Nowtopia by Chris Carlsson

Nowtopia by Chris Carlsson

This week, the L.A. Eco-Village garden blog features the words of Chris Carlsson. Carlson is a San Francisco-based activist, writer, blogger, and co-originator of Critical Mass (a monthly bike celebration that has spread world wide.) He will be speaking at Los Angeles Eco-Village on Friday, February 6, 2009 at 7:30 pm. Carlsson will read from and speak on topics from his new book Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners are Inventing the Future Today, published by AK Press.

The Friday night event costs $5, with no one turned away for lack of funds. Reservations are recommended, call 213/738-1254 or email

Here’s an excerpt from Nowtopia – Carlsson on vacant lot gardening: (Get your hands on the book for the full text, including much more on history, food security, and more!)

Gardening is not the revolution, nor does gardening turn every gardener into a cultural radical… Gardening…produces good food and other benefits outside the complex of exchange… Moreover, it is an art form, an area of creativity as rich and promising as any symbolic activity, and one which can roughly but easily transpire beyond the realm of representation and mediation. It can function as an important part of “everyday life” in the radical sense of that term.
—Peter Lamborn Wilson

…the urban community garden, with its potential for feeding households and generating local cottage industry, with its power to restore a measure of community life, and with its capacity to recycle organic wastes, is thriving throughout the world: in Karachi, La Paz, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Dakar, Dar es Salaam, and Bangkok, as well as in Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles. Globally, about two hundred million urban dwellers are urban farmers. Most of these farmers are women, and they provide food and income for about seven hundred million people. Is it so surprising that urban women of color would use community gardens to repair the fabric of our inner cities? Neither nostalgic for a pastoral past, nor Luddite in its sensibility, the inner-city community garden movement restores a nature banished from the industrial city, and offers a degree of self-sufficiency and neighborhood security, achievements that elude the master plans of urban planning experts.
—H. Patricia Hynes

Gardens are patches of land containing many purposes and possibilities, and have even become battlegrounds for opposing social dynamics, pitting an insurgent autonomy against urban reformers who see gardens as useful steps towards eventual gentrification and increased land values. While contending social forces seek to control land and the political structures that administer it, space is also provided to unregulated social interaction. Gardens are important arenas for multi-generational circuits of communication, memory, and experience.

Many of the agricultural skills that help urban gardening to thrive can be traced to recent arrivals from rural areas in the South, or the Caribbean, Africa, South America, or Asia (e.g. Central Americans and Mexicans in Los Angeles, Puerto Ricans in New York and Holyoke, MA, Hmong tribesmen from Laos in Seattle, WA, African-Americans from rural Alabama, Mississippi, or Georgia in cities from Detroit to New York to San Francisco, though it is true that newcomers and ethnicities from far and wide mix in all these places too). In a recent example, Annette Young Smith, a 66-year-old Alabama native who has lived in San Francisco’s Bayview district for 34 years, applied her rural roots to the rock-hard median where she lives on the 1700 block of Quesada Avenue. Since she and her friend Karl Paige started removing debris and planting a garden in 2002, the entire block has been transformed. Neighbors all know each other now, and the garden that anchors the community has won awards and attracts visitors and helpers from all around. The block is a quintessentially San Franciscan street, “young and old. Gay and straight. Black, white, Asian, and Latino. Newcomers and oldtimers. Immigrants and native born.” Gardening provides a common language and context in an urban environment that usually promotes private property and individualism.

Elders who have been gardening for 20 or more years, whose own forebears were often farmers, are sharing their know-how with younger generations to help extend the culture and knowledge across time and space. In the Bronx United Gardeners (BUG), long-time community gardeners are teaching young activists growing skills, but also helping the new generation sink their own roots into their community. “I started out as an activist, fighting broad ideological issues, and I wasn’t very connected to my local community,” explains Isabel Moore. “Through BUG, I have learned how to grow things, and I’ve learned more about the Bronx.”… It is a sweetly reciprocal relationship as older gardeners say they have been reinvigorated by the young people who have gotten involved.

In Philadelphia’s Glenwood Green Acres, a renowned four-acre farm with over 100 distinct plots among North Philadelphia’s abandoned warehouses and factories, the elders share a common past as disciplined, hardworking children on farms in the South with close ties to the land. During and after WWII they joined the great black migration to the north, coming to Philadelphia to work in factories, warehouses, and other “city jobs.” Now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s they are anxious to share their farming heritage, especially for traditional crops like sweet potatoes, cotton, and peanuts, which had been passed down to them by their grandparents.

