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EAT THE CITY
By Robin Shulman On Sale July 10, 2012
Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Willie Morgan, a Harlem numbers man who first grows a vegetable garden as a front for his gambling joint in 1969. His story actually began during his childhood in Georgia, where he first learned to farm from his sharecropper grandparents. He came north with a generation of African Americans who would plant a new kind of agriculture in American cities. A community garden movement surged and faded, Manhattan has redeveloped, and Willie has lost one plot of land and gained another. Over decades, he has refined his techniques in skinny, shady strips of land between tenements. He has made the most desolate of landscapes into fertile land. David Selig, a beekeeper in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn who found his bees flying home colored red, like living, moving warning lights, and producing honey an untrue, electric shade between fuchsia and scarlet. “Then you freak out,” he said. It turned out the bees had been imbibing the high-fructose syrup, dyed with Red Dye No. 40, from a nearby maraschino cherry factory. The bees had discovered something in the urban environment that the beekeepers didn’t even know was there. Shortly after the city had legalized beekeeping, David is part of a new generation facing the perils and rewards of the city’s natural and unnatural world. Tom Mylan, a “born-again meat cutter,” who went to art school, but soon found himself in New York working food jobs. As part of his quest to gain an ever more complex and rustic thrill from the homemade, he began butchering whole animals for a Williamsburg, Brooklyn shop, and was dubbed a “rock star butcher” by the New York Times. He soon opened his own butcher shop, which only sources its meat from small nearby farms that raise animals in sustainable ways. He has helped build the city’s new food culture, and now he is setting his sights on a larger ambition: reforming the national meat supply. Yolene Joseph, who goes crabbing with netlike traps on a Coney Island pier with her twin sister and their children and their mother, so they can make fresh curry crab, just as they did growing up in a fishing village in Trinidad. Back then, coconut trees grew in the yard, and the crabbing boats came in selling food fresh out of the nets. Now Yolene and her family harvest their seafood from waters loaded with mercury and PCBs. It’s simply hard to believe that something living in the wild ocean could harm you. In fact, all along the edges of this city of islands, people stand like sentinels with a rod and a trap, pulling up life from the other side to sustain their families. Latif Jiji, who transformed his four-story brick townhouse on the Upper East Side into a vertical winery. He planted a grapevine that grew up all four stories from the backyard onto the roof, and organizes friends and family to harvest grapes every year out the windows and on the roof, and transforms his basement into a wine cellar, with jerry-rigged minifridge parts affixed to cupboards, to produce more than a hundred bottles of Château Latif each year. For Latif, a Jewish refugee from southern Iraq whose own father once made wine from a backyard grape vine, wine is about tradition.
Copyright © 2012 by Robin Shulman All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. www.crownpublishing.com
crow n and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks
of Random House, Inc. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Shulman, Robin. Eat the city : a tale of the fishers, trappers, hunters, foragers, slaughterers, butchers, farmers, poultry minders, sugar refiners, cane cutters, beekeepers, winemakers, and brewers who built New York / Robin Shulman. — 1st ed. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references. 1. Food supply—New York (State)—New York—History. 2. New York (N.Y.)—Social life and customs—20th century. I. Title. TX360.U63N49 2012 363. 09747—dc23 8 2012000333 ISBN 978-0-307-71905-8 eISBN 978-0-307-71907-2
pr in t e d in t he u n it e d s t a t e s o f a mer ic a
Interior map and illustrations by Chris Silas Neal Jacket design and illustration by Chris Silas Neal Jacket map by Historic Map Works LLC 135791 08642 First Edition
hard b aubles da ngling o ff t he v ine: pale, early, orange veined with green. The corn grows si x, seven feet tall, with leaves that rake your skin when you sque eze past. There are slender, fuzzy okra plants, two kinds of leafy, spreading collards, and puff y, purpled eggplants. It’s ten o’clock in Harlem on a Saturday night in June. A steady hip-hop beat thumps from a BMW parked outside the garden gate. Inside the garden, moving from the Miracle-Gro tubs to the plant beds to the toolshed and back, with a slight limp and a single-minded deftness, Willie Morgan slips bright young collard plants into the soil. “You can’t plant in the middle of the day,” he says. “It’ll wither.” Willie first began g rowing a f ruit a nd vegetable g arden as a f ront f or h is g ambling o peration. That w as bac k i n 1969, wh en he ran an illegal numbers joint in a storefront on 118th Street between Fifth and Madison, and the long stalks of corn and curling vines of tomatoes seemed like good cover. He was lithe, with an easy smile and snappy clothes: custom-made suede pa nts and cashmere coa ts h e a lso so ld a t a s eparate bou tique. Bac k t hen, almost every block of Harlem had a n umbers spot where people
