Urban Gardens and Status Symbols

In my drafts folder is an essay I have been working on where I argue that urban gardens are more about declaring oneself to be part of an intellectual elite than being self-sufficient and “sustainable”.  The evidence for this are my observations in wealthy Seattle neighborhoods, where the land values dictate that the resident has enough money that they cannot possibly be poor enough to need to rely on their small plot of vegetables to survive.

Incidentally, apparently Seattle has the most community gardens per capita: make no mistake, these are collections of individual plots and they are immaculate and gorgeous. A grad student friend had one, and he told me that if you do not stay absolutely on top of your garden, you can expect angry emails from your plot-neighbors. Both in the P-patches and individual yards, the gardens are mostly aesthetic over practical. They are quite beautiful. The P-patches are riddled with flowers, which make their paths exceedingly pleasant to walk through. The flowers and expensive garden art betray the garden’s purpose: art and hobby. I’m not knocking it for fulfilling those roles. Let us be honest about what it is.

That description almost universally applies to the gardens in Central and North Seattle. There is one garden that sticks out in my mind, because it was so clear that the family was living off of it. It was unusual. I was walking from Capitol Hill to the Goodwill on South Lane Street and ended up walking along the border of Yesler Terrace on Boren Avenue. This is a low-income housing complex which is currently built in a townhouse style. Every spare inch of this one home’s yard was planted with corn, squash, swiss chard and other edible plants. It stuck out because it was not terribly pleasing to the eyes. There was not a flower to be found which was intentionally planted. It was a miniature version of the farm fields that my husband and I would speed past  while traveling on back country roads to visit my in-laws, who live in a rural area.

I suspect urban gardens, contrary to what some folks in the urban agriculture movement argue for cities like Buffalo or Detroit, do not constitute an element of urban renewal because the people doing it would be living in cities regardless. Property-values dictate residents. Unless, of course, they mean it as code for “driving up land values” and thus “gentrification”. Higher land values drive poor people out.

In places less wealthy than Seattle, it has a smell of interventionism. I noticed in Buffalo, a city that nearly forty percent Black (why am I linking to the wiki page? BECAUSE IT IS INTERESTING!) the gardens were the endeavors of white folks who moved into the (absurdly cheap) areas, or commuted in to help, not really the folks who lived there. There was a dearth of people of color in the pictures that accompanied publicity, despite these gardens being in areas where many people of color live. Maybe it has changed in the two years since I have been gone, but I am suspicious.

The focus on organic farming gives me pause. This seems to make it distinct from the sort of gardening I did with my parents growing up in the suburbs, and what I do with my herbs on my balcony as I use cheap synthetic fertilizer I bought four years ago. Is it better for the earth? Yeah. Is it cheaper? No. Organic is a mark of prestige. Farmer’s markets in Buffalo are a great place to get cheap produce. Was it organic? Eh… maybe. In Seattle, farmer’s markets are great places to see people wearing expensive clothes and buying fancy heirloom and organic food at a premium. It seems that the preference is more about the flair of which organic rolls off the tongue than being eco-conscious. I am not arguing that it should be hip to dump chemicals into the ground. If you are going to have a status symbol, better it be kind to the earth than not. Growing organic is also a really easy thing to agree with doing unless you are unapologetically frugal. I do not think those folks run with the urban gardeners.

So I had that draft. Well, Marianne Kirby wrote such an article for Bitch Magazine called, “Co-opting the Coop”. (I am a subscriber to Bitch Magazine and you can be too!) It is more researched than mine was, and she points out something which had not occurred to me, mostly because I did not grow up in a city and the stories from my Italian side tend to involve apartment living in the Bronx: many immigrants grew their own food as a means of survival. (I suspect the family in Yesler Terrace may have been immigrants.)

