“Sitopia” is a term that combines the Greek words “sitos,” meaning food, and “topos,” which means place. In Hungry City (2008), a book about food and cities, architect Carolyn Steel proposes the concept of sitopia as a practical alternative to the idea of utopia. Sitopia, Steel writes, is a potential solution to “the problem of dwelling.” Since the world is already shaped by food, she reasons, there’s no need to wait for a utopian future to start changing the world. We can start with food.
When integrative designer and Brooklyn Heights resident Claire Hartten became involved with Brooklyn Bounty, the annual Brooklyn Historical Society fundraiser, she was inspired by the concept of sitopia. Hartten was asked to contribute ideas to the Historical Society’s annual fundraiser, which normally was a catered event known to be a bit of a snooze. They needed Hartten to jazz it up, essentially. And she saw it as an opportunity to expose the under-examined relationship between food and history in Brooklyn.
The concept of sitopia is something Hartten has used in her work organizing food-centered events that bring together city-dwellers from diverse disciplinary perspectives to talk about the problem of eating in a city.
“Cities used to be centered around a forum where discourse was open-source and accessible,” Hartten told me, referring to public spaces that were important centers of daily happenings in ancient Roman cities. “It wasn’t accessible to all, of course,” she added, “but it was a place to create culture around an issue, and build relationships.”
In this way, oral history became the centerpiece of Brooklyn Bounty. The idea of telling Brooklyn’s history through food seemed innovative to the staff of the Brooklyn Historical Society. “But when we began to think about the relationship between the history of Brooklyn, its agricultural roots, the collections we have that are full of fabulous cookbooks from the 19th century—many from rather bizarre, pescetarian eating clubs—we began to understand that we have a responsibility,” said Deborah Schwartz, the President of the Historical Society, at the event on September 21.
They needed, she said, to understand “this moment in Brooklyn, when eating, growing, and sustaining the food movement is being treated in a way that was remarkable, magical, and important to us, culturally and socially.”
Listening to this, I began to wonder. What, exactly, is it about this distinct moment that makes so many Brooklynites care so much about food?
The storytelling took place upstairs in the library, as part of the first-ever Brooklyn Food Recognition Awards, an idea proposed by Jimmy Carbone of Jimmy’s No. 43. Meanwhile a bacchanalia pursued below, where guests noshed on samples from Brooklyn food vendors like iCi, Saxelby Cheese, Madiba, La Table Exquise, and many more. (All waste was composted and given to Vokashi Kitchen Waste Solutions.)
The awards ceremony recognized a slew of Brooklyn local food leaders: Bob Lewis, co-founder of the Greenmarket; Annie Hauck-Lawson, President of the Association for the Study of Food and Society; her brother Robert Hauck, a fisherman; Anas Moustapha, owner of Oriental Pastry and Grocery; co-founder of the Park Slope Food Coop Joe Holtz; the Reverends Robert and DeVanie Jackson, who founded the Brooklyn Rescue Mission and the Bed-Stuy Farm; and Shineka Williams, a young farmer at bk farmyards. Each award recipient told a story of how food had become central in his or her life.
History, as the old adage goes, repeats itself. Even locavorism isn’t as new as we may think.
“Those people in those paintings there,” said Bob Lewis, who co-founded the New York City Greenmarket in 1976 alongside Barry Benepe, “they ate organically, and local.” He gestured to the portraits of prominent Dutch-era Brooklynites hanging along the stately walls of the Historical Society’s Othmer library.
Lewis began his talk to the crowd of donors gathered in the library with an excerpt from a 1978 New Yorker article by John McPhee, who immersed himself in the farming community to write the article. Lewis read an anecdote taken from the Greenmarket’s early days, when he would roam the Harlem and Brooklyn market locations looking for farmers peddling non-local produce, pickpocketers, and general riff-raff. In the New Yorker article, Lewis lambasts a farmer for selling California peaches, insisting that the food must be local.
Starting the Greenmarket in 1976 was really about designing a relationship between cities and rural areas, Lewis told me later. Benepe and Lewis were two city boys who had the know-how to cut through red tape and find places where the market could happen. The two met at the urban planning firm where they worked in the city.
The city at the time was not doing well financially, and it was tricky to find officials to get on board with the proposal for Greenmarket. Another key challenge, said Lewis, was getting farmers into the city. They had stereotypes—that the city was unsafe, too chaotic—which made them reluctant to make the trip. But despite skepticism, Lewis and Benepe managed to get Greenmarket on its feet and—the true measure of success in New York City—to make it profitable.
After the awards ceremony, I asked Lewis why he thought that there was so much focus on local, sustainably-produced, and artisanal food at “this moment” in Brooklyn.
He likened the foodie movement in Brooklyn to what “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” was for his generation of New Yorkers.
“It’s about achieving a sense of authenticity,” said Lewis. “And a rejection of the consuming life. There’s a sex appeal to farmers, because they’re producers. They have an independent, artistic nature.”
Lewis said that it’s a well-known fact in New York City that Greenmarket is the best place to pick someone up. (A fact, I wondered, or a cliché?) But furthermore, he said, people were seeing farmers produce stuff and this inspired them to become entrepreneurs, which was, he reflected, classically American.
“Food is sexy,” Lewis added. “It’s pleasurable. To produce it is an impressive act.” But then he laughed, and said, “I don’t wanna get too Freudian on you.”
