WORDS & IMAGES: KATE WEINER
COMMUNITY-MAKING AT EAST NEW YORK FARMERS’ MARKET
Place-action becomes part of the process of meaning-making, so that place, like the living creatures who grow into it, exists in the lives and minds of creatures who themselves come and go, and are sustained by place.
Deborah Bird Rose
Every Saturday from June to November, East New York Farms! (ENYF) brackets off Schenck Avenue for its farmers’ markets. The ½ acre farm in East New York, a low-income and ethnically diverse Brooklyn neighborhood, has been at the forefront of the urban agriculture movement for more than twenty years and its weekly farmers’ markets are venerable block parties. In July, the street is littered with the transparent skins of ripe tomatillos; in October, heaps of gold-streaked rutabagas portend of hearty stews.[i] Senior residents sit their chairs on the sidewalk to chat in the shade. Children play games on the sun-warmed street. Families bring blankets for picnics and couples share Styrofoam platters of callaloo. Food is plentiful and music winds its way through the crowded avenue. Save for a stand helmed by an upstate N.Y. farm, the majority of vendors are local to East New York. The abundance of Caribbean specialty foods, difficult to find elsewhere in New York, speak to the community’s West Indian heritage. The bumpy green skin of karela reminds me of a compact forest; the lime-yellow lengths of bora beans sit like coiled snakes at the base of woven baskets.
Through catering to communities in diaspora, ENYF’s production of “healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food” in marginalized communities reflects the interplay between the “local” and “translocal” in many U.S.-based urban farming initiatives.[ii] The Saturday farmers’ market interweaves sustainable agriculture and social justice to create the space for identities to be simultaneously constructed and circulated. If the West Indian taro vegetable dasheen functions as a mode of “cultural affirmation,” the sale of kale smoothies at the market suggests a different spoke within the alternative food movement.[iii] The fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets are as much the site for the creation and confirmation of communities as is the physical space itself.
“Farmers’ markets today,” suggest anthropologists Robinson and Hartenfeld, “sate a hunger not calculated in the FDA’s recommended daily allowances […] through the purposeful […] exchanges of the market, people come to know each other as more than assumptions.” [iv] In an industrialized food landscape shaped by the supermarkets that the photographer Andreas Gursky has so deftly captured in his line of work—rows and rows of packaged food, the profusion of colors not found in nature—farmers’ market serve as a tangible way to reduce the distance between consumers and producers. The obliteration of aisles and barrels of dirtied fruit signify greater intimacy with what we eat and with those who grow our food for us.
Although I’ve worked as a farm educator at various urban farms in NYC, today I’m just a visitor at ENYF. Exploring ENYF’s Saturday farmers’ market, I’m struck by the diversity of foodways at play. Write food activists and educators Alkon and Agyeman: foodways function as “manifestations and symbols of cultural histories and proclivities.”[v] Foodways encompass community practices and eating habits, relationships between vendors and visitors within farmers’ markets, and the connections that link seasoned gardeners to novice students. The foodways that bring residents to ENYF vary: nostalgia for family meals as a child, desire to grow food, hunger to stake a social claim in the community. Foodways help us make sense of the what, how, why, and with whom we eat. They are a means of nurturing ties to the land and to our community, to the cultures we are embedded in whether through inherited customs or personal choice. Farmers’ markets in this sense provide plural entry points into cultivating community.
Today’s market is particularly rich in intersecting foodways. Organized in conjunction with Catherine Greene, Director of ARTs East New York, the farmers’ market’s intention is to celebrate multiculturalism of East New York through food, movement, and music. ARTs has organized several activities throughout the day. The gym of a community center adjacent to the farmers’ market has been converted into the backstage for cultural organizations on deck to perform during the market. Men wield feathered shields in preparation for a traditional Mexican dance and women in embroidered puebla dresses apply red lipstick. Several neighborhood instructors teach an energetic Zumba class as a local chef sets up a cooking workshop close to the farm’s entrance. After Zumba, Catherine takes the stage to speak about her organization’s mission. ARTs is celebrating its fifth year and she’s excited to continue to nourish the non-profit. “I got tired,” Catherine says, “of always having to take my kids to downtown Brooklyn to have cultural experiences. I wanted them to have cultural experiences here.” The audience, as it were—those friends and families clustered on the sidewalk nearest to the stage—cheer softly. In the sandbag-heavy humidity, it’s as if the heat has sapped the sound from their clapping hands.
