American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
January-March 2021

Urban Farming: Tell All the Stories

Sara Shostak, Associate Professor of Sociology, Brandeis University

Sara Shostak

Sara Shostak

As sociologist Robert Wuthnow observes in In the Blood: Understanding America’s Farm Families, “The way to gain an understanding of what farm life means, short of farming oneself, is to listen to farmers tell their stories.” Understanding urban farming, as well, requires that we listen to farmers tell their stories. For while the stories that cities tell about urban farming are often intertwined with urban branding and gentrification, the narratives of urban farmers highlight reclamation, reparations, and resistance.

Sociologists have been at the forefront of documenting associations between urban agriculture and gentrification as they unfold through economic processes, such as the revalorization of land, and cultural processes, such as urban branding. As I studied urban agriculture in Massachusetts cities, I was struck by the use of agricultural histories in urban branding campaigns. For example, the history of “Clapp’s favorite pear,” first cultivated in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester in 1840, has been hailed as “a symbol of the agricultural history of Dorchester” and celebrated in public art projects. Similar efforts have centered on the Roxbury Russet apple, named for the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, which is believed to be the oldest apple cultivar bred in the United States. 

These agriculture-centric narratives are consistent with the selective capitalization of local histories that is often part of branding campaigns. In Boston—and elsewhere—such narratives deploy bucolic imagery, in part, to elide the aspects of place identities that don’t serve the interest of growth coalitions. As documented in cities, including Washington, DC, New York City, and St. Louis, and as well as in smaller towns, highlighting the “golden age” of a location may support its claims to historical importance, authenticity, and charm. However, it often does so by erasing the more recent histories of these places, and the aspirations and hopes of the people living there today, who may find themselves not only excluded in these narratives, but at increased risk of being displaced by gentrification.

The stories I heard from urban farmers in Massachusetts also draw on the past. They make connections, however, not to romanticized local agricultural histories, but to the deep roots of inequality that are the contexts for many contemporary urban agriculture projects. In their stories, urban farmers center long-standing racial injustices, including the legacies of slavery and sharecropping in the South and residential racial segregation in the North. They also emphasize the importance of “telling all the stories,” especially as a corrective to emerging narratives that make urban agriculture “look white and yuppie” and thereby erase “the people doing this work for so many years, with their hands in the dirt, in the ground” (Field notes, March 2016).

“This Goes Back Generations”

At an Urban Farming Institute of Boston event on the history of Black urban farmers and “food as healing,” Demita hands out plates of a delicious root vegetable salad, dressed with homemade honey vinaigrette. She explains that she cooks “how her grandma and mom cooked—this goes back generations,” and recalls the beauty of their long, brown fingers rolling dough, which she watched, as a young girl, from her perch atop a phone book. 

Demita offers us her health history as testimony to the healing power of whole foods. Demita’s story, however, is not just about her own health. Rather, she states clearly that healthy eating is “our birthright, as a people…our health and our right to eat delicious food.” She points to the brutalities of the South in accounting for how this inheritance was disrupted, “…we have a lot of pain in us about the dirt. Painful things happened in dark hollows.… My Mom got us out of Mississippi as soon as she could, so we could have the life she wanted for us.” Nonetheless, she explains, there has been a consistent “need for country, a need to be close to the ground” (Field notes, February 2016). 

Like Demita, many of the Black urban farmers and gardeners whom I interviewed opened their narratives with the extraordinary suffering, trauma, and cultural disruption that began when millions of people were torn from their homes in Africa and subjected to generations of slavery, sharecropping, legalized oppression, and violence in the American South. In their stories, the land and the dirt are described as holding both collective trauma and pain and tremendous possibilities for healing. In the words of farmer, author, and activist Leah Penniman: “Our families fled the red clays of Georgia for good reason—the memories of chattel slavery, sharecropping, convict leasing, and lynching were bound up with our relationship to the earth. For many of our ancestors, freedom from terror and separation from the soil were synonymous.” However, Penniman continues, while the land was “the scene of the crime…she was never the criminal.” 

