops ringing—if it's not for a request for an interview, it's to ask him to write a local statute that would help save historic buildings in the village. And then there's a modest project in New York City he's still championing . . .

BB: My real heart is right here in my landscape. That's most interesting for me. I'd rather not be doing other things. I like interpreting things by drawing and painting, but I get caught up in contemporary affairs. I'm getting more conversant with e-mail.

I agreed to join this Hysterical Society, as we call it, then I was asked to join a sub-committee or comprehensive planning committee to draft an ordinance to protect our historic resources. A guy has bought one of the most important buildings in town—1740, the addition is 1790—and he wants to tear it down and sell the barns and things. He bought it for $140,000 and wants to sell it for $685,000. This particular building, it's state registered, so he needs to go through the hoops before he can do it, or he can do it illegally and pay the penalty. The penalty was $250 and now it's $5,000. Still, $5,000 is not that much. We testified that it should be the assessed value of the house, but town boards won't do those things. We've drafted a law now. There is a nine-month moratorium on demolition permits—or any permits—and during that time we're trying to draft a preservation law.

I personally think they should license people to own property, like they license them to drive cars. You should be qualified. There is one Realtor who is aghast that this was happening; he's on our committee, too. He's developing a technique for identifying historic properties by their dates on his computer. Give him any street, he can tell you every house on that street of a certain date. It's not a great deal of information, but it's some.

You can see what's happening in my life—constantly fighting fires. One of the issues I've been involved with for years (since I demonstrated in 1966 with Ed Koch, who came as part of our demonstration), is to close Central Park drives to traffic. Under Mayor Lindsay we made big strides to close them to automobile traffic. We've made little progress since.

Our goal is to close it completely to vehicles but, certainly, at the beginning, to have more non-vehicle time than we have now and have fewer points of access to the drives so it's used as a pleasure road, which was its original intent when there were horses and carriages. Now it's being used as a street, a parkway. It's crazy to use it as a traffic highway; it's supposed to be a retreat.

To the current mayor, I say, why don't you close the park? He says, want me to lose my job? I say, are you sure you'd lose your job? Ask them. I'd like to talk with him face to face about it—still trying to do that.

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