Walking the length of the farmers’ market, I make note of the varied sights and sounds. Rhosa’s Catering serves fried chicken, deer, and rabbit. A man in a Rasta cap and dashiki sells homemade pendants. The manager of a neighborhood Jamaican restaurant has set up peppery-smelling trays of curried goat and boiled dumplings. In collaboration with East New York Farms!, J.C. Penney volunteers hand out free smoothie samples. The store is opening up a new location in the neighborhood and J.C. Penney hopes to use ENYF’s established market as a conduit for attracting customers. Passersby quickly scoop up the berry smoothies; the kale smoothies, moss green and flecked with cucumber, go largely neglected. The blender, a volunteer tells me, will be on sale for $39.99 at J.C. Penney’s department store.
Farmers’ markets simultaneously operate within and outside of the capitalist system.[vi] ENYF’s emphasis on the local community is in particular a powerful means of subverting capitalist paradigms, of bringing dimension and compassion to the static model of exchange. In spite of this, I can’t help but wonder what J.C. Penney is doing at the market. Their “outsider” status is like a thorny weed in the thick of the homegrown ethos that threads together vendors hawking Caribbean remedies and sisters selling natural soaps. As I reflect on my visceral reaction to J.C. Penney, I realize that the notion that large corporations and small-scale initiatives are irrevocably incompatible is superficial. This belief is particularly problematic when we analyze the relationship between supermarkets and farmers’ markets. Supermarkets thrive in the suburbs whereas social justice-oriented farmers’ markets are largely relegated to “food deserts,” those communities with limited or no access to fresh, healthy food.[vii] The language of food deserts, however, “may well reinforce a sense of exclusion and stigmatization—as if residents of food deserts are not even deserving of what others take for granted: a Safeway.”[viii] Developing sustainable food systems is rooted in our ability to subvert the pre-existing framework. This means working simultaneously in tandem with, and in resistance to, corporate entities. How can farmers’ markets and supermarkets work together to satisfy the needs of a community? How can we find a middle ground between decentralized and centralized systems of food production?
ENYF’s collaboration with J.C. Penney is part of ENYF’s larger movement to ensure that residents have equitable access to vital services in their community. Although shopping at farmers’ markets is widely considered an act of ethical consumerism, this notion may very well bely the role that farmers’ markets can play in serving as legitimate and stable sources of nourishment within neighborhoods. The political anthropology collective Gibson-Graham establish “community economy as a space of ethical negotiation and decision making.”[ix] At the farmers’ market, each of us—vendor, consumer, producer—is making choices and considerations that we hope will reflect, in some way, who it is that we think we are and how we want to be understood by others. Many people shop at farmers’ markets because supporting local farmers and ecological practices aligns with their ethics. As necessary as this is to the maintenance of farmers’ markets, ENYF also wants people to come to their markets because it is an affordable and accessible option. ENYF mission thusly is to reflect community attitudes towards food and improve geographic, social, and economic accessibility.[x] ENYF’s open-minded and integrative approach has helped the farm blossom over the course of the past two decades into a destination for gardeners, foodies, and farmers crisscrossing the five boroughs
In spite of ENYF’s legacy, for many New Yorkers the Union Square Farmers’ Market is the embodiment of “real-life, feel-good experiences [that serve as] a welcome antidote to the seemingly endless stream of disturbing reports about our food industry.”[xi] The Union Square Market birthed the proliferation of Greenmarket programs across the country, revolutionizing the alternative food movement. Growing up, I often stopped by the market with my father on our way home from the city to bring back a loaf of bread and bouquet of flowers for my mother. Ascending from the Union Square station nowadays, the market emerges in fragments. Vendors sell sachets of Long Island-grown lavender and homemade ricotta cheese; Grow NYC volunteers distribute pamphlets on going green. Surveying trays of gluten-free peach pies, I imagine the fields fanning across the Hudson Valley, the sweet dusk between a long day of farm work and deep sleep in the country-quiet night. My fantasy is easily rattled by the comparatively high cost of the congested market. I never have enough cash in my pocket for a nice something to bring home for my family and most stalls are too crowded to make my way through to the counter.
