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Urban living redefines relationships

June 26, 2009

by dna strands in my hair

Agriculture, the purveyor of one of our most basic needs for life, is divorced from the urban living environment. For some time now, the American lifestyle has stagnated with a tunnel-view focus directed at establishments, technologies and the race to catch a bus or train to get to work on time.

When you think of your environment, what do you see? I imagine myself walking out the front door and facing the morning traffic on the Staten Island Expressway. If I walk west along the service road, I hit a patch of trees, a mini-forest the size of two blocks-by-two blocks. If I continue walking northwest I hit a bigger patch of trees with a small farm, the size of one of those new developments that cram twelve homes on what had been a plot for two moderate-sized detached houses. If I walk east from my front door, I would dodge some dog poop and step on sputum or broken glass on my way to Willowbrook Park, where there is a pond, gaggles of giggling geese and a carousel.

Between my house and the park, however, is one campus of the many within City University of New York, and a public library. There is a Starbucks, a bank, a strip mall with horrible neon lights, cars honking and breaks screeching as they approach the one stoplight with a camera. There are no bike lanes or permission for biking inside the park. There are no greenmarkets nearby, only fast food chains and mom-and-pop shops that use I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.

Edward S. Casey wrote, “Just as place is animated by the lived bodies that are in it, a lived place animates these same bodies as they become emplaced there.” There is a relationship between the place beyond my front door and myself that is reciprocal in its nature—I become separated from the processes that are so basic to human life, because I am surrounded by a world of superfluous establishment. When I’m not walking around, I am sitting in one of the farting express buses with other people heading to school, work or to a change of busied scenery — from crowded mall parking lot to the flooding river of Times Square; from South Shore mansion to Little Italy or smoke shops on Christopher Street.

Do we consider ourselves travelers, or commuters on really long escalators that sometimes work? The point of escalators is to get you to the top faster. The point of a car is to get you there faster without getting wet. The rationale behind having an even bigger vehicle is that it is used to fit more groceries; the psychology behind it is that a larger vehicle assuages that displacing break from private property, which happens when you move beyond the front lawn and enter public space. As civilization builds, it creates new needs that continue to remove us from our basic ones — at the very least, it redefines our need-based relationships.

And where do the groceries we cram into our cars come from? A warehouse. A slaughterhouse. A farm. Not like the mini-farm in the mini-forest by my house where a man in his 60s rakes and plucks at the earth every few days. If you shop at the bigger chains, the products come from bigger farms animated by the lived bodies of migrant workers or eco-conscious college students when they are “taking a break from school.” A French-tipped mani-pedi wouldn’t last a day at a farm even if gloves were worn. If we each took turns growing produce in our mani-pedied backyards or front lawns, would the number of obese Americans still outnumber the amount of fat Americans?

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter is not butter, and it’s not O.K. It’s not O.K. to lie to ourselves about eating better by eating diet or substituting the real deal for something “just like it.” The body is starved for nutrition but abundantly filled with calories, our basic needs are not being met and are being replaced with artificial needs instead. The practice of pushing agriculture away from my dinner table to China, or canning fish fillet from Lake Victoria in Africa reminds me of the childhood bully who steals his classmate’s lunch, who then has nothing to eat (See Truthdig’s “Obese Outnumber Starving People Globally”). My relationship to the space of my dinner table relates to the Tanzanian fisherman who can’t afford his own catch.

Toaster not working? Toss it out and buy a new one, our political and economic environment demands us. Once tossed, the toaster will end up in a landfill in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Virginia. The traveling toaster! Once upon a time beyond my front door, my nostrils collapsed shut into the septum to block the stench of the Staten Island landfill. Today the landfill is being transformed into a “green space,” complete with bike trails, open water for canoeing, a memorial site for 9/11 (and mafia victims). Land is often recycled in surprising ways.

What was once a riverbed through which fish migrated was turned into a landfill, was turned into a park and memorial site, which might be sold to a developer who will build a parking lot for the grocery, gourmet toaster shop or housing community.  Replacing foods with substitutes, substituting farm space for landfill space, for green space and development space: it all goes in cycles, and each revolution takes urban-dwellers ever further from their basic needs. Perhaps, as we become more conscious about consequences, we may learn from previous cycles and learn to create an environment that fosters a healthy and lasting relationship between us and our needs.

  1. Julienne permalink
    July 29, 2009 8:40 am

    Interesting thoughts. Your concern with our relationship with food is quite interesting. We’ve all heard the adage, “You know the name of your mechanic, but not your farmer.” Just this week, the City of Buffalo passed a law allowing people to keep up to 5 chickens in their private residence. Maybe this will help us see an increase in the amount of local providers, but I don’t know.

  2. nikki permalink
    September 10, 2009 11:19 pm

    Are you in the Buffalo area and know anyone raising chickens? Thanks for sharing such interesting legislature. I’m curious to see what the regulations are since e-coli contamination in vegetables have been traced to water leaking from chicken coups and animal stalls into vegetable beds. What if e-coli or other bacteria seep into the water system?

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