Urban agriculture, post-industrial food and the legacy of the artist-led initiatives of 1970s downtown New York
Urban agriculture, post-industrial food and the legacy of the artist-led initiatives of 1970s downtown New York
Rusted metal; broken pipes; pitted, splintered boards. In the midst of this, something is growing. Something lush, green and unlikely is poking up through the cracks, spreading leaves, bearing fruit.
It’s one of those images that seems to float freely around, familiar but somehow uncertain. What is this a picture of – what exactly is depicted here? Is it a scene of abandonment, a sneak preview of a post-human world, everything finally, literally, gone to seed? Or is it a hopeful image, Utopian rather than apocalyptic? A vision of survival, maybe, of sustenance and healing. Perhaps the power of this image comes precisely from this ambiguity.
Pizza in the Ruins
Roberta’s is a restaurant in Brooklyn that was founded by Brandon Hoy and Chris Parachini. It has been open for three years, and if you’ve spent any time in the city during those years, you know about it. The attention Roberta’s has received is mostly deserved. The food is very good. There is pizza, cooked in a massive wood-burning oven, and a selection of rustic-style dishes: marrow bones covered with coarse sea salt, pork belly from pigs raised humanely on farms upstate. Wine is served in mason jars. In the backyard, young bearded musicians play bluegrass, sort of ironically but sort of not.
Yes, it’s that kind of place. You can find more or less similar menus and settings all over Brooklyn, and in any city where the so-called creative class has sufficient economic power. This handmade, DIY aesthetic is the style of the moment, and is breathlessly celebrated by the food press (of which I am a sometime member). The words ‘artisanal’ and ‘locavore’ have, in the past few years, become clichés, ripe for parody.
But the Roberta’s story may be more about urbanism than food. The restaurant has become a symbol for the neighbourhood where it’s located: Bushwick, a bleak and benighted area where, in recent years, artists have moved to escape the high rents in other formerly blasted neighbourhoods, now gentrified. This is a familiar story, yet something about the scope of ambition displayed by the restaurant’s owners seems special.
Opening in January 2008, Roberta’s initially didn’t have a liquor license – or heat, hot water, or gas – only an enormous pizza oven shipped over from Italy. Truly disconnected from the city’s infrastructure, they plugged in space heaters and piled on the wood. Not long after opening they acquired a discarded shipping container, and set it up in the backyard. That became a radio station, broadcasting programmes about food and ecology. The top of the container provided room for a garden, which supplies the restaurant with herbs, tomatoes, and other produce.
In a recent piece on Roberta’s success New York magazine described the venture in terms that make it sound more like a cultish commune than a food business: ‘The vibe is of a future-primitive, self-sufficient compound whose inhabitants grow their own food and urinate on the compost pile (true story).’
A Cherry Tree
On New Year’s Day, 1971, when downtown Manhattan was almost as broken and shabby as Bushwick is today, Gordon Matta-Clark planted a cherry tree sapling in the basement of 112 Greene Street, a cooperative exhibition space in what is now called SoHo. It protruded up through the floorboards, a surprising bit of greenery emerging into the raw industrial space. For three months, the artist tried to keep the plant alive, irradiating it with infrared lamps, coaxing it into flower. Unsurprisingly, the tree did not flourish. When it died, Matta-Clark briefly tried cultivating mushrooms in the square of excavated earth. Ultimately, he filled the hole with a ceramic pipe containing the rotting remains of the original tree, and sealed up the floor again. This final piece – both a memorial and a perverse sort of recycling project – he called Time Well.
Photographs of both the living tree and its terminal entombment were included among the documentation in a recent retrospective exhibition at David Zwirner in Chelsea, New York, entitled ‘112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970–1974)’. Dedicated to the early years of the SoHo space – which evolved into White Columns in 1980 – played up Matta-Clark’s contributions: documentation of early architectural interventions in abandoned South Bronx tenements, loopy drawings of trees and ‘energy forms,’ hand-coloured photos of urban graffiti. Works by other, less-celebrated members of the collective rounded out the picture, adding up to a particular aesthetic of rangy, freewheeling post-Minimalism, favouring texture and throwaway gestures. Rolls of black-painted chicken wire – a piece by Alan Saret (Four Piece Folding Glade, 1970) – leaned in a corner, looking vaguely organic, while Larry Miller’s Carrot Piece (1970) – a carrot-shaped floor piece assembled from raw carrots – slowly shrivelled over the course of the exhibition.
Filmed documentation of Matta-Clark’s project Open House (1972) shows an empty rubbish skip, parked in front of the gallery, which was turned into a secret, claustrophobic domestic space. The film, shot mostly from above on a rainy day, records a group of artists and dancers bustling about the partitioned interior, armed with brightly coloured umbrellas. The gallery notes suggested the piece is about housing the homeless, but the film’s affect is stranger and more joyful: a madcap silent comedy.
