So last time we talked; I gave you an overview of Rochester (through my eyes) and how systemic and social forces have divided our city’s citizens and fragmented the efforts of activists to dismantle a system built on oppression and racism. We ended with the question: How can we dismantle capitalism and neoliberalism in our city?
This is where community gardens come in. Let’s say there’s a city-owned vacant plot of land on a corner where nothing much happens except the occasional shortcut or maybe an illegal exchange. It could sit there forever, as gravel, or as grass. That’s how the city would prefer i because then they could sell it to the first KFC or Dollar Store that comes along and gives them a little cash. It absolutely does not matter how that would impact the neighborhood – the only thing that matters is that the city would get development revenue. You can see examples of this in many places in the city. The city is working off a profit model, as it must, as a corporation. The city throws up all kinds of barriers to using vacant land for garden space (even when they try to make it seem easy), making it extremely difficult for anyone but the wealthy to start a garden of any kind, unless it is private land with a house on it, both owned by the same private person (again, wealthy).
There are ways around this, of course. If there is already some neighborhood community, perhaps a deal for use can be struck, so that the corner lot can be made into a garden by someone who works with the land/home owner. This is how most gardens in Rochester are developed. The city sometimes agrees to lease land for limited periods of time, as in the case of FoodLink’s Lexington Ave. garden, but this is very rare. More often than not, there is engagement between an owner, be it a school, nonprofit, or neighborhood resident, and an outside party.
So, it is possible to have a garden in the city, despite the prevailing forces of profit. Given that profit-oriented positioning is the root of the hurdles to starting a garden, can profit-oriented positioning actually work for the garden? This is what I call Urban Agriculture, or urban ag: a garden that is developed for some kind of profit. There have been some great examples of how urban ag can be an anchor point for progressive community development, often by leveraging low-investment products in high-cost arenas to funnel money from wealthier parts of the city to less wealthy parts, through employment, while also beautifying and increasing pride in the neighborhood. While this is a great idea, it can very easily become problematic. For instance, if the person running the farm is white and all the folks working it are People of Color: typical business structure means that the owner is profiting off of their work, even if they are making good wages. Not ideal, right? Perhaps the garden is a co-op, owned and run by employees, equally. That’s better, but the garden still runs off a profit model that necessitates marketing and sale of products to the wealthy (or wealthier), thus reinforcing the system and effects it seeks to address, rather than dismantling it.
If urban ag is the punt at the goal from across the field, at least getting the ball down there, community gardens are the pure teamwork that ends up in a three-pass net-tickler. Community gardens are slow. Community gardens are small. Community gardens require people to sacrifice. Community gardens also have immense potential. Though it may take several years to get a community garden deeply seated, the benefits will last decades. I’m not talking about growing a peach tree that will be there for fifty years, I’m talking about knitting a neighborhood back together from the effects of profit-oriented urban design and labor economies. I could talk about this in the abstract all day, but I don’t think it would hit home quite as well as if I gave y’all an example.
CausiN’FX garden, started by Tonya Noel and Kristen Walker, has been running for three years now. Employing neighborhood kids with city grant money, Tonya provides a space for learning about gardening, food, and personal growth. Most importantly, the garden is a space for healing: youth come from a neighborhood that has been oppressed by the profit-oriented forces that allow for, or even necessitate, unequal school funding, underpaid labor, overpriced rent, poorly maintained homes, addiction, and, most inherently, violence.
When the police give a ticket for not having lights on their bikes, costing more than the bike itself, that’s institutional violence based on a long legacy of profit-oriented social construction, resulting in racial bias and overpoliced neighborhoods. When a kindergartner is put into an ambulance by police because they are “acting out” in the classroom, that’s the result of those same forces, forming school structures that allow for too little money to go to too many places, unequally benefiting those who need it least, leaving those who need most to turn inward, to defend themselves before caring for others. Teacher simply can’t have compassion for the child, because they have been given none from those in power over them, and those in power over them, etc.
