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How to Turn a Vacant Lot Into a Pizza Parlor

How to Turn a Vacant Lot Into a Pizza Parlor

How many parties have you walked into only to find the living room empty and a crowded kitchen, everyone huddled near the stove or around the table? Maybe it’s the smell of food. Maybe it’s the warmth of the stove. Maybe it’s our ancestral heritage. Kitchens are the hearts of our homes, so why not for the whole neighborhood? “Community ovens can be the glue that keeps a neighborhood together,” says Ray Werner, a Pittsburgh based community oven builder. Want to build a hearth for your hood? Here’s how to get started.

1. Decide why. So why do you want to build this thing anyway? Is there an unsightly vacant lot? Does your neighborhood need more public space? Are you trying to create a space for an annual event? All of these are great reasons to start a community oven. The clearer your mission, the easier it will be to build a team and get the local government on board, which brings us to our next step.

2. Round up a posse.Part of the process of building a community oven is building the community around the oven. The core of your community will be the team committed to getting it built. This team should include neighbors (both residential and business), a local baker (or chef) and at least one local government official. The most important member of your steering committee is a mason—the person with the fundamental building knowledge. You can do this on your own, but having a committed team will make the process easier. “Make it a gathering place in the building of it,” says Ray Werner.

3. Select a site. Where you choose to build the oven will impact who uses it, how it is used and how long the building process will be. Other important things to consider, says Werner, are water sources (you’ll need one), storage capacity, and how much foot traffic there is in the area. Choosing a location that already has a decent amount of foot traffic will make allow you to have a built-in community. But don’t dismiss a place simply because it’s in disrepair. Sometimes the most neglected spaces are the easiest to convert and the easiest for the community and local government to get behind.

4. Sketch it out. “Brick ovens aren’t brain surgery,” says Werner. But they do require building codes, so you’ll need to have a plan (and ideally drawings) that demonstrate the viability of the structure. Address any and all safety concerns you can imagine in your plan. If there’s an architect in the neighborhood—or even better, on your steering committee—have her add in a few details to make it neighborhood appropriate and you’re good to go.

5. You got a permit for that? Use your local government contact to help with the building permits and this should be fairly straightforward (unless you live in Manhattan). The best way to ensure a speedy permit process is to have a thorough plan that addresses safety issues.

6. Prep your site. “Ordinarily you’ll need about an 8-by-8 foot site for the oven,” says Werner. Other things to consider: the location of the oven (do you want it facing the street or tucked away?), what kind of covering you want over the oven (cooking in snow is apparently quite sublime), where to store supplies like wood and cooking utensils?

7. Brick by brick. If you build it they will come. In this case, it’s actually true. Think of this as your community’s campfire, a giant outdoor kitchen where parties are thrown, potlucks are held and cooking classes are taught. If you’ve enlisted a trusted mason, great, this means your job is a lot easier. If you’re building it yourself then you’ve probably already consulted Oven Crafters and have your plan. Digging a trench and building a chimney may seem like a lot a work, but Werner says you and your neighbors could be enjoying wood fired pizzas in a couple of days.

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