To the extent I’ve paid attention, I’ve mostly been a skeptic about urban farming. I recoil from thoughts of chickens on Charlestown rooftops or parsnips from vacant lots in Philadelphia. Call me a traditionalist, but, in my mind, there’s just a historical, practical, and aesthetic separation of commercially-productive agriculture and urbanism that deserves to be respected. I mean, who are all of these Williamsburg hipsters to tell the Mesopotamians, and every civilization since them, that they’ve been wrong?
Now comes Mother Jones, to tell us that there actually is value in urban farms— and it’s not that they encourage healthy-eating, or provide another carbon sink, or allow us to stick it to the Man, who would sell us boring, mass-produced tomatoes at the A & P. In a surprisingly compelling piece, Alex Kotlowitz and Emily Schiffer document the social impact of urban farms in Chicago, and how they’ve helped to weave together a new sense of participatory community in a place that has had the mentality of a war zone for years.
In our lifetimes, the depravity of the Drug War, in combination with a host of other bad ideas, has put a very fine point on what can go wrong with city life. In the 19th century, heavy industry did the same. But this story about urban farms causes me to wonder whether the Olmsteds and Howards of the 19th century actually missed a broader point: That is, it may not have been the presence of mere nature that was missing from the massive Victorian cities, so much as the connection to the abiding cultural patterns that are reinforced by proximity to productive land.
The impatience, narcissism, and myopia that so often characterize urban life also feed the violence at its extreme fringes– both on the streets, and in the boardrooms. These tendencies are also, interestingly, tempered by a hands-on relationship with the timeless but predictable ways of nature. With the industrial age, cities became large enough to sever their ties to the land– and with it, their social ties to the patterns of agriculture. So maybe urban farming is onto something: Maybe, if its culture ever reaches a critical mass, it could improve the spirit of our massive cities in ways that parks and suburbs tried, but never could.
I’m still a skeptic, but I’m more interested now than before.