In 2010, sociologist Juliet Schor, who teaches at Boston College and has been studying the “overworked American” and consumer culture for around 20 years, released a book called Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. The title is a bit of a give-away, but regardless, here is a run-down of the premise.
Due to a belief that economic growth is good and natural, Americans have mistakenly thought that all people ought to have full-time jobs. This notion has led Americans to pursue careers in which they often find themselves working more than full time and which may also prove stressful and unsatisfying. Despite not liking these jobs, however, Americans will do them simply to have a salary, so that we can keep up with the pace of consumption. And the rate of consumption in America has, Schor shows, steadily increased as it has become cheaper (if superficially-hidden environmental costs are taken out of the equation) to manufacture goods and apparel.
Not only was this system never healthy for Americans, Schor argues, its collapse in 2008 signals its ultimate demise; growth-based capitalism will not be resurging in the near future. We should not, however, despair, but rather see this as the beginning of a new economy (“plenitude,” she dubs it), where people invest time and energy in local production and social networks.
Sound familiar? The artisanal food and D.I.Y. movements in Brooklyn have been steadily gaining momentum at the same rate as the growth of the so-called “overeducated and underpaid” population. If we follow Schor’s logic, it’s no coincidence that “this moment” is happening at a time when the underpinnings of financial capitalism are coming loose. It’s a reaction to the failed logic of market capitalism, and the birthing of a new economy, in which people work part-time jobs, ferment kombucha and yogurt at home, and engage in valuable exchanges through social ties.
For most of us, the unemployment numbers can seem pretty scary. (And a September 2011 Gallup Survey put nationwide underemployment at 18.9 percent.) Looking around at my educated but struggling peers, I ask myself, if things are this precarious for us then how are others getting by?
According to the NYC Department of Health, in Central Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, around 30 percent of the population is obese, one of the highest rates of adult obesity in New York City. Diabetes is prevalent in these same neighborhoods as well.
Two of the awardees at Brooklyn Bounty were Reverends Robert and DeVanie Jackson, the couple who founded the Bed-Stuy’s Brooklyn Rescue Mission in 2002 to provide relief to locals in need of food, clothing, and care, and the affiliated Bed-Stuy Farm in 2005.
“We dedicated ourselves to this work because there’s a lot of truth” in the notion that the local, sustainable food movement is elitist, Mrs. Jackson told me after the Brooklyn Bounty event.
Bed-Stuy, Mrs. Jackson explained, is a food desert. In response to this problem, the Jacksons opened up a food pantry. But the food they were giving out, which came from food banks, was subpar. Nothing was fresh. So the Jacksons decided to start their own farm on a plot of land they owned. Mr. Jackson had grown up on a farm so he had the knowledge base.
Around 2004, neighbors approached the Jacksons after watching them growing produce on Decatur Street. Though many of these people weren’t destitute, said Mrs. Jackson, they complained that they couldn’t find fresh food in the neighborhood.
These interactions sparked a conversation within the community about quality food, or the lack of it in their neighborhood. The Jacksons took it upon themselves to educate their neighbors about the importance of eating local, organic produce. “Our work started out focusing on hunger, but then it became an educational project,” said Mrs. Jackson.
“There’s not a lot of people of color that are driving this,” said Mrs. Jackson of the local food movement in Brooklyn. “They’re in it, but they’re not driving the conversations.”
The Jacksons are always asking themselves why people of color cannot get the support they need to run their community programs, and why they are less involved in conversations around food.
Mr. Jackson said that farmers don’t think they can make enough money in communities like Bed-Stuy. He and his wife have seen, they said, that this is not the case. In fact, it’s the opposite: people actually want to buy fresh produce.
“Why are people in this community so hungry?” asked Mrs. Jackson. “Who decides that?”
Cities present infrastructural and logistical challenges in feeding their residents. A concentration of people living in high-density neighborhoods, with little green space around, requires a complex orchestration of transporting food in from rural areas.
“From the very beginning, Greenmarket initiated markets in low-income neighborhoods: in Harlem, in Downtown Brooklyn,” Bob Lewis told me. “There should be no sense that Greenmarket has neglected the opportunity to provide food access in multiple locations. It hasn’t.”
“Can it meet the need everywhere at once? In a city like New York?” said Lewis. “No, it can’t. There aren’t enough farmers to come to every neighborhood.”
Greenmarket’s locations are, to some extent, tied to a neighborhood’s buying power. This is how a farmer knows that he will make a profit off that location.
“Well-meaning people want markets in places where there’s no business, like in commercial dead zones,” said Lewis. “But that’s impossible. The market has to be integrated into a community where the farmer will be sufficiently compensated.”
Living in Brooklyn and seeing its local food movement grow makes Lewis optimistic about the future. “This generation has shown that small-scale agriculture is viable,” he said. “When we see so many young farmers coming to conferences, we have to be optimistic about the future. The key is that those interested in food now have an infrastructure to earn money in and support their families by working in food.”
There are, he said, some differences between this moment and a previous one in recent history, when environmentalism burgeoned among educated Americans.
“These farmers are not back-to-landers,” Lewis stressed. “That was a rejection of society. These people are finding a way to remain urbanized and still participate in this process. Locavorism is nothing to laugh about. It’s hardworking young families producing organic food. It’s not just a trend. I don’t believe it will disappear. It’s about value.”