This narrative contends that reclaiming “reverent connection between Black people and soil” and cultural knowledge about food and herbs, offers possibility of deep healing from the trauma of slavery and its many contemporary health consequences. From this perspective, urban farming and gardening is also about reclaiming the sovereignty that comes from being in relationship with the land. As Nataka, put it, to be “in control of the land” is to be “in charge of our food, our health” (Field notes, February 2016). From a policy perspective, this narrative highlights, in particular, the importance of reparations to support Black, Indigenous and People of Color farmers, not only in the Northeast but across the United States

“There Wasn’t A Grocery Store for Miles”

Reflecting on her experience working at Gardening the Community’s farmers markets and farm stand in Springfield, MA, Qamaria observes that “a lot of the residents here came from down south. They came up north to get away from farming back in the day…because they didn’t want to have that struggle anymore.” Initially, she tells me, “they moved up here, and they enjoyed…going to a grocery store and buying their vegetables and produce.” Over time, however, Springfield—like cities across the Northeast—was decimated by deindustrialization and white flight: “Springfield…was so wealthy, for a century…up until…the 1970s, when industry kind of went downhill. Globalization started at that time, so there was a lot of manufacturing that took place in Springfield that left. And for the city itself, there was a very large, white, middle-class affluent community, that—just like across the country—went to the suburbs.” As Springfield “changed,” Qamaria explains, grocery stores disappeared, and with them, access to fresh produce. The African American families that remained faced not only food apartheid, but also environmental hazards in the vacant lots left behind by the collapse of industry.

Stories like Qamaria’s make connections between contemporary urban agriculture and the community gardening movement. As Ruth, a longtime advocate, tells me: “If you go way back, it’s Victory Gardens, but really, the modern urban ag movement comes out of the community gardening movement, which [was a response to]...urban disinvestment.” Like Qamaria, Ruth highlights especially the experiences of African American families who came to northern cities as part of the Great Migration, and then disproportionately suffered the effects of urban disinvestment and decline. She also points to their role in reclaiming vacant lots, remediating the soil, and establishing thriving community gardens, in neighborhoods where food access was direly limited: “There’s a huge history of African American urban farmers in those communities who were originally from the South, and came north, and [grew] food…because…there wasn’t a grocery store for miles.” Ruth is concerned that if we “forget where the movement comes from,” it is more likely to fail to address “the issues now of gentrification and displacement…” 

These stories, like many that I gathered in postindustrial cities across Massachusetts, highlight the legacies of racialized urban social processes, including deindustrialization, white flight, redlining, and arson. As I dug rows, planted spinach seedlings, and weeded raised beds alongside urban farmers, I was struck by the ways in which they call on the urban environment itself as a “witness” to these inequities. For example, while public health experts acknowledge that urban soil often is “contaminated,” urban farmers describe it as “poisoned,” by industrial waste, illegal dumping, and environmental racism. 

In Boston, urban farmers point to the cornerstones of houses that once stood where they now are growing vegetables, as they connect the patterning of vacant lots to local histories of arson in neighborhoods that were never rebuilt. Their narratives raise urgent questions about “who pays for the past?”—especially when that past includes decades of inequities, disinvestment, and municipal neglect—and have motivated community organizing to ensure that urban agriculture serves the needs and interests of the people in the neighborhoods where vacant lots are available to farm. Likewise, the narratives of urban farmers are part of the rationale for the founding of land trusts for urban farmland, which aim to protect land tenure for long-term residents of the neighborhoods where lots are available and ensure community stewardship.

Recollecting and Reckoning

In Massachusetts and beyond, urban farmers are reclaiming cultural traditions linked to food, farming, and health; challenging systemic racism and injustice in the food system; remediating local legacies of municipal neglect and environmental racism; and moving toward their visions of more equitable urban futures. As they explore and establish new relationships between land, food, and community sovereignty and survival, today’s urban farmers insist that “we can’t start from now and pretend that the past didn’t happen” (Field notes, June 2019). 

The pasts that urban farmers raise, however, are quite different from those generated by urban branders and boosters. Rather, they remind us that “our agricultural system is built on stolen land and stolen labor. If you aren’t willing to have this conversation, you aren’t working for justice, even if you’re growing food…” (Field notes, March 2018). Urban farmers reclaim and extend the tradition of Black agrarianism and thereby challenge invidious cultural assumptions about “what a farmer looks like” and “who belongs on the land.” They lift up urban agriculture as a practice of what sociologist Monica White theorizes as collective agency and community resilience. They insist that we historicize the social determinants of health and stop telling stories that naturalize health inequities. That is, they engage with the past, not to romanticize or commodify it, but because, in the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw, “The work of social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction, building new stories around facts that are often disregarded, invisibilized, and taken for granted as acceptable and unremarkable features of social life.”

Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.