THE TOMATOES ARE SMALL,
Eat the City
played t he i llicit l ocal l ottery. A n en terprising n umbers ma n— controller was the job title—had to devise ways to appear generous to the customers and legitimate to the cops. Vegetables, Willie thought, could be the answer. He went to the city’s Department of Consumer A ffairs and got a l icense to operate a g reengrocer. He bought a sc ale and set up tables in his storefront to look just like a veget able stand where he cou ld give out f ree produce as a bonus to customers. Trouble was, he didn’t have a ny vegetables. Then he came upon the idea of growing his own. Forty yea rs later, Willie has a sl ightly shy, sl ightly sly sm ile, warm eyes the same brown as his skin, a good-natured affability, and a b lack suede a pplejack c ap. He w ill remember you r phone number a nd birthday t he first t ime you t ell h im—which ma kes sense, g iven h is c areer m emorizing b ets t o avo id a pa per t rail. Then, as now, his business depends on customer relations. In his current community garden on city-owned land, he’s always glancing t oward t he g ate a nd j umping u p t o m eet so meone c alling, “Willie! I want some eggplants! I want ’em soft!” “Your corn tastes like sugar. You got some to sell to me?” “ You got a ny herbs f or carpal tunnel or for pain?” Over f our de cades, W illie h as re fined h is a gricultural t echniques in skinny, shady strips of land between tenements all over Harlem. H e r otates h is c rops w ith a p rof essional’s p recision t o take advantage of every inch of soil and every minute of sun. “I’m on my third crop of turnips!” he says one day when I visit. In the southwest corner of his current 28-by-76-foot lot, as the growing season progresses, t urnips f ollow t urnips f ollow t urnips. I n the northeast co rner, a f ter t he co rn, co llards. Bec ause t omatoes a re his best seller, he starts in at the beginning of the season, planting Early Girls in the southwest patch as the first of a su ccession of
tomato varieties that will produce a steady crop all summer long. His soil y ields z ucchinis, c abbages a nd c arrots, spicy a nd s weet peppers, stevia and basil, parsley, mint, and sage. He sells his produce to neighbors for cheap, because seeds and soil cost little and he doesn’t need to worry about marketing, storage, refrigeration, or transportation. “Fresh okra is two ninety-nine a pound in the store,” he says, raising his eyebrows at the scandal of it. “I sell it for one fifty,” he assures, and even at this discount, the farm earns him a nice supplement to his Social Security check. Willie’s mind’s eye holds maps of Harlem’s past, and he likes to recount the landscape of a h ealthy economy of vice. Walking down 120th St reet pa st g racef ul brownstones, h e p oints ou t h is own very first numbers joint, which thrived at Number 317, where he pa id a l ady to let h im work out of her l iving room. A nother numbers spot operated at 304, and the Bolivar and Tulsa bars on the corner g ave Willie a p lace to st ep i n f or a vo dka cog nac or vodka with orange juice. In those early days, he said, most people he k new were st ill wo rking so me k ind o f a j ob, a nd t here w as plenty o f m oney t o b e had f eeding p eople’s p roclivities f or r isk and reward. He wou ld go ou t i n t he e venings, ei ther t o t he c lub o r t he garden, to meet friends, take bets, and maybe put a trowel in the earth, and by day, he would give away almost all that he harvested. W hile h is c ustomers got add icted to betting, Willie got hooked on the seeds and the soil. He wou ld dust t he ea rth w ith l ime to “sweeten” it—though New York’s rubbled dirt already had high pH, unlike the red, acid Georgia ea rth he k new i n c hildhood. Ea ger to offer something special and rare, he would seek out hard-to-find seeds not listed in t he c atalogs, su ch a s red o kra, v iolet p otatoes, pu rple st ring
Eat the City
beans, and collards with dark, bluish crumpled leaves—“I always want t o g ive p eople so mething t hey cou ldn’t b uy i n t he st ore,” he notes. Friends of friends would send their favorites from their gardens and little local seed shops in Georgia and the Carolinas. He would fertilize with horse manure, when he could get it from the N YPD st ables. H e wou ld b uild h imself a sp ot o f sou thern farmland in the teeming city. Never a si mple f a rmer, W illie w as m ore o f a n a gronomistabout-town. He would strut the streets dressed in a suede j acket and pants, fondly showing off “rhinestones, shiny stuff, anything flashy.” H e h it t he n umbers b ig i n 1974 a nd o pened Bo dacious Unlimited, wh ere h e so ld c ustom-designed c lothing ma nuf actured u nder t he su pervision o f h is s eamstress m other. H e ha s photos of himself drinking with Harlem aristocrats including the legendary boxing promoter Don K ing, also a o ne-time numbers man—“Sugar, he’s the biggest promoter there is!”—and the musician Count Basie, celebrating at an after-fight party for Muhammad Ali. Since t hose d ays ma ny have f ollowed W illie’s pa th. N ow i t seems as though someone is angling to farm most every flat, open surf ace i n t he c ity. Be yond N ew York, ac ross t he cou ntry, n ew businesses will plant your yard for f ree and share the harvest, or home-deliver hoes a nd seeds a nd help you us e t hem, or build a boxed f a rm fitted to your fire escape, or engineer your roof to bear heavy c rops. Seed stores a re sold out. Community gardens have wait lists a hundred names long. Despite this sudden interest, urban farming is no passing fancy; its history is as old as the consolidated New York City. As l ate a s 1880, Brooklyn a nd Q ueens were t he t wo biggest vegetable-producing cou nties i n t he en tire cou ntry. “ Th finest e
