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Brooklyn Kibbutz Glows in Former Candle Factory

By Sonja Sharp | September 11, 2012 9:46am | Updated on September 11, 2012 9:50am

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — It was just after 1 p.m. on Sunday, and 20-month-old Vega de Seve was flirting with a sunburn.

The porcelain-skinned, sandy-blond toddler played in a sunny corner of her sprawling Brooklyn backyard, cooing as her neighbor, Aki Baker, 35, bent to smear sunscreen over her face and neck.

"My kids don't even really need sunscreen," the heavily pregnant Baker conceded as she struggled to find a dry spot on Vega's arms. "I don't really know where to put it."

But with a rainbow of young children running around the former candle factory on this seemingly abandoned and gritty industrial stretch of Atlantic Avenue, the timely application of sunscreen is just one of the many parenting skills even childless tenants learn.

"It was really special for me to be so connected to neighbors with families, because I don't have children," said artist Ann Humphreys, a North Carolina expat and hula-hoop artist who has lived in the factory on and off for several years. "Kids are always running underfoot."

In fact, most of the children in this artists' community on the Bed-Stuy border look and act so much like siblings it's hard to keep track of who's related to whom. Without warning Sunday, the yard became a blur of popsicles and water balloons. Preschoolers sought out teenagers to read them the jokes printed on the popsicle stick. An upset toddler was hoisted onto the nearest hip.

"We always joke they all look related," Baker said. "They're like this pack — from 14 down to 2. The big kids really take care of the little kids."

Still, few would mistake the complex of former industrial buildings with its laundry lines and sprawling backyard for a commune. Living in New York City, the factory's 150 or so residents are currently far more concerned with securing residential zoning — a process they expect to complete later this year — than creating utopia. Barbecues stand in for meetings. Everyone longs for the day they can finally install a dead-bolt lock on their doors.

"I want a bit more control over my kids than in a communal living situation, but most of us share very similar views of how to raise children," Baker said. "Sometimes it can be lonely to raise children in New York City, but here you get to see everything."

For residents, the candle factory is more like the platonic ideal of Brooklyn gentrification: A building with history in a neighborhood with character. A community of diverse yet like-minded neighbors. Exposed brick.

"It's very international, very supportive," said Vega's mom, Daniela Kostova, who was busy showing her work for the GO Brooklyn open studio project. "The spaces in this giant industrial loft, they’re completely remodeled and personalized by everyone who lives there."

And then there's the yard. A secret garden, tucked away from the tumult of Atlantic Avenue, almost Eden-like in its idyll. Children ran free, unfettered by many of the anxieties of urban parenting. There is a tire swing. And a trampoline. 

"When I have friends over, the first thing they say is 'wow'," said 14-year-old Saya Baker, a freshman at LaGuardia High School and the candle factory's unofficial first daughter. "It feels safe, and when you know everyone it's really nice."

There have been less glamorous moments. When the Bakers first moved here, the yard was a garbage dump. Urban reality also sometimes intrudes, as when a drug bust in a neighboring building a few years ago brought heavily armed police to their front door. 

"I was grilling fish outside," Baker recalled, laughing. "The police said, 'You should go inside,' and I said, 'But my fish will burn.'"

The whirling dervish of curly-haired little boys paused briefly to refuel by the barbeque before rushing off toward the trampoline, the garden's undisputed highlight. There they began the inevitable squabble over who would be the Red Power Ranger, or whether they might not all be Ninja Turtles instead.  

"There's a lot of unsupervised kid play here, because it's so fortified," said Vega's dad Mike de Seve. "It's an oasis."