The Greene Street space was the base for ‘Anarchitecture’, a collaborative research project headed by Matta-Clark. The group met weekly for a year, then presented their ‘findings’ in a March 1974 exhibition. These included a series of found photographs of architectural failure: collapsed buildings, ruined shipyards, an abandoned train car perched precariously over a void. Together, they seemed to propose entropy as a design principal. An entry in Matta-Clark’s notes read: ‘COMPLETION THROUGH REMOVAL/COMPLETION THROUGH COLLAPSE/COMPLETION THROUGH EMPTINESS.’
The first object Matta-Clark proposed for inclusion in the ‘Anarchitecture’ archive expressed the idea even more directly: a piece of white cardboard inscribed with the phrase ‘NOTHING WORKS.’ This, as James Attlee has argued in his essay ‘Towards Anarchitecture: Gordon Matta-Clark and Le Corbusier’ (2007), is intended first of all a rejoinder to the form-follows-function thinking of Modernist architecture (‘the International Stool,’ in Matta-Clark’s dismissive joke) – and, at the same time, it is a frank, straightforward description of life in the wrecked downtown New York of the 1970s, a time and a place when infrastructure was almost non-existent and it seemed that no one was in charge.
Food, Then and Now
What do you do when nothing works? One answer: anything you want.
I’ve believed for a while that the current interest in Matta-Clark’s work is motivated, at least in part, by a kind of nostalgia: a yearning for the lost, bad old New York in which he operated. There was, it now seems, a kind of alluring freedom in the era of failed infrastructure. One could operate without permits and without experience.
There is an aura of romance to Matta-Clark’s lawless activities: a surreptitious intervention on an abandoned pier, a spontaneous pig roast under the Brooklyn Bridge. Because of Food, the restaurant he and others opened in 1971 around the corner from 112 Greene Street, he is regarded as something of a DIY hero among the culinary-minded. Unlike Matta-Clark’s more conceptual projects, Food was the real thing – an actual, functioning restaurant, in a neighbourhood that desperately needed one. While the amateur staff struggled to pull off every meal, in retrospect the place seems to have been ahead of its time, cuisine-wise. As Randy Kennedy pointed out, in a New York Times article in 2007, Food served sushi and sashimi (courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg’s Japanese assistant, Hisachika Takahashi) which at the time were rare in New York. ‘The same menu,’ Kennedy notes, ‘featured ceviche, borscht, rabbit stew with prunes, stuffed tongue Creole and a fig, garlic and anchovy salad. Big communal dishes of chopped parsley and fresh butter were kept on the counters.’
Even Matta-Clark’s own infamous ‘Bone Dinner’ (oxtail soup, roasted marrow bones, and frogs legs – the remains turned into jewellery for the guests) come to seem like a prophetic look at 21st-century food trends. ‘You have to realize at that particular time in New York,’ artist and sometime Food cook Keith Sonnier told the Times, ‘people did not eat bone marrow.’
Bushwick, Then and Then (Again)
The space where Food was is now occupied by Lucky Kid, a shop selling expensive children’s clothes. Matta-Clark, who died in 1978, missed the much-heralded ‘revitalization’ of New York: the influx of money, the transformation of SoHo and of the West Side piers.
Of course, not all the city rebounded equally. Until recently, Bushwick remained trapped in amber, an untouched legacy of the bad times. In a very real sense, the ruined landscape in which Roberta’s opened was the same 1970s urban environment in which 112 Greene Street and Food briefly flourished. After the decline of the brewing industry, a mortgage scandal that filled the neighbourhood’s homes with low-income tenants unable to make their payments, waves of arson, and withdrawal of city services, the little that was left of the area was more or less destroyed in the chaos that accompanied the infamous 1977 city-wide blackout. And that was basically how it remained for the next several decades. If there was ever a place in which nothing works, it was Bushwick.
Now the neighbourhood is, in the words of a recent Financial Times travel article, ‘New York’s New Bohemia’, This discovery of new Bohemias is a painfully familiar story, and it brings with it all the hopes and fears that still revolve around the process of gentrification. It can’t be denied that Roberta’s, with its ‘future-primitive’ aesthetic, participates in the eternally marketable romance of thrilling artist’s ghetto. It also participates – knowingly or not – in a familiar kind of New York nostalgia. The restaurant was, unsurprisingly, the main focus of the Financial Times piece, which compared the local landscape to ‘the graffiti-patterned, low-rise cinescapes of Walter Hill’s 1979 film The Warriors.’
The High Line (Without Us and With Us)
Of the various films in which 1970s New York mythologized itself, The Warriors is perhaps the most memorable – if only because it is so enjoyably ridiculous. It pushes the drama of urban failure into the realm of the fantastic: the absurd, colourful street gangs who populate the night-time landscape of Hill’s film are more than halfway to science fiction, the setting just short of apocalyptic. Depictions of urban decay are perhaps always haunted by visions of the end times – the ultimate failure of infrastructure.
