In her book Eat the City, Robin Shulman explores the secret, sideways, underground, and otherwise forgotten forms of food production that have shaped New York. From foraged greens to fish, no ingredient is left untasted. I helped Robin research the book last summer, so I knew, from an inside perspective, that urban food producers are often first-rate innovators. The overlap between tech startups and gardening guerrillas or immigrant brewers is more extensive than you might anticipate. Last week, I spoke with Robin about how food innovation is changing New York:
Over the course of your research and writing the book, how did you see food culture in New York City being disrupted? For instance, a lot of the stuff that you wrote about, like people starting urban gardens or having beehives on the roofs of their apartment buildings, would be framed in the contemporary discourse of technology entrepreneurship as, “there is a product, like honey being brought in from national supermarkets or vegetables being brought in through national supply lines” and people saw the market as being static and not serving the needs of a particular consumer demographic.” And this buzzword is terrible, but those people then disrupted the market via alternative technology or infrastructure. Your book covers a bunch of different areas, but are there any that are appropriate for that kind of conversation?
I think you’re right, I think the case of vegetables is especially appropriate to that. In the chapter on vegetables in the book, I talk about Harlem and African-American generations that came from the rural South and moved to Harlem during the Great Migration and found themselves with rural skills and knowledge in the city. Decades later—many of the people I talked to for the book moved as children—decades later, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as the neighborhood began to deteriorate, and buildings caught fire and burned down and were abandoned and demolished, this created new space. They saw an opportunity. From the earliest time that African-Americans from the South had moved to Harlem they had brought with them Southern foods. Very early on, like in the 1930s, there were truck drivers coming up from the South, from farms in the South, and parking on Harlem street corners and opening up the backs of the trucks and selling Southern foods like collard greens and ham hocks and watermelons and other things peopled wanted in New York and either couldn’t get or didn’t think would be as fresh or as high quality as what you could get straight from a farm. And the trucks filled that obvious need, but still, people who came from farm life and who moved to the city and found for the first time in their lives that they actually had to buy food rather than just produce it at their homes, those peoples continued all along to produce it anyway. I talked to people who, back in the 1930s, had seen or had grown themselves window box gardens or who had gone to city parks to forage for wild onions and all types of greens and berries because this was the type of gathering and producing food that they knew. And when more space became available in Harlem in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as the buildings disappeared, as they were taken down and nothing was built in their place, people saw it as an opportunity and saw they could provide for their families in ways that they knew, provide for their neighbors, and fill a demand that was obviously there. They planted the city.
So what do you think about the more artificial—and I’m using the word artificial in contrast to what developed as a very organic system of demand in those African diaspora communities—the artificial development of urban gardening communities in hipster Williamsburg or among young white urban professionals who are doing it for political or aesthetic reasons that have nothing to do with their direct heritage or what they were used to doing wherever they came from? People who are just like, I want to start an urban garden because it’s cool?
It’s an entirely different set of reasons for producing food in the city, but I think that when change happens—I mean, people now are talking about changing the way that people live in cities and bringing food production closer to the center of urban life—it’s a very different vision of what city life could mean. I think that when change happens it has to come from many different places. You can’t have just one small constituency making change, or you can rarely have just one small constituency making change and have it be successful. So the kind of change we’re seeing now, where suddenly young urban white people who don’t have a background in farming are interested in growing food, and in addition, immigrant communities and migrant communities from rural areas and poor people in the city all the way along have produced food, so there are several different constituencies coming together with a similar goal. And maybe that can actually change the urban landscape.
In your research, did you see those two different demographics working together explicitly, or is it more implicit, “we both have the same interests, so there’s a convergence of goals?”
There are cases where they work together and cases where they’re in entirely different worlds. I’ve been to many community gardens in the city where, in a gentrifying neighborhood, there are communities that have long been gardening in that place and have seen the garden through the 1970s and ‘80s and are continuing to garden there, and also newcomers who come in new to the neighborhood and think that it would be interesting to learn how to garden and produce food. So community gardens are actually a really interesting point of interface for these different communities, because they’re open to everyone. So you see people of all different backgrounds. I know of gardens where there are Serbians and Puerto Ricans and Jamaicans and New Yorkers and people from the Bronx and Brooklyn who all garden together in one Manhattan plot. One of the things I like about community gardens is the fact that they do bring people together around something they all care about and can work on together. So it’s a unique way for people from a lot of different backgrounds to interact. Of course, there’s often friction, and sometimes there are factions that develop in community gardens over different issues, and it can fall down on ethnic or class lines. But I do think it’s a really interesting place in the city where people can come together.
One thing I remember from researching the community gardens with you is that a lot of these gardens were started in the ‘70s and continued into the ‘80s. Do you think that we’re seeing a cyclical cultural effect here where people are interested in retro culture?
