Exploring The Power And Politics of Urban Agriculture

Exploring The Power And Politics of Urban Agriculture

In the video above, students in MET’s Urban Agriculture class visit the Fenway Victory Gardens. Photo by Cydney Scott. Video by Jason Kimball

New MET class examines the subject’s roots in Boston

July 8, 2019

Megan Woolhouse

On an early June evening, Zachary Nowak and the students in his Urban Agriculture class are strolling through the Fenway Victory Gardens, the nation’s oldest victory garden, admiring the pristine beds of lettuce and mop-headed peonies growing there. But this outing is far more than a walk in the park. Sitting in the shadow of the Prudential and Hancock towers, the Fenway Victory Gardens predates both, a vestige of World War II, when citizen gardeners raised vegetables to aid the war effort.

Urban Agriculture students touring the Fenway Victory Gardens, the nation’s oldest victory garden, to learn more about what people grow in their garden plots. Photo by Jason Kimball

Today the garden remains, seven sunny acres divided into 500 individual plots surrounded by towering multimillion luxury condos and office buildings. How that occurred is what Nowak wants to discuss with his students. After the war, he explains, the Victory Gardens never reverted to city parkland as intended because the Fenway’s upper-middle-class residents used their clout to keep the gardens going, for decades successfully fighting off various proposals to build on the site.

“On the one hand, thank God. I mean, imagine if this was a big IRS building,” says Nowak, a Metropolitan College lecturer, gesturing to the patchwork of plots. “But I also don’t want you to lose sight of the fact that this is a public place and certain people are being allowed to enjoy it and others not. So there’s a trade-off here.” 

Urban Agriculture is a deep dive into who gets to till soil in the city and why. It looks at one central question posed on the syllabus: What do gardens do for people? Nowak leads students on an exploration of local community gardens, school and prison gardening programs, and the guerilla gardens that appear on abandoned city lots as a way to better understand power and politics in the city.

Class instructor Zachary Nowak, a MET lecturer, says he’s interested in what urban agriculture says about the political economy we live in. Photo by Jason Kimball

Students visit the rooftop garden at Boston Medical Center, interview gardeners at some of the city’s historic community gardens, and explore the racial and ethnic dynamics that can frequently determine who gets to garden in the city and where. Nowak is uniquely qualified to lead the class. He finished a PhD in American studies at Harvard University last year, and as a postdoctoral fellow, he currently teaches classes at Harvard on the history of the built and natural environment. (He is working on a book about the social history of train stations in 19th-century American cities as well.)

He also lived in Italy for 12 years, where he cofounded a “sustainable studies” program at the Umbra Institute in Perugia and tended his own urban garden. He draws on those varied experiences for the class, he says, as well as on research in a variety of disciplines; economic concepts like neoliberalism and the role of government in urban agriculture are central to class discussions.

“The class is really not about urban agriculture” per se, Nowak says. “It’s about what urban agriculture can tell us about the political economy that we’re living in.”

A rogue garden 

Some of those lessons were on display during a class trip to the Berkeley Community Garden in Boston’s South End, a 140-plot garden that has been a neighborhood fixture since the 1960s. Lesser known are its origins as a rogue garden planted by Chinese immigrants who wanted to grow traditional Chinese vegetables they either couldn’t afford to buy or couldn’t find in local markets. They tilled the soil along Berkeley Street, where housing had been razed for a highway on-ramp that never materialized, and began to cultivate the land.

The Urban Agriculture class explores the racial and ethnic dynamics that can frequently determine who gets to garden in the city and where. Photo by Cydney Scott

That was more than 50 years ago, a scruffier era in the South End. Today, the low-slung community garden sits within one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods, surrounded by multimillion-dollar brownstones and wine bars. 

Students went to the Berkeley garden to interview its gardeners and found that Chinese immigrants continue to garden there.

Grad student Jared Kaufman (MET), a freelance food writer interested in food policy, says the visit was a highlight of the course. Many gardens there remain dedicated to growing Asian vegetables, beans, or the distinctive hairy gourds that hang from the top of elaborate cages. 

Other plots were devoted to cutting flowers, salad greens, and herbs, or transformed into postage stamp–size sitting areas. Kaufman says the visit raised questions about whether soaring property values and gentrification in Boston threaten the existence of some gardens.

“Support from the city can wither away at any moment,” he says, especially if the city has an incentive to see a site return to the property tax rolls. 

Graduate student Jared Kaufman (MET) during a class tour of the Fenway Victory Gardens. Photo by Jason Kimball

Grad student Priyokti Rana (SPH), who is pursuing a master’s degree in public health with a focus on epidemiology and biostatistics, says the visit exposed unexpected tensions about the role the garden plays in the neighborhood: while some South End residents complained that some garden plots looked messy or smelled bad, she says, others described them as a lifeline.

Rana interviewed Helen, an aging Chinese gardener, who grows hairy gourds and other vegetables in her plot as her main form of recreation. “That was so interesting,” Rana says. “The class was definitely more political than I expected.”

Students also consider the role of government in urban agriculture, particularly if community gardens are used to justify government cutbacks in social service programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.

Grad student Sarah Hartwig (MET), a graduate assistant in BU’s Programs in Food & Wine, is working on a master’s in gastronomy. She says the class debated the implications of neoliberalism and whether community gardens are an answer to food insecurity. 

“By filling that vacuum, urban gardens often inadvertently reinforce the system they were responding to,” Hartwig says.

That’s the kind of big thinking about tiny plots of land that fuels lively class discussions. Nowak says he also tries to give students high- and low-tech tools that will help them comprehend and absorb extensive reading assignments more quickly. This includes teaching his self-developed system of highlighting texts and speed reading. (He jokes that he was a grad student for so long, he’s really good at it.) 

To honor the  Berkeley Community Garden’s guerilla garden legacy, the class is creating signage in English and Chinese that tells the story of its history and evolution and will be posted at the garden. 
Anyone walking by the gardens today, Nowak says, would have no idea what it’s about, its role in the community, or its unique staying-power. “It’s like residents have got a place on the Cape, right there outside their door,” he says. “It doesn’t always happen like that.”

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