Brooklyn Farms, Then and Now

In 1879, Queens and Kings Counties were the top two counties in market garden production in the U.S. As late as 1959, Kings Country produced 325,324 gallons of milk from 147 cows.
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New York City is proposing to change the rules governing its community gardens, eight years after a contentious effort to protect the gardens. Gardeners and other community members don't think the city's proposed rules go far enough to protect the gardens. The Times and the New York City Community Garden Coalition lay out the arguments for stronger rules to protect the gardens, but I'd like to approach the issue from another angle.

Once upon a time, Brooklyn was one of the most significant agricultural counties in the United States. It's hard to imagine now, but it actually wasn't so long ago. In 1879, Queens and Kings Counties were the top two counties in market garden production in the U.S. As late as 1959, Kings Country produced 325,324 gallons of milk from 147 cows.

In the 1870s, most of the then-city of Brooklyn hugged the western shore. Beyond the wooded hills that were crowned by Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park, there was an "incomparable Southern slope" gently running down to the level plain of the sea: Flatbush, Flatlands, New Lots, and New Utrecht. For two and a half centuries, this was prime farmland, growing potatoes, corn, and wheat as well as other vegetables (of course, for two centuries this agricultural system was slave powered). After the Civil War, the area turned to feed the hungry city directly with fresh vegetables like celery, asparagus, pumpkins, onions, and tomatoes. This farming was manure-powered, incorporating huge amounts of horse manure produced by the city (which was horse-powered, literally). Hay production and cows were also present. In 1850, even Manhattan was a strong producer of market garden vegetables.

What happened is not an unfamiliar story to anyone aware of suburbanization. The press of the urban overran the fertile fields. Transportation routes and developers, the land jackals, punched their way in. Land became too expensive to be farm. The "market" triumphed; the city lost, with food coming from farther and farther away, less and less about food and more and more about food-like product. This story is told in detail in Of Cabbages and Kings County: Agriculture and the Formation of Modern Brooklyn by Marc Linder and Lawrence S. Zacharias (University of Iowa Press, 1999), but it is little known. We need to know it now more than ever.

Interestingly, the Mannahatta Project -- which recreated the little island's environment in 1609, also jumps 400 years ahead. Their map of Brooklyn in 2409 shows farms exactly where they used to be in the outwash plain, that incomprable southern slope -- with the borough's population living at Manhattan-like densities. Futurecasting is fantasy, of course, and this one is quite utopian, but they are clearly extrapolating from the recent facts on the ground. Urban farming has returned. Rooftops, ex-parking lots, and, in Detroit, whole blocks, are given over to raising food. In New York, community gardens produce flowers as well as food, including eggs and honey.

The green future, like everything good, is something we have to fight for. That we should have to make a hue and cry to save community gardens again strikes me as terribly ironic considering we've already done this, and, in the larger context, absolutely know what happens when the sprawl wins, whether it is out there on the edge of exurbia or down the block. A German philosopher said it well: the first time is grand tragedy, the second time rotten farce, but the third... well, what is the third time that history repeats itself?

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