Thursday, October 28, 2010

"go gentrify the dark side, baby"

It's one of the sad ironies of the real post-college world that if you are young and progressive, chances are you're working/interning for more or less no $$, and chances are that your only (urban) living options (short of mom and dad) involve moving in to lower-income minority neighborhoods. Thus some of the people most likely to be aware of (and troubled by) gentrification tend to be the ones who get it started, paving the way for the young professionals, who make things comfortable for the couples who treat their dogs like children, who provide business for the "dachshund spas and PBR-swilling butchers" (thanks to a particularly clever craigslist post for that one). By the time you see a white baby in a stroller, it's all over.

With all this in mind, I set out to find a more long-term living situation about a month ago. My office sits on the border between Bedford-Stuyvesant (historically African-American) and Bushwick (predominately Puerto Rican and Dominican), and my budget pretty much limited me to those two neighborhoods anyway. (You can rent a 2-bedroom apartment in some major cities for what it costs to rent a room in a shared loft in NYC. One candidate for governor is running under the umbrella of The Rent is Too Damn High Party. While his candidacy is not particularly serious, his issue and his facial hair certainly are.)

As I considered my options, I asked for input from a couple of my co-workers (both African-American and long-time area residents). My final decision came down to a place in BedStuy (where I was told that proximity to the precinct did not necessarily equal safety) and one in "the dark side" of Bushwick (so named because it is primarily residential/industrial, and not particularly well lit at night). I chose Bushwick, so, in the words of one of my advisors, I'm off to "gentrify the dark side, baby".

How do I feel about that?

Not as bad as I expected, for a couple of reasons. First, neighborhoods are always in flux. Bushwick traces it's written history back to a deal between Dutch settlers and the Lenape Native Americans, and has undergone English, German, and Italian incarnations, to name a few. A healthy response to gentrification is not trying to keep neighborhoods ethnically homogeneous, but ensuring that working-class neighborhoods remain affordable for those who grew up there. I'm proud to say that my organization was originally founded for this purpose and continues to work to ensure that low-income folks can live and work in North Brooklyn. Secondly, I'm living in one of the communities that a lot of my clients come from. I still disagree with the folks who are taking advantage of cheap rent in ethnic neighborhoods in Brooklyn only to sleep there while working, shopping, and basically living in Manhattan. But my situation is different. Since I started working I've walked through BedStuy to work most mornings, and will try to continue to walk from my new place in Bushwick (although anyone who's seen me outdoors in below 50 degrees is rightfully skeptical). I'm interested in being here. And finally - I'm living in a former yarn factory converted to loft apartments, so I'm not technically displacing anyone, except perhaps the previous, most likely hipster, residents.

A note on the building (as it is the likely source of future blog inspiration). It is. Incredibly. Hipster. Asymmetrical haircuts, cheap cigarettes, and big, unnecessary glasses everywhere (except my apartment, as far as I can tell). Apparently some of the residents actually tried to secede from Brooklyn (their complaint: the destructive economic forces of development) but failed to do so because they couldn't find a wealthy donor to buy the building and turn it over to the residents.

Yes, you read that right.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


The scene: a planning meeting for a non-profit about an upcoming event to promote access to healthy food in one of New York's lower-income minority neighborhoods.

The characters: me, one of the other volunteers - a young woman we shall call "A" (mostly because I forgot her name), and Mark (who doesn't say anything, but he was there).

The exchange:
A: [to me] So, what do you do?

Me: I work for a small non-profit. Our clients are low-income job seekers and I screen them for public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid and help them apply if they qualify.

A: [excited] Oh! You've have to tell them that they can use their stamps at the farmers' markets!

Me: Yeah, I'm pretty excited about that myself! I'll be getting food stamps in a couple of weeks and I'm looking forward to using the Health Bucks program [NYC initiative that gives you $2 extra for every $5 of your food stamps you use at certain markets].

A: [taken aback] Isn't your organization ashamed that you have to use food stamps?
The message: Working to help poor people = good, more power to you. Sharing some of their lived experience...umm... [shuffle feet, look at the ground].

Once upon a time I guess I thought the problem of well-intentioned, wealthy outsiders "helping" the poor while remaining isolated in their compounds and 4-wheel drives was only a problem in the developing world. Surely those fighting poverty in the US faced fewer barriers of wealth, culture, privilege, safety, geographical proximity...surely they would actually know some poor people.