The renewed impetus for community gardening can be traced to the upheavals of the 1960s. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan situates the problem of choosing what to eat in a new historic context created by the industrialization of food and the rebellious malcontents confronting it. Pollen traces today’s gourmet ghettoes, vegetarianism, passion for organic foods (and antipathy to processed food) to April 20, 1969 when the “Robin Hood Commission” tore down the fence surrounding a vacant lot owned by the University of California in Berkeley, California.10 They laid down sod and planted trees and put in a vegetable garden, and declared the establishment of “People’s Park.” One declared intention of the “agrarian reformers” with the new park was to grow their own “uncontaminated” food and give it away to the poor, echoing the 17th century English Diggers who had also reclaimed common lands to feed the destitute of their era (often themselves!).

The successful opening of People’s Park fired imaginations across the counterculture. San Francisco’s Diggers had already helped shape the underground with its free stores and wild public events in 1966 and 1967. Acid tests, rock-n-roll, marijuana, long hair, and a rejection of “straight culture” fused with draft resistance, anti-war protests, and rising black and brown power movements to challenge the American Dream at its roots.

Rachel Bagby is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Community Rehabilitation Corporation (PCRC). The PCRC rehabilitates housing, turns vacant lots into community gardens, and bedecks street corners with two story murals. She rebukes a lot of housing developers for their single-minded focus on buildings. “They do houses, I do lives,” she says. Her efforts are directed at the devastated neighborhoods of North Philadelphia. She explains the broken communities she faces. “We have almost lost two generations to dope, crime and pregnancy,” which, not suffering from typical American amnesia, she squarely blames on the Vietnam War. “Men came back shell-shocked and full of dope. Came back and had lost their human feeling. Now we have babies having babies.” The goal of most garden activists is to rebuild human communities with the garden serving as a focal point and shared mission.

Post-WWII federal policies led to the depopulation and economic destruction of inner cities. The GI bill gave housing and college tuition subsidies to returning white soldiers. Colleges would not admit blacks and banks would not lend to African-Americans; GI loans also would only finance purchases of single-family homes, not inner-city apartments. The interstate highway system promoted suburbanization and, combined with cheap loans and rapidly proliferating new housing, many white urbanites opted to move to the new suburbs. The Housing Act of 1954 funded “urban renewal” programs in most cities. Neighborhoods deemed “blighted” would be bulldozed to make way for new public and private housing. The Urban Renewal or “redevelopment” juggernaut leveled hundreds of previously inhabited inner city acres, displacing residents and often leaving the resulting lots vacant for years. In San Francisco, for example, the largely black Fillmore district was bulldozed and left vacant for a generation.

Political riots in the late 1960s also devastated hundreds of urban acres. After Martin Luther King’s assassination, black communities rioted in many cities, burning hundreds of city blocks. Ongoing social discrimination and police repression in black communities provoked additional disturbances in the late 1960s. Large urban areas were devastated by fire, leaving empty urban swathes of rubble and trash. In the 1970s waves of landlord arson and abandonment afflicted many inner city neighborhoods in New York, Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, etc. In New York the city was told to “drop dead” in 1975 by major banks when it went bankrupt, squeezed between rising infrastructure costs and plunging tax revenues from abandoned and destroyed properties. Rubble-strewn vacant lots became magnets for drug dealing and prostitution and the violence that accompanied underground economies in many neighborhoods.

Depopulation, abandonment, and crumbling infrastructure frame the decomposition of the urban working class, most visible among urban communities of color, but also apparent in the atomized white-bread “middle class” lives filling suburbs around the decayed cities. Decomposition, though, is not an end point, but a stage for new growth. Faced with the destruction of communities, livelihoods, and the neighborhood-based relationships that sustained earlier generations through tough times, resilient residents began slowly to reclaim their streets. Facing official indifference or open hostility, inner city residents had only themselves to rely on as they began to sow the seeds of class recomposition. Small acts of solidarity and neighborliness were the kernels of a direct approach to the system’s destructive policies.

Mark Leger moved to New York at the end of the 1980s and has been an activist gardener ever since. He describes what community gardening meant when it emerged to confront the urban catastrophe of the 1970s: “It meant people taking direct action to transform their environment. When New York was on the skids, that meant converging on trash-strewn vacant lots, cleaning them up, making them green, making them community centers where people wanted to be rather than wanted to avoid.”

In San Francisco, African-American men who had migrated from the deep South to work in World War II shipyards had been left unemployed by cutbacks and a shift to shipbuilding overseas. Acres of undeveloped land controlled by the Redevelopment Agency were farmed. At one point corn fields filled several contiguous blocks of the old “Harlem West” Fillmore district. Pam Peirce, scrambling in 1980–81 to find new funds to sustain the local gardens, claims that it was San Francisco’s gardening program that managed to get community gardens qualified for federal housing grants under the rubric of “fighting blight,” an ironic way to use the system’s own twisted logic. As we’ll see below, institutional support for community gardening is often based on the demonstrable rise in property values that accompanies the reclamation of vacant lots through greening projects. The “social improvement” implied by rising property values has been widely touted by nonprofit organizations seeking support for their community gardens, even if their real goal would be better understood as one of building sustainable, safe, urban communities.

