‘Eat the City’ Author Robin Shulman

A conversation about finding nature and community in the most unlikely places

A city is a living natural place. You may not think it to look at it, but the City, New York, teems with more naturally sustained life than some of our Central Valley farmland.

And if people take anything away from her new book Eat the City (subtitled A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Can Cutters, Bee Keepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York) author and journalist Robin Shulman hopes they’ll “see the city they live in — whether it’s New York or anywhere else — in a very different way, and understand its productive capacities.”

The book, a thorough and engaging 300-page exploration of urban agricultural life, shines a light on the hidden agricultural world that has always existed in the metropolis — growing and thriving, pushing its way up through the cracks in the sidewalk.

Robin Shulman at home in New York. (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)

After stints living and working as a journalist in Washington and the Middle East and in Berkley, Shulman returned to New York, but felt detached from the city. “I guess I’ve travelled a lot but I always come home to New York,” she says. Amid her foreign corespondent travels, Shulman has long called New York, where she’s now lived consistently for the past several years, home. “People from all your former lives pass through,” she says of the city. “I’ve lived all over the place and I don’t think there’s people from anywhere I’ve lived that haven’t at some point called me and said they’re coming through New York. So it’s kind of nice like that.”

Even during her time in Berkley from 2000-03 Shulman was not the sort of food obsessive who you’d think might tackle a book like Eat the City. Of the food scene in Berkley she says, “I was completely oblivious to it. I think I heard of Alice Waters in my last year there. I wasn’t at all interested in food then. I was pretty focused on working as a reporter in the Middle East.”

Shulman spoke with me by phone from New York City. This is an excerpt of our conversation.

TTG: In the prologue to the book you talk about your experiences as a college student in the East Village in the 1990s, watching a community garden sprout up from what had previously been a needle-strewn wasteland. But that isn’t when you began writing the book. When did you?

RS: It was when I moved back to New York City in 2005. I had been reporting on the Middle East on and off for years and had spent a lot of time reporting on conflicts. I came back to New York and I was kind of looking for a way to fall in love with the city again. I just started noticing things around me that were changing and one of them was food. I had come back and I was living on the same block that I had lived on in the early nineties, where I watched the people around me create this garden and plant all this food and essentially transform the block. All over the neighborhood the same thing was happening. People had created community gardens and those gardens were really a force that was changing street life in the neighborhood.

A community garden being planted at the site of a former brewery at 92nd and 2nd, May 1973 (source: NARA)

When I came back [to the block], people who were new to the neighborhood who were living in these new condo buildings that had been built on top of some of the gardens were coming in and complaining about the roosters. They didn’t want to live in the middle of Manhattan and then wake up to a rooster in the middle of the night. They wanted the roosters gone. And soon enough they were. The roosters ended up being dispatched to an upstate farm sanctuary.

So the roosters that kind of awakened me to the idea of producing food in the city were no longer in the city. But I was meeting new people who were my age, who were young professionals who were interested in keeping chickens as backyard pets. I met different people — like a real estate agent and a college administrator who had a chicken coop in their backyard and they were interested in expanding into a full-fledged urban egg farm — and I started to wonder why this was happening. It seemed that one way of producing food in the city and one vision of urban life was disappearing, and something new was being created at the same time.

I started to think about the other kinds of food production that had come and gone from city life and other industries and personal preoccupations that had shaped the landscape and neighborhoods and shaped the places I was passing by in the city and that’s when I started investigating and learning more about the history, and I became really fascinated.

But I think another component of it was that I had come back from reporting on the Middle East and I was feeling pretty disheartened about some of what I had seen. I wanted to find something to write about that was more positive and productive and generative.

Producing food in unlikely places — in an inhospitable environment — seemed to be exactly that.

The ways that people come together around food and create community were really important to me. I wanted to show that writing about the small ways that people create small things in their lives — the way people live — was just as important as writing about the dramatic ways that they die.

The book is full of these rich historical details. How much of your time was spent in research and how much was spent in contemporary interviews?

Even with the historical stuff I tried to do a lot of interviews, because I was really interested in writing the stories that hadn’t yet been written. So I tried to find people who were old, who had long memories, who could tell me about different kinds of food production that had disappeared or are less apparent in the city now. So I tried to do oral history as much as I could. But I would say it was about half-and-half in terms of how I spent my time reporting the book. I spent a lot of time talking to people and I spent a lot of time reading about things.

A lot of these things had never been written about before. It’s not like you could just pick up a book about the history of winemaking in New York City. As far as I know there aren’t even really academic articles on the topic. A lot of it had to be oral history, or I had to find a journal or [other primary source] document.

What did you unearth that most surprised you?

US Coast Survey of New York City, 1874 (a very large, detailed version is available here)

In doing this research I kind of got a sense of the city in different eras. Even though I had a hunch that I would find this, I was kind of surprised at how much agricultural production existed in the city until very recently. I was surprised at the extent of farming in Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx and Staten Island in the late 1800s up to the 1880s. Up to the 1880s Brooklyn and Queens were the biggest vegetable producing counties in the entire country. Just the landscape that brought with it kind of astonished me. Farms in the boroughs were essentially feeding the city into the Twentieth century. Even in the 1940s there were still farms left in upper Manhattan, feeding the tall buildings that had grown up around them.