On slow afternoons in the office I've been reading the book All You Can Eat: How hungry is America? by NYC anti-hunger advocate Joel Berg. My favorite part so far was a chart comparing views on welfare and poverty in the political Right and Left. After highlighting different understandings of the causes of poverty, attitudes towards entitlement etc., the chart ends with "People who make poverty policy spend very little - or no - actual time with poor people".

This, of course, was in both columns.

"A" is no poverty policy-maker (thankfully), but she was in a low income community with the intention of helping. Yet I remain skeptical about how much "help" anyone from a privileged background can offer when they've never even considered the possibility of living a bit like the people they serve.

Monday, October 25, 2010

a granola in Times Square

This past Saturday afternoon I set out to find something every bit as likely to exist as the Fountain of Youth: a pair of boots that are both cute and comfortable for under $80. My search took me to one of my least favorite parts of Manhattan - 42nd St/Times Sq/34th St./Herald Square. This area is perpetually clogged with foreign tourists excited to shop in stores they can't normally go to, and American tourists excited to shop in stores they go to all the time at home (but Old Navy in New York City is just so much more exciting!) It wasn't long before, boots or no boots (in this case, no boots), I needed to leave.

When Kat asked me how I was adjusting to the city, I realized that most days I hardly even think about it. I've tried to keep my everyday life relatively small. I can walk to work from where I'm staying now, and I limited my search for a new place to a 2 mile radius of my office (although something called "winter" might put an end to my pedestrian habit soon). The grocery store and laundromat are just around the corner. It is manageable. I've started to recognize people, and this afternoon a group of older adults hanging out on the sidewalk who I walk by every afternoon talked to me for the first time.

But then there are moments in downtown Manhattan or while navigating a subway station at rush hour that I do get overwhelmed. Two kinds of overwhelmed, actually.

The first is what I felt on my boot search, a downright ecclesiastical sense of futility when surrounded by thousands of people working (if they're lucky) jobs they (usually) don't enjoy to earn money so they can buy stuff (lots of it) to impress each other, and then start the whole thing over the next day (to what end?). In those moments, everything is so meaningless it hurts.

On the other end of the spectrum are the occasional encounters with strangers that remind me that every person is indeed a human being with a story. Sitting on a bus one evening, I watched a child's curiosity about an architectural model the man next to her was carrying turn into a conversation about community art and the future of Prospect Park involving a third of the passengers. It might seem insignificant, but in a city where everyone is so close together all the time yet trying to avoid interacting, seeing strangers engage is something special. In those moments, everything is so meaningful it hurts.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Living in New York requires a few things: a fast-paced walk, the ability to avoid eye contact unless absolutely necessary, and a basic repertoire of Jewish words. This last one includes words like mensch (a good human being), kvetch (to complain a lot), and yenta (gossipy old woman). My two (Jewish) co-workers recently treated me to a five minute display of utter disbelief that I did not know what lox was. When I saw (non-Jewish) Mark a few hours later, I got the same reaction. (Since you probably don't know either, it is smoked salmon commonly eaten on bagels, as in [Brooklyn accent] "Get me a bagel with cream cheese and some lox").

But my favorite of the new words in my everyday vocabulary would have to be schlep: to drag or haul an object; to make a tedious journey (thanks, wikipedia). It's not like I didn't know the word before, but I do have a whole new appreciation for the toil it represents now that I have to hand-carry my whole life (my laundry to and from the laundromat, my groceries from the market...).

It's difficult to understand when one has access to a vehicle. Indeed, after a recent weekend in the Catskills involving a rental car, my heart sank when I got on the train back to the city and realized that I would have to carry home the basket of butternut squashes, 10 lbs of apples, jars of jams and chutneys, and bottle of wine that had seemed like such a good idea when I had personal, motorized transportation. Of course, that night there was a huge thunderstorm and I had to make a walking, above-ground transfer between subways to make my schlep all the more enjoyable.

But my best schlep yet would have to be this evening. This time next week I'll be moving into my new apartment (hurray!). My new room comes with a desk, so of course I needed a desk chair. I found one on craigslist, emailed the owner, and arranged a pick-up time. Only then did I think about how I would get it home. My options were:
  1. Try to take it on the bus (at rush hour, and carry it the rest of the way home)
  2. Take it on the subway - which, due to the fact that there aren't many trains in my part of Brooklyn, would mean going all the way to Manhattan, hauling the thing through a subway station and getting on a train back to Brooklyn (at rush hour, followed by carrying it the rest of the way home)
  3. Just go ahead and carry it home.
Obviously I chose #3. I spent this evening carrying a reasonably sturdy office chair 1.6 miles from it's previous home to my current one. While designed for ergonomic sitting, there is no comfortable way to carry said piece of furniture long distances. I hope I looked as ridiculous as I felt.