Exploring the tension between higher-income consumers and lower-income producers in upscale farmers’ markets like Union Square emerges as the central narrative in many ethnographic studies. Okura Gagné, for example, writes that “the ‘idea’ of an alternative, walkable, local, and communal institution is particularly pronounced among upper-middle-class, urban Americans.”[xii] In suggesting that certain properties of modern-day farmers’ markets are especially palpable to a particular socioeconomic class, Okura Gagné invisibilizes the experiences of diverse communities. As I note during my fieldwork mapping ENYF’s Saturday farmers’ market, numerous residents are active participants in these spaces of encounter and exchange. I watch as farmers sell handcrafted goods to neighbors and the Youth Interns share cherries, small and sweet, with their families. The desire to connect, to collaborate, and to cultivate community transcends class.
Through reproducing socioeconomic, geographic, and philosophical binaries both between farmers’ markets and between individuals, we obscure the complexities of the alternative food movement. In his analysis of more than sixty farmers’ markets in the U.S., Tiemann distinguishes between “indigenous markets” and “experience markets.” “Indigenous markets offer traditional foods, […] are usually in smaller towns,” and cater to older customers staunchly rooted in localized traditions. Imagine a picnic table by the side of the road, stacked with berries and helmed by an elderly couple that has worked the land for years. “Experience markets,” by contrast, serve a younger clientele. “Goods are displayed more attractively” in experience markets and craft vendors, large crowds, and impermanent structures help shape the integrative space.[xiii] These “experience markets” in Tiemann’s theoretical framework emerge at the nexus of the translocal by incorporating global foods and practices. Farmers vend breads flecked with quinoa alongside merchants selling Moroccan textiles. The consumption of food, clothes, and handmade goods is concentrated within the reach of several rows of tents. Although Tiemann acknowledges points of convergence between “indigenous” and “experience” markets, his categorizations oversimplify the varied nature of farmers’ markets.
ENYF, like many social justice-driven farmers’ markets in the U.S., blurs the boundaries between these distinct markets. The bok choi and bittermelon on sale at the Saturday farmers’ market simultaneously speak to East New York’s “indigenous” community and exemplify the kind of unconventional fruits and vegetables that have attracted the attention of non-residents. As N.Y. journalist Tortorello notes, “for the people who live [in East New York], this farm and market is a place to pick up staples for the dinner pot or the apothecary. For visitors, it’s a botanical expedition you can make on the No. 3 train.”[xiv] The market’s emphasis on culturally appropriate music, arts, and foods is an “experience” for those both familiar and unfamiliar with the community. In this way, the structure of ENYF’s Saturday market complicates our understanding of “indigenous.” “Indigenous” within East New York Farms! is entangled with immigrant histories. Through the lens of food, residents and non-residents alike can make sense of their shifting identities. ENYF has imbued the raspberries ripening on the vine and rainbow chard growing red-orange roots with the spirit of social change. Cultural practices are reinterpreted and reinscribed in the context of farming. Locality in the farmers’ market is fluid: responsive to changes in the community and contingent on interlocking dynamics across different sectors of the population. The pluriverse of farmers’ markets within America consequently dissolves static dichotomies between rural and urban communities, producer and consumer, indigenous market and experiential. As diverse knowledges interact in the context of farmers’ markets, ENYF’s Saturday “block parties” give rise to a new way of relating to our environment and to one another that can’t be easily classified as “indigenous” or “experience.” Food, politics, and community development exist as part of a constellation.
In the hour or so that I’ve meandered through the market, the crowd has visibly swelled. Seeking solitude and hungry to sit down, I make my way towards the farm and stretch out on a bench by the tomato plots. The sun, warm and familiar, settles across my shoulders. From where I am sitting, I can watch the day’s performances through the farm’s fence. Near to the stage, the mariachi band readies their instruments as an organizer with ARTs thanks ENYF for sponsoring the Youth Internship Program.
“Because of what you all do,” he shouts into the microphone, “our kids are staying off the streets!”
