Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Atop One of Brooklyn's Most Beautiful (Secret) Rooftop Gardens

Posted By on Tue, Aug 21, 2012 at 1:49 PM

On a quiet block in Red Hook, across the street from a weedy lot and a willow tree, Duke the Cat is keeping watch over his townhouse, which he shares with JoJo Demirel and her husband, Baris. These days Duke has more company at home, since JoJo has been taking time of from work to begin plans on a soup shop she hopes to open in Red Hook the near future. On the last day of July, I was lucky enough to have a quick tour of her four-terraced tomato heaven and enjoy a cold glass of cucumber water.

How great to be taking time off in such an awesome house...

Yeah, but I want to get back to work because I plan to open up my own soup shop here in Red Hook. A really small neighborhood place. There's a lot of housing around here and people just need a lunch spot to go to.

What kind of soups would you make?

I just finished prepping a vat of gazpacho with all of the overripe tomatoes and peppers we have. And chilled cucumber soup with yogurt and garlic is always nice. But I love a good french onion soup, and bean soups tend to be favorites, too.... rosemary and white bean, bean and bacon, lentil and sausage. But then again, any mexican tortilla soup with some lime and avocado does it for me, too. I guess my house specialty would have to be yota, which is a Croatian favorite: sauerkraut, potatoes, hamhock, beans... It was my favorite growing up when my mom would make it, and it's so healthy and I could eat it for days.

[music on television gets loud for a second]

Sorry—I was watching The Other Boleyn Girl.

How was it?

Oh, it's one of those dramatic things you just watch when you're home by yourself. It's good.

I really love all the art in here.

Thanks. I did a lot of the photography. I shot this girl [points to photo of girl in skirt on bike] on the Lower East Side. It was a really lucky shot.

This one was a wedding gift to us. [points to the graffiti-painting of little boy.] That one I shot in Vietnam. The photos are mostly mine and the artwork is mostly done by friends. Those photos over there [black and whites of the punk-looking guy and girl] are old roommate and ex-boyfriend of mine from Detroit.

And Patti Smith?

That's the only one I didn't shoot.

Rooftop Garden
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Rooftop Garden

By Catherine Lacey

Click to View 16 slides

How long have you been in New York?

Going on twenty years. I grew up in Detroit and was born in Croatia.

So you've been a photographer for a while?

Yeah, my dad was a photographer and had a printing company, so I grew up in Croatia around that. I was always around cameras and he taught me how to work in the dark room in the basement.

Did you come to New York for photography?

Sort of, I came to study at FIT and now I just do it on my own.

So, tell me about this building.

It's a brand new building. Five units—they're called carriage houses. When we moved in it was a lot more industrial and we made some changes. We put the teak floor in and gutted the kitchen. The kitchen was really dark and so we opened it up. That's like my baby. We love to cook. We also re-did the bathroom over here. It was really crappy—even through the building was new. We put in the glass and re-tiled it. We designed how we wanted it to look and we have some friends who are contractors. [Pointing to photo of cat in cast above the toilet.] That's Duke when he had a broken leg.

Aww… he looks pathetic.

I wonder where Claudia went…. she's our other cat.


How did you meet your husband?

We actually met at Bubby's Tribeca and started dating right after 9/11. Then we both moved to Bubby's DUMBO. We were living in Astoria at the time but needed more space and I always wanted a garden, but I never thought I'd be able to afford it in the city and I didn't want to move to the suburbs, so when this place opened up—just an eight-minute bike ride from work—we were like, "holy shit." We had to take it. And the first thing I did was start researching greenhouses.

So you can really grow all year?

Oh yeah. All those tomatoes are ours. We have a ton of tomatoes and peppers this year. Last year our cucumbers were out of control—we couldn't keep up with them. There are a lot of herbs. We have a lot of space but I try to maximize it and grow things that are really productive and worth it. Green beans. Tomatoes. Eggplants, for some reason, do super well.

Do you even buy that much produce anymore?

Yeah, we buy fruit and lettuce, but all summer we're just eating tomato salads everyday. [Pointing to a drawing on the way up to the second floor.] That's my sister's drawing there. This is my Dad's room. When he comes from Croatia he stays here and has breakfast in the greenhouse on this terrace. But when he's not here it's just our closet room because as big as this house is, it doesn't have any closets.

The light is so nice up here.

This verbena plant is three-years old. It was just a little thing when I got it and now it's huge. Smell it.

[It smells damn good.]

And we put the lavender in because it attracts bees.

Are you getting bees?

Yeah, actually across the street there is a beekeeper. You can see the hives from the roof. It's cool to see him going out there in his white bonnet from time to time. And there are actually a lot of farmers in the area. And the Red Hook CSA is here and run by a guy who lives across the street.

[As we're walking onto the second of four terraces.] So many tomatoes!

Yeah, I started reading about all these different kinds of tomatoes, so then I bought about ten different varieties instead of the standard three or four. And then, of course, I overprinted because you never know what's going to work, but then it turned out that everything worked. This rosemary also used to be a little bitty guy and I've had him for three years so he got huge. And the bay leaves! Who knew that bay leaves would grow into a little tree like that?

The plants are so happy here!

We actually do spend a lot of time out here with friends and I want it to look more like scenery and less like a garden. Did you see the crazy eggplant? They're exploding!

Do you have to end up canning or making sauces?

We did last year but we actually end up using it pretty fast, so I think I'm going to freeze this year instead of going through the trouble of canning.

Before you moved out here, had you spent much time in Red Hook? Did you already know the neighborhood?

Yeah, we really like this neighborhood and how it's still developing. We knew we wanted to be in a neighborhood that was still up-and-coming. And it's so quiet! We didn't realize how quiet it would be. And we love Fort Defiance and of course we're at Fairway everyday. My husband loves swimming at the pool. And we love the ball fields with the Red Hook vendors.

Do you ever rent this space out at all?

No. (laughs) Never.

And would you ever move anywhere else?

Yeah, sure. It would be hard to leave this space but we could move on. It's a really unique space. We got really lucky.

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Catherine Lacey

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