But I did it. And returned my library books and purchased the bunch of kale I needed for my dinner from a farm stand run by local youth on the way. All this on a day that started out with me waking up 3 minutes before I had planned on leaving my apartment and managing to shower, look cute, and still arrive 5 minutes early for my meeting (although, to be fair, much divine intervention was requested and received with regard to the timing of my trains).

Now pardon me. My sense of accomplishment and I must go negotiate the purchase (and subsequent schlepping) of a 6 ft. lamp.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


There's a lot of hand-wringing in the sustainable agriculture/food systems/foodie movement(s) about the US's declining numbers of farmers. While most of our grandparents or great-grandparents had at least a backyard garden, the percentage of Americans with farming as occupation is now less than the percentage of the population in prison (which, of course, also says something about our criminal justice system). However, the decline in the number of farmers has seen a corresponding rise in employment in other areas of the food system, from the farmworkers who pick the tomatoes to the servers who put the bowl of gazpacho in front of you in the restaurant. (Full disclosure: a lot of this post is information gathered from Anna Lappe's presentation at the panel I attended this evening.)

But in the foodie world, it's all about the farmers. It appears that (for those with the education and means to be "foodies" in the first place) once you've made peace with your farmer (buying your produce from local, sustainable small-scale operations) you're off the hook. Cutting out all those involved in the industrial food system from planting to plate renders those millions just as invisible to those who profess a deep interest in food and agriculture as they are to those who never think twice when reaching for the Cheetos.

Social justice concerns were my entree into this whole "food" thing, so it's frustrating to see issues like pesticide protection, farmworker housing, safety in food processing plants, and compensation rates for farmworkers and servers (the two occupations not subject to minimum wage laws) given so little attention.

At a panel on local food this evening I asked the participants (a chef, community garden organizer, and author) what they thought were some of the most important worker justice concerns overlooked by the food movement. They mentioned the need for basic awareness of what these jobs involve (recommending the book Working in the Shadows: A year of doing the jobs (most) Americans won't do by Gabriel Thompson) and support for the campaigns of groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (and I would add the genius UFW campaign, Take Our Jobs). But my favorite suggestion was to work on broadening/shifting our definition of "farmer".

One of the most memorable dinner-table conversations of the year on the farm (significant not just because it was our first meal cooked by a certain five-star chef, although that didn't hurt) concerned what we, the interns, would actually call ourselves. The farm website, ATFP brochures etc. labeled us farmers, and yet an honest inventory of the work we did (weeding, harvesting, washing, packing and delivering produce) had us feeling much more like the farmworkers picking strawberries and weeding celery in the fields around us. By the end of the the mushroom-asparagus risotto (pictured here just because it was so delicious that I have a picture) we had resolved to call ourselves farmworkers.
Tonight, one of the panelists suggested the opposite. Why don't we use the term "farmer" to describe those who work the land. Simply owning or managing a piece of agricultural property does not make one a farmer. The decline in the number of farmers would certainly be less precipitous if we included those who spend the most time growing our food.

There's another possibility here too -- that producing food industrially has come close to eliminating the farmer. In Oxnard I noticed how infrequently the word "farmer" was actually used to describe anyone involved in agriculture. There were growers (landowners and/or managers) and farmworkers (those who planted, tended, and harvested the crops), but very few farmers. There were only a handful of men (and even fewer women) who either (in the case of the growers) took the time to know and work the land or were given the luxury (in the case of the farmworkers) of developing a sustained relationship with a particular place.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


There's nothing like having someone from my previous life come to visit to make me feel like maybe, just maybe, I'm starting to know this new place. Kat and I had one beautiful fall day together to explore the city.

We started out with a walk across the Brooklyn BridgeThe Statue of Liberty is in the background somewhere. I think we managed to block her entirely. Manhattan is on the right.

After exploring the South Street Seaport area (where I work at the market on Sundays) and walking by the WTC site, we headed to Central Park for a picnic...
...followed by a couple hours at an exhibit on urban agriculture at the New School. We then made a few purchases at a farmers market...
...before meeting up with Mark for a wonderful dinner at a vegetarian restaurant in Greenwich Village. Getting to be the tour guide made me a feel a little more settled here. I was only completely unable to find one of the places we wanted to go, and only sent Kat to the far end of Queens instead of Manhattan once. I must be really getting the hang of this.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

when I grow up

Every now and then, usually following hours-long conversations about people and how they work, my mom will suggest that I might make a good therapist. I’ve never ruled it out as a possible third or fourth career (or, to be more realistic considering the rate with which I’m currently moving through occupations, twenty-somethingth), but I’ve also never really seen myself following the family line of work.