In the midst of the crowded market, it’s easy enough for his words to dissolve into the atmosphere. The applause is scattered and most people are busy digging into Styrofoam containers of rice and beans and chicken tender enough that you could eat through the bone. I watch as groups of friends cluster their foldable chairs in the shade, plates of food positioned precariously on their laps. The mariachi band soon infuses the market with music. The singer is wearing black pants and a bolero threaded through with silver beads. When she turns, the crescent-shaped jewels catch the light. As the market grows busier, more and more people come to explore the farm. The interns, tired from hustling between the farm and farm stand, take a lunch break in the shade. Several couples pass through, some running their hands across the large leaves of rainbow chard, others weeding where they see fit. A woman takes photos; a father and son pose for the mother. When I reflect on this moment, I find myself returning to activist Esteva’s notion of “communing.” “No vanguards. No leaders. No parties,” states Esteva. “Horizontal grassroots organizations. Commotion instead of promotion. Ordinary folks doing extraordinary things.”[xv]
I know that the market this morning isn’t “communing” in its purest form. We have J.C. Penney boosting its brand and price tags stickered to the surfaces of fresh melons. The nature of ENYF’s farmers’ market, however, dissipates conventional hierarchies and resignifies capitalist modes of exchange. East New York Farms! Youth Interns have as equal a voice in operations as the Farm Managers. Local artists work in tandem with gardeners. Performers converse with the audience and children guide their grandparents through the farm. In Esteva’s vision for “commons,” “nouns are replaced by verbs. More and more people are learning in their commons, discovering that to study can be the leisurely activity of the free people.”[xvi] And its this sense of collaborative learning that marks the farmers’ market space as a commons. Embedded in the simple act of relishing today’s market is the opportunity to learn more about the plants and people and places that sustain us.
With this in mind, I buy beets, eggplant, bittermelon, and raspberries to bring home, eagerly planning the particulars for dinner with my mother and father. The Youth Interns, still new to the management process, fumble with the cash register. I let A. and C. keep the change. The spirit of the farmers’ market feeds on an intrinsic sense of generosity from both producer and consumer. Faced with July’s harvest, I understand viscerally the maxim that the sweetest fruit is the one you give to a friend. As I walk to the Van Siclen Avenue platform, arms overflowing with fruits and vegetables, I can still hear the bustling farmers market below. Caught in the liminal space between the market and my train home, I feel as if I am in the process of being transplanted into this community: close to belonging, but not quite. Even as I am entering the subway car, I sense the residue of the market on my skin: the open-air, the damp green cartons of fruit, the voices of neighbors, the sounds of produce and plates and greetings changing hands.
[i] Raven, Sarah (2008). In Season: Cooking with Vegetables and Fruits. New York: Universe.
[ii] Agyeman, Julian, and Alkon, Alison Hope (2011). Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. Cambridge: The MIT Press. Pg. 13
[iii] Escobar, Arturo (1995). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pg. 169.
[iv] Robinson, Jennifer Meta, and Hartenfeld, J.A. (2007). The Farmers’ Market Book: Growing Food and Cultivating Community. Indiana: Indiana University Press. Pg. 1
[v] Agyeman, Julian, and Alkon, Alison Hope (2011). Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. Cambridge: The MIT Press. Pg. 10.
[vi] Agyeman, Julian, and Alkon, Alison Hope (2011). Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
[vii] McMillan, Tracie (2012). The American Way of Eating. New York: Scribner.
[viii] Guthman, Julie (2008). “Bringing Good Food to Others: Investigating the Subjects of Alternative Food Practices.” Cultural Geographies 15(4):431-447. Pg. 441.
[ix] Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2013). Take Back the Economy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Pg. 2.
[x] Agyeman, Julian, and Alkon, Alison Hope (2011). Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
[xi] Langholtz, Gabrielle (2014). The New Greenmarket Cookbook. Boston: De Capo Lifelong Books. Pg. 8
[xii] Gagné, Nana Okura (2011). “Eating Local in a U.S. City: Reconstructing ‘Community’— a Third Place—in a Global Neoliberal Economy.” American Ethnologist 38(2): 281- 293.
[xiii] Tiemann, Thomas K. (2004). “American Farmers’ Markets: Two Types of Informality.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. 24(6): 44-57. Pg. 46
[xiv] Tortorello, Michael (2012). “The Seeds They Carried.” The New York Times 17 October.
[xv] Esteva, Gustavo (2014). “Commoning in the New Society.” Community Development Journal 49(1): 1144-1159. Pg. 1158.
[xvi] Esteva, Gustavo (2014). “Commoning in the New Society.” Community Development Journal 49(1): 1144-1159. Pg. 1158.