Friday, May 9, 2008


Photo: Philadelphia's Greensgrow Farm, in the post-industrial Kensington neighborhood.

Only you real TV junkies will remember the campy, ridiculous TV show "Green Acres" (1965-71), starring Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert as pampered city folk who decamp from Manhattan to a decrepit farm in fictional Hooterville. Best described as "television's 160-acres of agrarian psychedelia," it was built on one of the premises as old as America itself: namely the irreconcilable divide between city and country. "Goodbye city life," laments Gabor, the Hungarian socialite who gives up the creature comforts of the Upper East Side for a TV-addicted pig and a bunch of bumpkin neighbors.

But the contrast between city and country is much overdrawn. Cities have long been tied to their rural hinterlands-- economically, demographically, and, for better or worse, politically. Philadelphia, the subject of this week's Rustbelt shout-out, emerged as an important mercantile center because of its proximity to the immensely fertile agricultural land of Lancaster County, most famous for its Amish communities and most infamous today because of the exurban sprawl that is gobbling up some of that land.

In the postindustrial era, nature is reclaiming parts of nearly every old Rustbelt city. Deer and foxes inhabit Philadelphia's vast Fairmount Park system. And scrubby lots are reverting to grass and weeds. Nature's reclamation of the city isn't quite as dramatic in the City of Brotherly Love as it is in Detroit and Cleveland, where large-scale abandonment has resulted in the return of the prairie. On Detroit's once densely-packed East Side (a far cry from Gabor's East Side) pheasants have reclaimed vast tracts of open land.

It's all to easy--and oversimple--to describe this process as one of urban decline. A better phrase is urban transformation. Brownfields are becoming greenfields, rubble strewn vacant lots are becoming gardens, and many cities now have neighborhood-based agribusinesses. Urban farmers are remaking parts of most Rustbelt cities.

It's fitting that Philadelphia, America's first city, is on the cutting-edge of reconciling farm and city. Community groups and activists have set up farms in such unlikely places as the site of the former Mill Creek housing project in West Philadelphia, on the ruins of an old factory in Kensington, and on the grounds of two local schools (which provide mint to a high-end candy maker). Urban farming is not going to solve the problems of massive disinvestment and deindustrialization, but it brings life to left-for-dead urban spaces and provides produce for urban residents who would otherwise be left to fend for themselves in understocked neighborhood grocery stores.

Philadelphia has also long been famous for its large farmers' markets, most notably the Reading Terminal, where Amish farmers have been selling goods for more than one hundred years. And there is, of course, the vast Italian Market, made famous by Rocky, which is now best described as the Italian/Vietnamese/Cambodian/Mexican/Yuppie market.

But just as impressive are the more than 30 neighborhood farmers markets that have sprung up in nearly every corner of the city, selling farm-fresh produce at affordable prices. Some of Philly's markets sell baby arugula to gourmets, but many of them provide high-quality produce to people in poor and working-class neighborhoods. Rural farmers' encounter with the city has led to all sorts of innovation. My favorite is the story of Amos Fisher, reported in this week's City Paper.

The Amish farmer started coming to the Germantown area in 2001, selling at Cliveden Park and serving a predominantly black community. He'd bring standard stuff — tomatoes, melons, onions — but little by little, regulars started asking for other things, like collard greens. "When we first started, I didn't even know what those were," he says. "Now that's one of the largest we sell." When someone gave him seeds for banana squash, he had to look it up on the Internet to figure out how to grow it. "If a customer requests it, I'm trying it," he says. His most popular item, however, remains an old standby: "If we don't have sweet corn, they may as well not come."

I've bought produce from Amos, who sets up his table about five minutes from my house. Anyone who thinks that the city is in decline just need spend a few minutes with him.