In the new century plenty of urban land is still depopulated. In spite of the frenzied dotcom boom and bust that drove Bay Area property values to dizzying heights, poor, long-time black neighborhoods in Oakland remain “underutilized.” About 500 parcels of land in West Oakland are vacant or unused properties, representing about 7% of the total acreage of the neighborhood. People’s Grocery was founded in 2002 to bring fresh produce to the redlined neighborhoods of the East Bay far from any modern supermarkets. In a solar- and biodiesel-powered stepvan, young employees roll through neighborhoods selling locally grown fresh produce and other organic goods. Co-founder Brahm Ahmadi says, “We believe that it’s possible not only to transform those lands, but to create viable food-producing farms in urban communities, and that’s really a key foundation for revitalizing a local economy and increasing open green spaces in urban neighborhoods.”

Many community gardens grow food, but—just as importantly—they also grow community. The isolation and fear left by government bulldozers and fences, following massive capital flight and deindustrialization, has challenged those people who stay to reinvent the bonds that knit together a community. In the practical work of clearing vacant lots and planting and nurturing gardens, a different kind of working class emerges, independent and self-sufficient, improvisational and innovative, convivial and cooperative, very often led and organized by females.

Mark Leger explains, “Gardens can bring people together for community because they are a place where people meet face to face and create something together. Community unfolds from there. For me, community involves something that reflects life across all its phases. Being a child, young, middle-aged, old. Good times, bad times. Ordinary life. Celebration. Being flush. Being on the skids.”

As Eastep puts it:

People come together as individuals and smaller groups and form informal coalitions, or even temporary ones. My [blood] family is distant, but I’ve chosen a new family for myself in my adult life, folks around here and around this project… I’m also volunteering at other gardens and the People’s Grocery. It’s just good to hang out with people that you have things in common with.

At West Oakland’s City Slicker Farms for the past six years Nan Eastep has worked, mostly as a volunteer, though recently she has been earning a small monthly stipend as the on-site resident (she lives in the house next door with her 2-year-old). City Slicker Farms is integrated into a small, informal network of organic urban farms stretching from the southern reaches of East Oakland up to their place not far west of downtown Oakland (where there are several small but productive gardens in the vicinity), and further north to some West Berkeley gardens. Since they started in 2005 they have helped establish 37 backyard gardens in West Oakland, cultivating nearly 8,000 square feet of land between the Community Market Farms and the backyard gardens. Friendships and practical needs knit them together, as do the recently established Farmers’ Markets and the People’s Grocery delivery business.

Not far from West Oakland’s City Slicker Farms is the Linden Street Garden. By providing education for children and work for teenagers and adults, the Linden Street garden has created a social structure for the area. “Neighbors talk to each other more,” says Dana Harvey of the West Oakland Food Security Council. “At least on a micro-scale, it’s really helped to build a sense of community.”

On the East Coast a nonprofit organization called Nuestras Raices builds community in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. It was founded in 1992 by members of La Finquita community garden in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Holyoke had a well-developed Puerto Rican neighborhood that, following the familiar pattern of the era, converted some abandoned lots into gardens. Dan Ross, Executive Director of Nuestras Raices, said: “The heart and soul of the organization is the community gardens: all of our projects grow out of the gardens, and all of the projects are planned and implemented by the garden members. It’s not just about food. It’s about building community and building connections. It isn’t just agriculture, it’s culture. If you recognize that, you end up being more sustainable within a community because you build greater networks and you tap into a lot more resources.” Again and again we see communities establish gardens as anchors to rejuvenated neighborhood life. As the food grows, so do the human connections.

In the vast empty acres of Detroit, burned down during riots in the late 1960s and never rebuilt, the city government sponsored a 1970s program called “Farm-a-Lot.” With so much vacant land, the city couldn’t afford to maintain the lots at public expense. Instead, residents can fill out a simple one-page application to allow land to be converted to gardens and farms. In the mid-1990s the Detroit Agricultural Network (DAN) was founded by the Farm-a-Lot farmers, Gardening Angels, and master gardeners from Michigan State University. Participants envisioned Detroit as a Garden of Eden and a gardening city rather than the urban planners vision of turning Detroit into a casino city. A DAN spokesman sums it up: “The idea is to grow community, to grow people, and to grow food at the same time.”