Bees: Only a Part of It

Hills & Gardens
By Trudy Whitman

Melissa Ennen was worrying over bees. The second beehive was scheduled for construction on the roof garden at the Commons Brooklyn at 388 Atlantic Avenue that afternoon, and the people who had installed the first one had inadvertently taken some essential equipment with them. The bees, too, were on their way, and since timing is everything in beekeeping, Ennen was energetically working her cell phone trying to locate the necessary materials.

The Commons Brooklyn is a community and education center offering classes on a sliding scale on health and healing, food-social justice, urban agricultural, and the environment. The start-up was financed by Ennen, who owns the building and is evaluating models “to make it sustainable financially.”

When we visited on a weekday at 10 a.m., the three-story building was already as busy as, well, a beehive. Young voices speaking Chinese could be heard because Lango Brooklyn, a language school, is renting space at the Commons for a Mandarin class for children. Butterbeans campers, kids interested in gardening and cooking, were expected at any moment, and people were readying the roof garden for the expected bees. Several non-profits, such as the Brooklyn Young Mothers Collective, rent space from Ennen. August will be busy with a kids’ day camp run by the Brooklyn Strategist, a new business that teaches no-tech international board and card games. And in September the Brooklyn Community Acupuncture Clinic will arrive.

To date, the most public component of the Commons is the Foodshed market, an indoor farmers’ market at street level that operates on Tuesdays 4-8 p.m. and on Sundays 11-4. In addition to fresh produce, Foodshed features such items as local dried pasta, artisanal cheeses, and handmade chocolates.

Melissa Ennen may be a familiar name to long-time neighbors. She was the founder of the award-winning Brooklyn Bridge magazine, which was published from 1995 to 2000. The Atlantic Avenue building was purchased to serve as headquarters for the magazine, but as others learned before and after Ennen, it is difficult to sustain a magazine devoted to Brooklyn with the available advertising dollars. The effort was “too exhausting,” she said, so she closed up shop and the spaces were let for offices.

I recalled that rumors about illness circulated at the time of Brooklyn Bridge’s closing. Ennen confirmed that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but added, “I believe I have moved beyond M.S.”

When she was first diagnosed in the 1980s, there were no FDA-approved medications to treat the disease, Ennen explained. But her research revealed that the United Kingdom and northern Europe had come a long way in alternative healing for M.S., so she began to follow promising herbal regimens that she found effective. In 1994 drugs were approved in the U.S., but, Ennen said, she was “never tempted” by Western medicine.

After her tenants’ ten-year leases ran out, Ennen decided to put 388 Atlantic to the use of promoting the common good. During the 1990s she had studied healing herbs and had become an advocate of permaculture—how to work a piece of land with minimum labor and maximum yield. It was then that she began to consider the idea of a collective as a way of spreading important information. Although classes and lectures over the past year have featured everything from “The Farm Bill and New York” to “Brewing for Poets,” Ennen said the emphasis will turn to healing now, beginning with a Healing Arts Festival on July 30, when 40 healers representing different modalities will offer lectures and demonstrations.

“It will be an opportunity for people,” Ennen explained, “who might have heard the word reiki for years but not known what reiki really is to learn about it.”

For details about the Healing Arts Festival, to participate in summer potluck Sunday dinners, volunteer at the rooftop garden, suggest a workshop or class, or learn about the Commons Brooklyn’s efforts to help create small businesses, contact Melissa Ennen at

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