But, almost by accident and feeling very unprepared, I do find myself doing something very much like counseling. I have clients. I ask them questions about some of the most private parts of their lives (Are you pregnant? Who are you living with?). They know nothing about my life and yet give me intimate details of theirs (What’s your marital status? Do you have any monthly medical bills?). In our brief interactions we talk about very personal things: family and money. Some of the most difficult conversations are around the intersection of the two (Do you receive alimony? Are you paying child support?) They tell stories, a lot of which appear bleak and hopeless to me on the other side of the desk. There is a lot of repetition from one to the next. I offer what advice I can, but it never seems like enough in light of the situations my clients are faced with.

One of my cuter and more insightful childhood comments was my answer to the question, “What does your daddy [a psychiatrist who works in counseling] do?:

“He listens to peoples’ hearts”.

I was, of course, referring to the stethoscope that we would occasionally get to play with. I was also right.

If you had asked me at that same age what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered that I wanted to do what my mommy or daddy did.

And now, in a small and imperfect way, I am.

Monday, October 4, 2010


(Warning - I also just posted this same piece on the Abundant Table blog)

Pulling on baggy work pants and rain boots this evening to take out the trash, I got hit by an extra-strong wave of farm nostalgia. My spaghetti sauce could use some fresh basil, my body could use a few hours of field work, and my spirit misses the company of my four sisterfriends.

Having boots on my feet also reminds me of a promise to update the Abundant Table community on my whereabouts post cross-continent move. After a roadtripping through some of the most beautiful parts of the US (you should have seen the look on the face of the woman selling tomatoes and cucumbers at the farmers market in Casper, Wyoming when I asked if I could pay for my selection in fresh California lemons and avocados!) and spending a few weeks resting and catching up with my parents at my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm in Lancaster, PA, I finally ended up in New York City a little less than a month ago. I just started my fourth week of working on the transition from the farm to the office, from the comfy world of flannel and rubber boots to the ambiguities of “business casual”, from “whenever we’re up til whenever it’s done” to a 9-5.

I’m doing a one-year AmeriCorps position with a community-based organization in North Brooklyn. For the first and final four months, my job is screening our clients (mostly low-income job seekers) for eligibility for public benefits (mostly food stamps and Medicaid). It’s a little like case work – talking to folks to find out what their situation is, helping them fill out applications, letting them know what offices to go to, and following up to see how things went. While the work itself is worlds different from the farm, I find myself continuing to wrestle with one of the fundamental questions posed at the Abundant Table: how to ensure that everyone has access to healthy food.

January-April things will look very different. My co-workers and I will be running a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assessment) center, helping our clients file their taxes for free and making sure they get all the credits and refunds they qualify for. I’m enjoying my supervisor and co-workers, my interaction with clients, and (ever the nerd) the challenge of learning the endlessly complicated (and dysfunctional) system of public benefits in the U.S.

But as I couldn’t quite handle a complete break with the world of farming and sustainable food systems (and in order to supplement the AmeriCorps stipend that leaves me eligible for many of the benefits I recommend for my clients), I found work once a week as a Market Hand at the New Amsterdam Market. The market is an exciting effort to re-introduce a public market (much like a farmers market, only with more of an emphasis on regionally-sourced prepared foods like cheeses and pies) to New York’s market district in the south seaport area of Manhattan. It’s also an exciting chance for me to interact with vendors, customers, and the odd farm apprentice, and occasionally talk my way into a free loaf of fresh bread or half a bottle of good NY wine.

My free time includes a shameful amount of getting lost, a (thus far fruitless) search for a permanent place to live, a good library, a church community like the Abundant Table, and an affordable place to practice yoga, and vicariously getting my Masters in Food Studies through Mark. I’m enjoying an incredible array of apples, slowly finding new friends, and the ever-fascinating diversity of New Yorkers (my walk 1.5 mile walk to work, for example, takes me from hipster-art-school land through a Hasidic Jewish community and past the projects).

This time tomorrow I’ll also be enjoying the company of a certain Katerina, which reminds me that though my room may be 7x9 (and yes, that measurement is in feet), I always love friendly faces from out of town. It helps with the nostalgia, you know…