farmlands in A merica,” one observer w rote, “ in f ull v iew of the Atlantic Ocean.” Outer-borough farmers trundled their peppers and corn and apples to the Manhattan market by boa t and used the copious ma nure of c ity horses to f ertilize t heir c rops. L ocal farmers avoided cheap, durable crops such as wheat—which could be planted at a distance—and concentrated on expensive, fragile, and perishable fruits and vegetables that had to be produced near a market, setting up a m odel f or what is ha rvested around cities to this day. As New York developed and its land steadily fi lled with buildings, growing vegetables became a ma rker of crisis, during wars, recessions, a nd depressions. O ver more t han a cen tury, l and f or agriculture ha s e xpanded a nd r olled bac k a gain a nd a gain i n a dizzying reformat of the cityscape. Tens of thousands of people and thousands of lots have turned to agriculture as a way to deal with u nused l and a nd f ood shortages at e very new nad ir i n t he city’s ragged cycle of boom and bust. The idea of the urban garden first caught on just as local farms were disappearing, during a recession in the 1890s, when a group purchased vacant lots f or t he hungry to t ill. In 1917, as war ravaged Europe a nd its fa rmland, Pre sident Woodrow Wilson appealed to every man, woman, and child with access to ground to plant. “ So f a r a s p ossible,” added t he p resident o f t he N ational War Garden Commission, “all food should be grown in the immediate neighborhood of its place of ultimate use.” Dutiful Manhattanites planted “all higgledy-piggledy”—in truth, their efforts were a mateurish. People dumped seeds i nto t he ea rth at a ll t he wrong times, and so close together that few plants could survive. After the stock market crash of 1929, the city got organized. Gardens were set up at sites throughout New York, each staffed by
Eat the City
two e xpert gardeners issuing seeds a nd r igid planting schedules to men who rolled up their shirtsleeves and women who hiked up their g ingham d resses. By t he m id-1930s, t hey had p lanted five thousand gardens producing more than a million pounds of food. During World War II, regular Americans all over the country g rew m ore t han 40 p ercent o f t he na tion’s f resh veget ables in Victory G ardens. Cabbages a nd corn p oked out of t he plaza of Rockefeller Center, bushy greens took over Manhattan backyards, and some people even commuted to other boroughs to plant and weed and harvest. The Jacob Ruppert Brewery on the Upper East Side ran advertisements urging, “Remember, ‘V’ stands f or Vegetables . . . and for Victory.” Unknown to federal administrators, and even to many chroniclers of the times, an underground culture of gardening continued long past the various government mandates, as immigrants in skinny, humid tenements turned rusting tomato cans and wooden soap a nd c heese box es i nto p lanters f or t omatoes, eg gplants, beans, and corn. Vegetables sprout in the city when food prices suddenly soar, when incomes drop, and when buildings fall down and fail to be built bac k up, leav ing behind t hat rarest of u rban commodities: space. They grow when influxes of people come from the country, think to raise f ood, and k now how to goad i t into maturity. A ll of these factors converged in Willie Morgan’s late 1960s Harlem. And there was also a new scourge destroying the fabric of a neighborhood, even as it created new possibilities for agriculture. Fire was sweeping Harlem and beyond, creating a c ity of vacant lots. In 1978, in a measure against blight, the city launched Operation GreenThumb, to make vacant lots available to gardeners. Willie signed up.
Over t he yea rs, W illie ha s m oved f rom p lot t o p lot a t t he whim of c ity ad ministrators who dec ide to de velop l and he ha s cultivated but who a lways seem to consent to finding h im a replacement. W hen the city f ounders, he gets more space f or vegetables; when the city booms, he gives it up. His current garden, on 122nd S treet n ear Eig hth A venue, is a ver dant wo nder i n a neighborhood that has been urban-renewed, burned out, abandoned, rebu ilt, a nd half way re developed. O ver decades, brownstones have been renovated; new condominiums have risen. Still, for yea rs, t he only nearby places to get p rovisions at night a re a Popeye’s Chicken, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a few delis that reek of cat pee, a liquor store. And Willie’s.
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