The garden, however, works to upend this incredible imbalance. The garden is a place of slowness, of space being made for one another, where all can listen, and all can be heard. There is no oppression of tests, or biased laws, no norms being reinforced, no abuse inflicted out of fear or distress. There is growth, not only in the soil, but of individuals, and then also of communities. When one person becomes more gentle and understanding, less afraid and less stressed, that person can enter into relationships in ways absolutely opposed to the competitive and ruthless ones propagated by systems of hierarchy and capitalism. Perhaps a young person can build better relationships at school, or better understand the systems which surround them. This is the healing that has taken place at the CausiN’FX garden and elsewhere. As Tonya says, these things are revolutionary in a world where little is actually questioned, understood, or critiqued.
The garden is unique because it isn’t oriented. It is fairly abstract: “let’s make something,” while at the same time, it makes itself. There is no hierarchy, no one telling anyone what to do, no failure or success. I’m talking about a space for people to experiment, naturally, not be forced to make sure the crop will feed x number of people or else someone dies. This isn’t urban ag: there’s no monetary exchange, only support. Let’s say it’s successful, as CausiN’FX has been. People can be fed, in part, and perhaps those who are not directly engaged become more engaged as time goes on. Now, fewer processed foods are bought, and less money is needed in general; the garden becomes everything that the grocery store used to be and more. Packaged foods, the time spent working for someone else’s profit, the time getting to the store, the isolation of so many of our daily experiences, etc. become products of larger systems, but much more beautiful ones: bright, organic fruits and vegetables and greens and legumes and herbs, time with new family, time in the new village, communion, and support.
Perhaps this all seems utopian. In a world where we are expected to be independent, traveling miles to and from work in our little wheeled isolation pods, only to come home to microwave something and sit in front of the TV to (not) deal with our day, it is utopian. Utopian doesn’t have to mean impossible, though. Some are willing to begin these projects in their free time, and they need support, so that soon others may benefit from their support, from the new village. Think if we valued one another as much as we currently value an expensive watch or rims.
This is community resilience, where the audience is on stage, too. The new village is a force to be reckoned with. If the city says they want that lot for development, now you have a hundred people and their networks fighting it, rather than just two or three. And it doesn’t stop there. Tonya and Kristen, through their Flower City Noire Collective, are working to create a Harriet’s Apothecary: a space for Black femme-identifying folks to commune, heal, and thrive. The City Roots Community Land Trust is working to create community-owned land throughout the city, where neighborhood members will decide what happens, not the city. The Taproot Collective is working to support thriving neighborhoods and resilient food systems through educational spaces. The Urban Agriculture Working Group is an umbrella organization that takes into consideration all of the things I’ve mentioned and works towards making change – they have a map of Rochester gardens on their site. Their Urban Agriculture Conference is on May 12th, from 9:30am to 5:30pm. And these are just scraping the surface – Rochester is saturated with these sorts of initiatives!
If you’d like to get involved, but aren’t sure where to start, don’t hesitate to email or message me. I can help plug people in to their most appropriate fit, or else find someone who can help find that spot. If you’re interested in the social and political theory, educational justice, or learning about issues of race as a white person, I have a group for you, too.
PS – If anyone gets my unintentional pun hidden in the post, I’ll take you for some grits at the Arnett Café.
Jake was born and raised in Northern New York, but has lived in Oakland, SF, Seattle, Rochester, and spent many months at a time traveling in Europe, North America, and the Islands. He’s on a constant quest for meaning, justice, and hope. Some of his previous jobs include TransAmerican Tour Guide, Big Tech Company Business Consultant, Flower Garden Designer, Bike Messenger, and Conservation Photographer. Volunteering, editing photos, and networking occupy most of his time at the moment, while he waits to hear back on postgrad admissions in Social & Political Theory. Passions include queer theories, historicization, feminism, postcapitalism, critical race theory, and the global South.