New York City is one of the most densely populated places in the world, but it also has a vibrant food production scene. Author Robin Shulman profiles it, and the people behind it, in her new book.
Eat The City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers and Brewers Who Built New York (Crown) offers fascinating portraits of people who use the backyards, rooftops, and abandoned lots of NYC to grow, harvest, cleave, raise, catch, and cultivate. Shulman weaves a fascinating tale that incorporates her deep interest in people with her background in journalism and her own history with the city.
Through interviews with a variety of New York food producers -including butchers, gardeners, beekeepers and more -Eat The City provides a detailed, deeply felt portrait of contemporary urban food production within the contexts of history and immigration. The work also offers a new definition of just what "the American dream" might look like in 2012; it's one that incorporates enterprise, ambition, experience, community, smarts, a closeness to nature, and love of all the cultural and environmental variance a city like New York has to offer.
I recently exchanged ideas with the Canadian-born author about urban food production, the perceived elitism of the so-called "foodie" movement, and how city farming might point the way to a more sustainable future.
How did this project evolve?
I came to New York City in the early 1990s to attend university, and found myself living during the summer on the far eastern edge of Manhattan, on the Lower East Side. All through the neighborhood there was vacant land where buildings had burned down or been neglected and demolished. But then one day my neighbors started to clean the place. I put on thick gardeners’ gloves and helped shovel syringes into heavy-duty garbage bags. Months later, when the land was clear, people planted vegetables and herbs there, and brought in chickens for eggs. It was clear that this garden and others were transforming the neighborhood, and it slowly dawned on me that these gardens had been created because people wanted to produce food. I started to wonder what other foods had come and gone from city life and how they had transformed neighborhoods and the city itself. Years later, I decided to write this book.
How did you choose which tales to share?
I ended up choosing foods that either had a profound impact on the city, or else helped change my vision of city life. So there are chapters on honey, vegetables, meat, fish, beer, wine, and sugar.
I chose people who were either producing a particularly interesting food—for instance, Jorge Torres in the Bronx, who grows sugar cane as a reminder of the cane fields where he labored as a child in Puerto Rico—or whose lives were particularly interesting and had a strong impact on their worlds, for instance, Tom Mylan, who has led a new generation of butchers to work with whole animals raised nearby and humanely, but also Sal Meglio, one of the last of a generation of door-to-door grape sellers who for almost a century each year provided Italian Brooklyn with fruit to make homemade wine.
Robin Shulman's latest book profiles New Yorkers engaged in urban farming projects.
How much do you see food cultivation as providing a means of continued evolution for cities, especially those in North America?
Already in the seven years between when I got the idea for this book and its publication, so much has changed. There are now a handful of innovative commercial, for-profit rooftop farms growing hydroponically and in soil in different parts of New York City. Restaurants are growing their own food. A handful of new distilleries have opened their doors just in the past few years, and one of them is even growing its own corn in Brooklyn. Architects have designed new low-income apartment buildings including rooftop space for agriculture. The Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan is keeping beehives on the roof. A few months ago, I visited the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where a new, 65,000-square-foot rooftop farm is opening, and I watched a truck send soil up to the roof through a kind of hose. Men on the roof blew out special lightweight soil onto the rooftop, and it came out in fluffy piles. A crew of farmers worked behind them, laying down seedlings and seeds, and in every direction was a view of the Manhattan skyline. So innovative things are already evolving quickly, and they will continue to evolve.
I think we're very far from being able to sustain our cities by the food we produce in them. But some people say that only when quantities of food are produced in cities will enough people understand food production to want to fix the broken food system. I think there's some truth in that.
How much do you see this cultivation as playing a possible role in the current economic climate?
It seems the bad economy has spurred on an impulse that was already growing. Now a lot of people are working less, and so have more time to invest in producing food, and less money to buy the kinds of high quality food they'd like to eat.
There's also an impact on food entrepreneurs. When a person loses a job, that person might be more willing to take a risk and start a new food production business. People are questioning the work they have done and investing more in things they care about.
What do you think of the word "foodie"?
Not a very useful descriptor!
Why do you think the foodie movement is sometimes perceived as elitist?
There's been a lot of media attention in the past few years on a movement of young, well-educated, urbanites who are rejecting previous ways of eating and looking to homemade, artisanal food production. These people have really celebrated good food and have invested creativity in it, as they might have invested in art or music, and created community based around food. But these people are also only one constituency among many interested in better food.
In my book I write about migrants and immigrants who've come from rural places to New York City and continue to make their own wine, or grow their own beans on the fire escape, or plant sugar cane as they know how, or even butcher chickens. They're people who have insisted on their own vision of urban life and have imposed it on even an inhospitable landscape. In my research for this book, I also met other low-income people who are concerned about the quality of the food they find in the store and take it upon themselves to carefully tend their own organic fruits and vegetables. They're just as creative and energetic about it as people with more disposable income.
"In smaller towns and suburban areas across North America, people of all backgrounds are concerned about the chemicals and additives they find in store-bought foods and want to provide their families with something better," Shulman explains. "I think people from different backgrounds want similar things from producing their own food or buying it from local producers they trust."
What can other cities learn from New York City's urban farming movement?
I chose to write about New York because it's the most extreme urban environment in North America, the densest-packed place with the most people and glass and concrete, and the place that seems least hospitable to producing food. And yet my book shows that all kinds of people have persisted with all kinds of creative food production efforts. The lesson is if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
What can the average person do to help encourage urban farming culture?
You can always explore farming/fermenting/foraging your own, or collaborating with friends and neighbors on these projects. You can teach and trade skills. You can join a community garden or a local food co-op. You can lobby legislators to change restrictive policies—i.e. urge more tax breaks for rooftop farming, or to legalize urban chickens or beekeeping, or to promote school gardens or food education. Many urban gardens have volunteer days to try it out if you're not interested in a longer-term investment.
You can also just learn more about what's going on in your own city and support it in your neighborhood: talk to people down the street with a peach tree in the front yard about their techniques, stop in at a local cheesemaker and find out the tastiest fresh cheese, find out where the urban farms are and whether they have a subscription program for vegetables or a market day.
I'm hoping that my book can help provide people with a different vision of urban living, with some context to see that our current vision of urban life is a new one—for most of North American history, cities have been places where food is produced, and where food production is at the center of neighborhood life. Once you understand that, you see possibility everywhere.
Robin Shulman will be at Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly bookstore August 30th, followed by an appearance at Montreal Oysterfest on September 2nd.