Back to the Land

With long-haul truckers battered by soaring diesel costs and air-lines pummeled by the recent spike in jet-fuel prices, it’s not hard to imagine a worst-case scenario in which all of our petroleum-dependent systems collapse and locavores—those people who only eat food produced within, say, a 100-mile radius of where they live—emerge triumphant. We will turn the abandoned runways at JFK and LaGuardia into wheat fields and collectively bring in the harvest using bicycle-powered threshers. O.K., I’m getting a little postapocalyptic, but it’s clear that our highly industrialized global food-distribution system is under assault by a convergence of economic, environmental, and cultural forces.

Every day there’s troubling news about the food supply, from the mysterious disappearance of the honeybees that pollinate our crops to the raids conducted by federal immigration agents intent on driving out our agricultural labor force. This year some farmers in the Northeast simply gave up on their tomato crops because they feared there’d be no workers to pick them. As Julie Suarez, New York Farm Bureau’s public-policy director, put it in a recent story, “Essentially, right now, we have a choice in this country and our choice is either we import our labor or we import our food.”

Of course, the whole point of living in a city is that you don’t have to think about where your food comes from. But now, every time I pick up a news-paper, I grow increasingly conscious of the incredible complexity and geo-political flukiness on which my own eating habits depend (never mind those of eight million other New Yorkers). I’m constantly trying to figure out how papaya juice from South Africa and raw-sheep’s-milk cheese from a tiny dairy in Spain find their way to my neighborhood shops. Not that there’s anything new about imported food: Europe’s empires were built in large part to satisfy cravings for coffee, chocolate, tea, and sugar. But we’ve reached a point where it’s hard to avoid thinking about food because, as the restaurateur Alice Waters has said, “There are decisions that we make every day about what we eat that can really change the way that we live our lives and the way the world operates.”

So when I came across a story about the British architect Carolyn Steel’s new book, Hungry City (Chatto & Windus), I immediately requested a copy from her publisher. The piece, on the Building Design Web site, promised that the book would explain “how cities developed as they did because of food, and how they must change to address the growing international food crisis.” Perhaps Steel would be able to map out some of the changes that Waters described. Surely, she tries: Hungry City is loaded with fascinating tidbits about cities and food, about how Victorian Londoners became regular milk drinkers after 1835, when the railroad started carrying fresh milk from the surrounding countryside, or how the industrial kitchens that prepare today’s packaged meals operate. Unfortunately, Steel’s anecdotes never quite cohere into a compelling narrative.

What I was craving was a clear and cogent take not just on how food distribution has shaped cities over the centuries but also on how the new politics of eating might play out in today’s urban landscape. Steel doesn’t quite have the skill to pull that off, though she does put forth the intriguing notion that the density of industrial farming is a mirror image of the density of urban life: “Fields of corn and soya stretching as far as the eye can see, plastic polytunnels so vast they can be seen from space, industrial sheds and feed lots full of factory-farmed animals—these are the rural hinterlands of modernity.” But here’s the thing: modernity is changing.

In New York City we’re going back to the land. Restaurants with names like Back Forty and Hundred Acres keep opening, faux humble outposts of rustic chic serving locally cultivated foods and decorated with farm implements. Neoagrarianism was also represented by this year’s summer installation in the courtyard of the contemporary-art center P.S. 1, in Queens. Called “Public Farm One” and created by Work Architecture Company, the “farm” was an undulating landscape of soil-filled cardboard barrels in which a cornucopia of plants and vegetables—watermelon, spinach, barley, etc.—was grown. In San Francisco, where the futuristic redevelopment scheme for Treasure Island includes a 20-acre organic farm, a big confab called Slow Food Nation was held this summer. In preparation, an army of volunteers planted a victory garden in the city’s Civic Center. The farm, it seems, is the hot new urban status symbol.

It turns out that my nightmare of JFK as a wheat field isn’t all that different from the more upbeat visionary schemes that have been popping up. The same zeitgeist that has brought us rural-themed restaurants has also spawned endless ingenious plans to transform city dwellers from consumers into producers. Natalie Jeremijenko, a scientist-turned-multidisciplinary-artist who teaches at New York University, is working on something she calls Urban Space Station. The idea is to build closed-loop greenhouses atop existing New York buildings and nourish plants on the occupants’ waste products: CO2, gray water, compost. She argues that, if you’re growing food in an urban environment, a closed system is best: “You actually don’t really want your lettuces to be fixing all the particulates in the mercury from the air, right?” (Eli Zabar, who’s been growing vegetables in a rooftop greenhouse above his Upper East Side gourmet grocery since the late 1990s, is way ahead of the curve here.) Meanwhile, Dickson Despom­mier, a Columbia University professor of public health, has spent about a decade advocating vertical farms, high-rise hothouses designed to help feed growing urban populations. The images on his Web site (verticalfarm.com) are so seductive that one of them, of a greenery-stuffed cylindrical building resembling the famous Marina Towers parking garage in Chicago, took on a life of its own on the Internet when blogs erroneously reported that a developer was going to erect one in Las Vegas. (Manhattan’s borough president, Scott Stringer, is reportedly pursuing the concept.) Then there’s Agro-Housing, a new building type developed by the Israeli architecture firm Knafo Klimor that embeds a vertical greenhouse within a sleek high-rise apartment tower. The common flaw with all these projects is that they’re capital intensive, while vegetables remain readily available and relatively cheap.

The best thing I learned from Hungry City is that urban agriculture doesn’t need high-end architecture. Steel devoted a scant paragraph in her final chapter to the organopónicos, the grassroots network of urban farms that Cuba started after it was cut off from the global supply stream by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the United States’ trade embargo. They’re organic, low-tech, shoehorned into every available space, impressively productive, and truly inspiring. Reading Hungry City reminded me that there’s a farm right here in Brooklyn called Added Value. It employs neighborhood kids, sells much of its produce to nearby restaurants, and sits atop two and three-quarters acres of an asphalt playfield. Its fanciest structural component is a chain-link perimeter fence.

I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see a 30-story farm rise in New York City, and I’m pretty sure that JFK’s prime acreage will be devoted to takeoffs and landings for the foreseeable future. But I can imagine the minifarm, Cuban style, as an increasingly familiar part of the urban landscape. And I love going to Added Value’s twice-weekly farmers’ market and picking up collard greens and edamame. If oil shortages ever make papaya juice and exotic sheep’s-milk cheese prohibitively ex-pensive, I can become a borough-vore, surviving on food grown and raised in Brooklyn.

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