Kirby argues that the dominance of white middle class voices serves to silence the experiences and expertise that these groups have. This is significant because it is yet another way that the marginalized are rendered invisible. Survival techniques of the poor become hobbies of the rich. She argues that the policies in various cities changed regarding having animals because middle class people asked for them. They were removed from the books initially because the perception of a cosmopolitan city by the elite in early America required a rigid distinction between the countryside and the city: the latter relied on a bureaucracy and money economy to meet its needs, and the former could be self sufficient. (See Henrik Hartog’s “Pigs and Positivism” for an interesting discussion, or read more here for free.) s.e. smith has made similar arguments in her blog.

The punch-line to the story is power. Again.

There is no inherent reason to dislike urban gardens. They are pretty. Seattle’s neighborhoods are more attractive for having the. I enjoy walking through the P-patches and watching the dahlias bloom. Gardening is a satisfying hobby. I experience such joy waltzing out to my balcony with a pair of scissors and infusing my pasta dish with fresh chives, basil, oregano, thyme, majoram, parsley and whatever other herb struck my fancy that day. I will never fit in with the urban gardener crowd as I grow those because I am too cheap to buy the herbs I could grow so easily. Plus, I am a terrible gardener. My plants died of neglect after I found out that I am pregnant.

It just frustrates me that so much of the discourse surrounding urban gardens, and justifications for using public property for them, tout them as a tool for urban renewal or sustainable living. I know that folks are saying this because the practitioners became educated, well off people are saying this, and they are better at marketing their ideas to others in power. I worry that it reaffirms that ideas are only good if they are coming from the upper social strata, even if what is advocated are the practices previously engaged in by the poor and dis-empowered.

I am encouraged when I read of examples that seem like they are ground-up operations (such as this one in Detroit). I prefer the discussion of what cities should become have equal contributions from all members, not just the ones that policy makers and leaders are accustomed to lending their ears to. The market of credibility is an important one.

Let us not forget to cite our sources, that is all.

2 thoughts on “Urban Gardens and Status Symbols

  1. Thanks for a great article, found you through Bitch Magazine.

    We are first generation farmers just South of you in Olympia, Washington. Not only did neither one of us grow up as farmers, we also bought land that has never once been farm land. We’re learning as we grow.

    We have a few neighbors, most of who applaud us for our self-sufficiency and our determination. But our property also borders a horse trail which is part of a fairly upscale horse community (large homes on large lots with beautiful horse barns to boot). These riders are not fond of us. Most love looking at our sheep and chickens (they’re pastoral I suppose). The goats they are so-so on (they like to stand on stumps and therefore are taller than the horses would like), the dogs they hate (they are livestock guardian dogs and make their presence known) and the pigs they despise. See, our pigs pasture roam, meaning they have a few acres of forest to live in. And when they see horses they get so excited. Friends! We have gotten very nasty threats about our pigs, who we raise for meat, on our own property.

    Why is this? Well, first, they’re big. Second, they bark. Third, I don’t know? I think they’re beautiful. But I guess some would disagree? And in case you were wondering, our pigs don’t have a smell, but they do have lots of mud. Pigs use the same area as a bathroom so it’s easy to scoop up and compost.

    It’s frustrating because, like you say, homesteading isn’t glamorous. We try our best to make our farm a whimsical place but sometimes the mud gets away from you. But is this a reason to complain and threaten other people? I think no. Our farm is safe. We have a very secure perimeter fence, no one is getting out. Our farm is working in community with the land. The only trees we have taken down were dead (and therefore a danger, as we learned in our last winter storm). And for every tree we take down we plant another. No ones views will ever be ruined by towering buildings.

    The only argument I can see is that now they have farm animals on their horse trail. Our little barns are not big and massive like a sprawling horse ranch (although I think they’re beautiful), our compost pile is made out of pallets and our green house is covered in plastic, not fancy glass windows. (As a side note, I like it, it makes me feel futuristic).

    What I’m trying to say, in my incredibly long winded response, is- Thank You. While I’m sure you will never be neighbor to pig farmers in Seattle, what I do hope is you will continue to spread the message that self-sufficient farms are not necessarily beautiful things, but they are things of beauty (I think I read that somewhere, but I’m not positive, so don’t quote me on it :) )

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