I think urban gardens have cycled in and out of the public consciousness over the past century. Every few decades it seems they come back into the public interest. Maybe it’ll be a longer lasting trend this time, in a new direction. It seems like different groups are interested in it for different reasons this time around.
What does a garden look like on the Lower East Side or East village that was started in the ‘70s, versus some of the newer gardens that are starting in Brooklyn?
Other than the obvious fact that the older gardens are going to have older plants, tall trees, taller more robust plants, another difference is that in a lot of Puerto Rican gardens in the city there are specific things that don’t exist elsewhere like Puerto Rican flags. There are often little casitas. People build a small wooden house where they can take shelter in bad weather but still spend time in the garden, and play music, maybe make food ,watch the game or listen to the radio. A lot of Puerto Rican gardens have casitas and sometimes little sculptures of roosters and pictures of the islands and other memorabilia from Puerto Rico. Different plants will come up in different gardens, like in a lot of Jamaican gardens you’ll find plants like callaloo, which is really beloved there and you won’t find that in other places. In Asian gardens, you’ll find bitter melon and Asian greens that you won’t find elsewhere.
It sounds like one of the themes of the books is that a lot of underground food production and food culture in the city is being initiated by immigrants who come to the city and want to recreate some sort of product or experience they had in their homes. So you have the fishing stuff and the breweries and the sugar cane, the gardens. What do you think is next for immigrant fueled food production in the city?
In a city like New York people are always craving something new, and that something breaks into the mainstream from other communities. People get attached to it and spread it and make it and enjoy it. And I think immigrants continue to create those new things that are becoming popular in other communities, whether it’s a specific kind of alcohol or a specific kind of popsicle or a specific way to do pork. There are so many ways of food production that have passed from immigrant communities to mainstream ones, that have become popular with restaurants and food service, and I think that will continue to happen.
Is it the case that New York City is the trendsetter just because of the high density of different immigrant communities coming in?
I think in some ways, yes. I think in terms of food production, New York City in some ways is more fixated on trends. On the West Coast, local food production has always been more a part of city life, partly because they have a better climate and so they can do it most of the year and partly because they’re so far away from European imports and from the East Coast that local food production makes more sense there. But certainly, in many ways, immigrant communities in New York have helped the city to be a leader in innovation.
Do you think it’s possible for the city to become a self-sustaining environment in terms of food production?
Probably not, no.
I guess maybe the asshole-ish question to ask then is, what’s the point? Is it to make quality of life better?
Maybe. There are lots of things that we do in cities that may not have an obvious point, like build parks and build recreation areas. In some ways, producing food seems to be something that many people crave and many people want to keep near them. People want to be close to the source of things and create something and impact other people and give them something they can taste. There’s an immediacy to producing food that people really crave.
What do you think are the habits of the highly successful food entrepreneurs you’ve met in the city? There are a lot of people who try to start food production in the city and fall flat because consumers don’t like the product or it doesn’t catch on. What do you think people who are successful at food production do that makes them so successful?
I think that there are different metrics for success. Some of the people I meet are just serving their own families or their own block, and for them, that’s success. And then there are people who dream of expanding into a large industry that would have a national market, and they are finding success in that. It’s really hard for me to say what makes someone successful, because people define it in so many ways themselves.
I remember researching crime in Harlem and the Bronx in conjunction with community gardens. There’s been a lot of talk lately about what’s the right model for policing in New York City, what with stop and frisk and the tension between police forces and communities that feel as though those police forces are intrinsically hostile to them. Do you think community gardens make the communities they’re in safer, or do you think community gardens pop up in communities that are already getting safer?
I think community gardens make communities safer, and as well, people probably need to feel a degree of safety to spend any time in the garden. There are so many subtle ways that community gardens can have that kind of impact. Just having people present on the street in some neighborhoods is a change and a set of eyes on things that happen there that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Community gardens bring people together who care about something, so it’s an obvious and automatic way of organizing people. So when people start getting together to decide when to have the soil delivered or when to plant the seedlings they can also talk about the drug trade happening outside the garden gate and when to call the local precinct. So those kinds of conversations happen organically when people are getting together to plant something. It also brings different kinds of people in the community together who might not have known they have allies, and it helps people to meet their neighbors. Those things, in tiny ways, can transform an environment.
What neighborhood do you think is going to be the next Williamsburg, where people are engaging in food production with such an incredible vigor that it comes to redefine the neighborhood itself?
I would guess it would have to be a neighborhood that is cheap enough to have a lot of creative people with time on their hand be able to afford to live there. I think that was key to the early development of Williamsburg is that it was cheap. I don’t know, it’s hard to say what neighborhood will be that next. It could be Bushwick, a lot of neighborhoods in Queens, in parts of the Bronx, more distant parts of Brooklyn. It’s hard to say which one it’ll pop up next.