Friday, April 23, 2010

Social Class & Community Gardens

I’ve been trying to get my head around why someone would actively oppose a community garden. I can understand apathy and indifference towards a community garden. Over the past several generations, Americans have become so far removed from their food sources that many can not recognize a common vegetable plant in a garden, let alone know how to grow one. Some vegetables, even after they have matured on a plant, are unrecognizable to some people. I know I’m not the only one who’s had to identify produce in a grocery store so a young checker unfamiliar with the item could ring up the sale.

It’s amazing when you think about it. The most basic skill any living creature teaches its young is how to provide food for itself. That a majority of Americans don’t know how to do that, and further, believe that food production is something that should be out-of-sight and away from where most of us live is . . . I don’t even know how to finish the sentence. It’s just breath-taking when you think about it; I mean, REALLY think about it. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s suicidal.

It’s also elitist. The gap between rich and poor has been growing since the Reagan administration, and the current economy and job market is dismal, so it’s hard for most of us to see ourselves as “wealthy.” Compared to the truly wealthy in this country, most of us are rapidly falling below middle class. But compared to much of the rest of the world, we are wealthy. Historically, it was only the upper classes who could remove themselves from the most fundamental activity of all living creatures - food production. In much of the world today, as was true of our great-grandparents in this country, people who can’t produce at least some of their food themselves will go hungry.

So I do understand apathy and indifference towards community gardens. Food production is an activity many contemporary Americans have had no experience of and no need to learn. But active opposition to others planting a garden in their neighborhood is something I’m still thinking through. It appears to me that opposition is rooted in class bias. I’m also guessing that those who oppose community gardens in their neighborhoods do not recognize their own elitism and would be deeply offended by the accusation.

Consider some of the objections to community gardens.

1) We don’t want pesticides in our neighborhood. When the urban orchard opportunity emerged last December, and I recruited volunteers to qualify our neighborhood for the grant, I received a few emails opposing the idea. (Interestingly, those opposed did not contact me directly. They lodged their concerns with others, who then passed them along to me.) One individual adamantly opposed a public orchard in the neighborhood, in part, because she did not want more “noxious” pesticides in the neighborhood and believed that fruit production could not be done without spraying. Chemical pesticides were also a
concern when a few residents in the Sycamore Hills neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio attempted to organize a community garden.

My first reaction to my neighbor’s objection was: fair enough. I emailed her to explain (as the Sycamore Hills community garden organizer did with her neighbors) that our group agreed with her stance on chemical pesticides and planned to use organic methods of pest control. When I later conducted a survey of our neighborhood, the same neighbor reiterated her objection about pesticides and continued:

[An orchard is] labor intense (sic) requiring pruning and spraying . . . And for how many years can we sustain a volunteer crew? Without them we’ll be dealing with decaying fruit and bees (which we don’t want to eliminate). Fortunately for us, we have two farmers’ markets within walking distance where we can buy and enjoy a great variety of local fruits and even nuts.

Let’s unpack the layers of meaning in this remarkable statement. First of all, she either isn’t listening or doesn’t believe that fruits and vegetables can be produced organically. She also doubts (perhaps not unreasonably) that volunteer interest in growing our own food can be maintained. More importantly, the statement implies that the messiness, labor, and hazards of food production should occur elsewhere, with others undertaking the manual labor and
health risks of pesticide exposure.

2) Vegetable gardens detract from the beauty of the landscape, especially during unproductive seasons.
One (of the very few) respondents to our survey objected to a community garden, in part, because “vegetable and flower gardens on a large scale (emphasis in original) can be attractive for the few months they are in production but are a visual blight the remainder of the year.”

In Atlanta, U.S. Congressman David Scott and more than a dozen of his neighbors blocked a proposed community garden at Inman Park – across the street from Scott’s mansion - because it would spoil their view.

During a heated town meeting in Maplewood, New Jersey, one opponent of a proposed community garden in Orchard Park expressed a related sentiment when he commented that “it was his understanding community gardens were used to improve abandoned properties or deteriorated areas—which is not the case with Orchard Park.”

Here we have another version of the idea that food production is an ugly business, best done out-of-sight of the non-laboring classes. However, if the gardens are located in poor neighborhoods afflicted with urban blight, then those hideous fruits and vegetables can be an improvement.

One wonders what some of these objectors want to look at in the parks – just lawn and trees? Shrubs? My own neighbor (cited above) didn’t even want flowers because they are a “visual blight” when they aren’t blooming!

It’s worth recalling here that lawns originated in Europe as a symbol of social class. They indicated that their owners were so wealthy, they could afford to keep great swaths of land out of food production and pay people to maintain the closely cropped turf (since mechanized mowing machines had yet to be invented.)

3) The land in this public space should be for everyone, not just the few growing gardens. As
I wrote in an earlier post, this was the argument our neighborhood association board used a couple of years ago to block the city from moving an existing community garden to a new location in our neighborhood. In January, when the president of the neighborhood association got wind of a meeting I was organizing to start a community garden or public orchard, he reiterated that argument. Although he repeatedly claimed that he was “not against” community gardens, he stated that “the whole park should be used by all neighbors and not just a select few.” Maplewood, New Jersey opponents of a community garden in Orchard Park voiced similar objections:

"It's not fair for a small number of people to determine the use of the space," said St. Lawrence Avenue resident Maura Sackett.

"My kids play there on a daily basis," said Chris Coreschi of Headley Place, as he noted that the raised beds would remove open space.

As I argued in my earlier post, this objection is illogical. There are plenty of facilities at parks that not everyone uses – like the softball pitch that only softball teams use or the playground that only children use. A community garden need not be any different. The only way this objection makes any sense is if one assumes that the garden will commandeer the entire park, rather than be allotted a portion of the space, as with a softball pitch or tennis court. So why make such a statement? Perhaps because asserting the right of the whole community to the use of public space has the ring of egalitarianism?

Even when the proposed garden will not be located in a park, residents have been known to vociferously object. In Shelton, Connecticut, organizers attempted to locate a community garden on a former farm, “bought by the city for $2 million in 2002 with the idea that the public would have access to the open space.” Angry residents insisted that a garden would increase vehicle trips by 500-600 per week on their quiet cul-de-sac. In fact, similarly situated gardens in Connecticut do not create that level of traffic and the planned garden would have provided parking on the farm rather than the cul-de-sac.

Residents would not be mollified, however. They put up posters, signed petitions, and packed the Board of Alders meeting to make their objections known. Interestingly, their concerns included vandalism and “security at the gardens.” A flyer circulated prior to the meeting called upon residents to “stop the madness” and “be there to defend your home.” This sounds to me like fear of outsiders, perhaps even fear that low-income people, interested in growing some food, might set foot in the neighborhood. (As of April 19th, opponents of the garden had successfully stalled the project, as the garden committee still awaited a decision from the mayor.)

There are legitimate concerns about community gardens in neighborhoods, including, but not limited to, pesticides, traffic, and how the site will be run to ensure that negligent gardeners don’t allow it to become an eyesore. It should also be expected, given the woeful ignorance of many contemporary Americans about food production that some residents will not understand some aspects of gardening; for instance, that properly managed compost does not smell or create unwanted pests. But when honest attempts to address these concerns are met with obstinance, irrational assertions, and cries to “defend your home,” it’s clear that something else is going on. As far as I can tell, it’s a social class issue.

What do you think? Do you have any community garden organizing experiences to share?

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