There’s an undeniable pleasure in imagining such terminal scenarios. In 2007, Alan Weisman wrote an seemingly unlikely bestseller with a bleak premise: The World Without Us, a work of speculative non-fiction mapping the topography of a suddenly depopulated Earth. Weisman’s descriptions of the unmaintained urban environment deteriorating and returning to forest are compelling, lyrical: ‘[T]he inevitable ailanthus trees have been joined by a thickening ground cover of onion grass and fuzzy lamb’s ear, accented by strands of goldenrod. In some places, the track emerges from the second stories of warehouses it once serviced into lanes of wild crocuses, irises, evening primrose, asters, and Queen Anne’s lace.’ As it happens, this passage is not speculative at all. It is a description of the High Line, an elevated railroad built to service the meat packing operations that clustered in and around Chelsea, on the west side of Manhattan, and which was shut down in 1980.
The High Line opened to the public in 2009 as a renovated ‘urban greenway’, and has been hailed as one of the great civic successes of New York under mayor Michael Bloomberg. The picture Weisman paints is a view of the ruin from several years earlier. As Chelsea began to be filled with art galleries in the early 1990s, the abandoned tracks become a popular place for illicit exploring. Joel Sternfield’s photographs of the site, published in 2001, popularized the romantic image of the gloriously overrun ruin.
When it came time to turn it into an official city park, a high-powered group of architects, designers, and landscapers were enlisted to create a stylized version of its former ‘wild’ state. The tracks were pulled up, and then selectively replaced, here and there. The wild flowers and grasses were uprooted, and replanted with foliage chosen to mimic the overgrown lushness of its earlier state. It is a folly, a tremendously popular artificial ruin.
Although a public park, in many ways the High Line seems to belong especially to the Chelsea art world – it is New York’s ‘cutting-edge’ green space. Its look is certainly familiar to the gallery-going class: we are used to culture happening in places that industry has vacated, in the empty shells.
The term ‘post-industrial’, when it was first used, was originally meant to identify an economic shift, the growth of a so-called service economy. It has since come to describe a certain look, a new design style which that economic shift has brought into being. A ‘post-industrial landscape’ is a scene of abandonment and dereliction – formerly productive factories and warehouses lying empty. But post-industrial has also come to refer to an aesthetic of reclamation. When industry moves out, information workers move in. Post-industrial is the house style of the culture industry, so much so that it is taken for granted; if you are in a place with raw girders, it is probably an art space, or at least trying to look like one.
A few miles away from the High Line, in a Queens neighbourhood filled with car repair shops, there is another patch of elevated greenery. The (geographically misnamed) Brooklyn Grange is a one-acre farm planted six stories up, on top of the old Standard Motor Building. It was started by the owners of Roberta’s and a few of their associates, and it provides produce to several restaurants, selling the remainder at a small scrappy street-level market.
It’s not the only rooftop farm in New York – urban agriculture is news throughout the country and, increasingly, throughout the world. There are books, blogs, symposia, foundations. While such a phenomenon could be easily mocked as a consumer trend – the reductio ad absurdum of a craze for the local – that trend comes out of a real and vital ecological concern. The current food system, we are frequently reminded, is unsustainable: industrialized food is a scourge.
The remedy could be called post-industrial food. Into this category we can put the earnest young makers of handcrafted chocolates and the tattooed butchers and folks planting tomatoes on top of rubbish skips. They have seen the future, it seems, and it looks bleak. But they will prosper. If and when infrastructure finally fails on a global scale, growing chard and butchering pigs will not be quaint luxuries but crucial survival skills.
The aesthetics of this movement are not so far from Matta-Clark’s programme of ad hoc occupation, but they are not that far from the glamourized decay of the High Line either. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the activity around urban farming seems to exist in that borderland between art and social activism. Fritz Haeg’s ‘Edible Estates’ (2005–ongoing) initiative – an attempt to turn lawns into productive vegetable gardens – is probably the best known. (The name is a conscious nod to Matta-Clark’s 1973 project Fake Estates.) But similar projects are proliferating. In 2010, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit hosted a symposium called ‘Urban Farming: Fiction, Fable and the Facts’. The Los Angeles collective Fallen Fruit has spent the last seven years investigating ‘new forms of located citizenship and community’. In New Orleans, the gallery kk projects has spawned the Life is Art Foundation Urban Farm.
Nicola Twilley, who covers this emerging intersection of food, art and urbanism on her blog, Edible Geography, recently wrote a post titled ‘The Return of the Agricultural Unconscious’. Its subject was the persistent rumours of ‘cow tunnels’ under the streets of New York: passageways built alongside the sewers, somewhere back in the 19th century, through which livestock was transported to slaughterhouses and packing plants. (The precursor to the original, functional, High Line, in other words.) Despite a succession of vague reference to this bit of bovine infrastructure, Twilley is forced to conclude that the cow tunnels are most likely nothing but a myth. Yet their reality, she insists, is beside the point. The repeated stories add up to a ‘shared urban fantasy’: a lost agricultural past haunting the city, and, potentially ‘a ready-made narrative to be exploited by locavore designers.’ The ‘agricultural unconscious’ of a city can be thought as a series of provocative, resonant images – trees coming up through the floorboards, herds of cattle shuffling under the sidewalk – that exist alongside the official urban history. They emerge in odd places: in unconfirmed rumours, in science fiction, and sometimes perhaps, in pizza.