I was also surprised at the extent to which people continued to produce food even after the city became totally inhospitable to it and the creative ways people innovated to make it happen — whether it was beekeeping or winemaking or planting beans and tomatoes in soap boxes and putting them out on the fire escape. I didn’t really expect what I found. I thought I was going to trace a simple linear history where the city was agricultural and then that was gone; and then the city was industrial and then that was gone — one where food production had been first agricultural and then industrial and then mainly disappeared.

But what I found was that it had always been everywhere. Even after it was forced into the margins of the city it still persisted.

Sure there is a strain of hipster-foodism in the city that you can see at the Brooklyn Flea every weekend. But did you feel that much of the contemporary urban farming world besides that was hidden?

I found people living off the water in ways that I really didn’t expect. And I’m sure that has always been the case. People live off whatever they can find. In poor neighborhoods, neighborhoods of immigrants, people have always planted — and still do so now — community gardens and window box gardens and backyard gardens. I found people raising animals. Raising birds in their backyards or in their basements for consumption. People raising rabbits and butchering them to eat.

There is this idea that food production in cities is this new trend, but in fact, all kinds of people have been doing it and continue to do it. If you look you’ll find it.

What really surprised me was that winemaking was this straight line in the book as well. It wasn’t like it stopped after the early 1900s, or after Prohibition.

There is this long tradition of winemaking in New York City. And that has diminished — its heyday was probably during Prohibition and it slowly diminished over time as immigrant Italians have receded from view and that generation has become older, but still now you can go to neighborhoods of Italians, Albanians, Romanians, even Germans, in the city and you’ll find people making their own wine. Russians make their own vodka. All kinds of people continue to make hard liquor illegally.

We have plenty of stories here in California about all the grapes that shipped out to the East Coast cities during Prohibition, but in the book you’re talking about people making wine like this throughout the sixties and seventies right up until now,  just at home.

I went with people to the Brooklyn Terminal Market in September to be there when the California grapes came in. If you spend the day standing there it’s just SUV after SUV pulling up and people filling up their trunks with these big boxes of California grapes and going home to make wine. Often there’s an old grandfather who’s part of the family who’s coming to select the grapes because he’s the authority and he will direct the technique, although he no longer does it himself, he’s telling his younger relatives what to do.

The grape sellers know their customers and have known generations of their customers and everybody’s angling for a special deal because, you knew my grandmother. It’s kind of an amazing thing. I was surprised to see how that tradition continued so strongly.

Did you follow connections between NYC sellers and California Growers?

Sal Meglio for years worked as a grape seller in Brooklyn, delivering grapes to Brooklyn Italians as part of a family business owned by his uncle. And they were getting their grapes from a man named Angelo Papagni. And I actually called him in California; he’s older now and wasn’t able to come to the phone, but I did talk with his son about the old days of delivering grapes to Brooklyn. He and his father used to come out to Brooklyn from California and kind of inspect the grape delivery and meet their customers — Sal’s family and other customers like them in Brooklyn — and make the rounds with them and meet the people who were making wine from their grapes.

I think each different grape seller in the city had their own sources for grapes and those relationships also lasted generations. There would be farms in California that were essentially producing grapes for the Brooklyn market.

You start the book with a chapter on honey. Is there a reason why it was important to start with the honey bee?

I really liked that way of starting it because people don’t think of cities as natural places. Especially a city like New York that is so built up and so densely constructed, people don’t think of it as a place where there is a lot of nectar available for a honey bee. What I just loved about that chapter was that I started to view the city as full of natural places and kind of saw the cracks in the urban build up — all the places where bees could find flowers in everything from all the street trees that you don’t necessarily notice or think about that are blooming with flowers at different times in the summer to the rooftop flowers and window box flowers and traffic medians that have flowers. So I loved the idea of starting to view the city as a bee does — as all the prospects and possibilities for gathering nectar. Through that I came to see the city as this natural place, throbbing with life everywhere.

And I hadn’t seen it that way before. I wanted to share that with the reader and bring people in and show them a landscape that’s a little bit transformed from what they notice passing through it.

It’s a great irony that the city can support that life and has that nectar so that bees can be prosperous there, and is more natural in many ways than farmland that in some cases cannot support bees.

I do love that contrast. So much of industrial agriculture is based on mono-crops. So where you have gigantic crops of, say, soy beans, if you put honey bees there, which are needed to pollinate the soy beans, they only get enough nectar to survive in the brief period those plants are in bloom, and they’ll starve without enough nectar for the whole season because all of the crops in the whole region — in the radius where bees can fly to — are soy bean crops.

Essentially commercial bee keepers have to supplement their diet either by moving them deliberately to another crop just to feed them or by feeding them high fructose corn syrup to get them through the season because bees need a steady diet of different kinds of nectar. So actually an urban environment can be more sustaining for bees. It’s kind of amazing.

Have people raised concerns about eating food produced in urban areas?

People have been asking me, what about producing vegetables in the city? Aren’t there so many toxic pollutants in the city? Aren’t people concerned about that? Isn’t the honey in the city polluted? And some studies have shown that vegetables produced in urban areas actually have fewer harmful chemicals than vegetables produced in rural areas or in suburban areas that are close to toxic chemical plants or massive quantities of fertilizer or other things that can impact what’s in the vegetable. So in limited ways, cities actually can be better for producing healthier foods.