In Eat the City, journalist Robin Shulman tells stories of fishers, foragers, farmers, butchers, slaughterers, poultry-minders, sugar refiners, cane cutters, brewers, and winemakers who have shaped New York City, and shows that across America, food production has always shaped city life. Here, she shares how she first became interested.
One day when I was 17, I turned onto my Manhattan block and found a man sitting on my stoop, sticking a needle into his arm. His face was familiar; he was a frequent visitor to the drug mart on the vacant land next to my building, where the demolition of 12 adjacent buildings had created a grassy plain. There was always a salesman standing in some shadow chanting the names of a heroin brand like an incantation: “Satan, Satan, Satan.” I would peer out my window as people traded wads of cash for vials and then nodded off in the trash. Gunshots and sirens sounded almost every night. Sometimes a regular would disappear, and I’d wonder if he or she was still alive.
But one day, I noticed a dozen people next door shoveling and sweeping the vacant land. Venturing into the yard for the first time, I smelled earth, along with stale, spilt beer, and felt the high grasses brush against my calves, prickling like needles.
“We’re going to clean it up, fence it off, and plant it,” said my neighbor, leaning on his rake. I put on thick gloves to shovel loads of vials and syringes into heavy-duty garbage bags.
By late summer, the place developed a weirdly bucolic look, like an unevenly balding country heath. New people started to venture in—a lady planted seedlings, kids kicked a blue ball around. There was something savory about a slow, midsummer night when the kids ran through the garden heat while their parents laughed and talked around a card table. A group of guys with guitars and drums played bomba y plena, their songs carrying on the breeze and lulling me to sleep.
Soon, I found myself waking up to the creaky call of a black-eyed, red-wattled rooster. I would see him strutting around the garden, his tough, reptilian talons navigating the broken glass. My neighbors fed him kitchen scraps and regarded him lovingly—until one day he fell silent.
“Chicken soup,” explained my seven-year-old neighbor, Carolina, cheerfully. Her dad had wrung the rooster’s neck and followed a family recipe, adding cilantro from the herb beds. “He was delicious,” she said.
Only then did I realize that most in the garden were not planting decorative flowers, but engaged in the serious work of tending vegetables and livestock. In a few years, the far east end of Fourth Street had gone from buildings to prairie to a small working farm. And it was not alone in the neighborhood. Everywhere, in vacant lots, people were living off the fat of the urban landscape.
How else has the need to produce food built the city?, I wondered. And over years, I looked for answers.