Consumption Junction: Urban Growers in Philadelphia

by Lana Lynne on 9.27.2010

A recent Grist article by Tom Laskawy gives an informative overview of the urban farming going on in Philadelphia, PA, these days, spotlighting three urban farming organizations that are "putting Philly on the urban ag map": Weavers Way Co-op, Greensgrow Local Initiative for Food Education (LIFE) CSA, and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Growers Alliance.

In digging a little deeper into Philly's agricultural history, we found a great report by Domenic Vitiello and Michael Nairn of University of Penn's Penn Planning and Urban Studies Department, the 2008 Harvest Report. The report, though somewhat outdated now, still provides a fascinating and sobering look at the community gardens in Philadelphia (which are vastly different than the urban farms mentioned above in that, at least defined in this report, they are situated on land tended to by members of a community who do not own the land).

What's most interesting to me about the report is the demographics of community gardens in Philadelphia. Concentrated mostly in low income neighborhoods, the gardens were (and some still are) means of providing fresh produce to friends and neighbors who otherwise did not have easy access to healthy food. Often, people brought knowledge gleaned from lives lived elsewhere -- both in and outside of the U.S. to seed choice and cultivation techniques. But many of these gardeners came from an older generation, without a younger one to take over. Diminishing numbers of gardeners, coupled with changes in the city's and community-garden-supporters' land use and economic situation led to a drastic decline in gardens since the 1990s.

Nicole Sugarman, a co-manager at a CSA in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia, recently wrote another article about Philly's urban growers, looking at how much of the aforementioned history is obscured by the disproportionate media attention given to the "new poster child of the urban agricultural movement," a figure Sugarman sees as young, white and middle-to-upper class. As they say, any press is good press, but her advice should be noted: "For the urban agriculture and food movement to grow, we must acknowledge, learn from, and continue to support the work happening by all people in all areas of our city -- not just the 'trendy' neighborhoods, or when practiced by 'privileged kids' who get a disproportionate percentage of the attention, support, and ultimately credit for a series of activities and actions that far that far precedes me—work that has been done outstandingly well by others for a very long time."

Selling Your Body (for Science)

An interesting video/report from Time magazine was sent to us today about people who make a living by joining clinical trials testing new drug for pharmaceutical companies. The big draw for participants seems to be that they can make upwards of $400 per day. With virtually no oversight on such trials, or the participants (it is left up to participants to gauge their health and whether they can continue or join new trials), people are traveling from city to city and making a living on the practice. There is even a call to professionalize the practice of "guinea pigging". The money does beat a number of other job options out there, but the toll on such regular participants is left unstudied. What is the purpose of clinical trials? Drugs that pass clinical trials are apt to make pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars. Meanwhile testing on humans is done by paying participants a couple thousand (at the most). This is yet another clear example of how the corporate world utilizes the worker (here, clinical trial participants) to create its enormous wealth. The ethics of capitalism never cease to amaze.

Check out the video:

Plagiarism, Imitation & Authenticity

Some would say academics and artists' oldest nemesis is plagiarism. It hides in allegations of un-originality; it peers from behind a thin veil in accusations of imitation. Even defenses based on intent can't entirely excuse the offender, for the official definition of plagiarism includes the unintentional infraction -- it may just be an accident or sloppy scholarship, but it's still a crime. Much like involuntary manslaughter versus first degree murder.

But, in the ever-morphing digital age, things might be changing for the long-vilified plagiarism. A New York Times article titled "Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in Digital Age" talks about how students' perceptions of plagiarism and intellectual property, as well as authorship and originality, are being affected by the internet. Endless amounts of information are available at all times in a fluid, constantly changing environment. Text, images, ideas are no longer physical but always shifting. Here today, impossible to find tomorrow.

One "defense" of plagiarism in the digital age likens it to sampling in music. But, at least in literature, there are already names for that type of "borrowing": echoes, epigraphs, allusions, and so on.

It appears always to come back to one thing: authorship. If you're passing off someone else's idea or words as your own, you're falsely claiming authorship. But some scholars believe even seeing this action as a grave misdeed is changing:

In an interview, [anthropologist Susan A. Blum] said the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.

“Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

Is the resulting pastiche just one more step toward homogeneity? If all we have left is imitation, where do we find the authentic?

NAFTA and Drug War Violence in Mexico

An excellent video from the RealNews Network on the background of the Drug War violence that has recently been spinning out of control in Mexico as framed through an interview with journalist Bruce Livesey. Livesey reveals the role of the NAFTA trade agreements in the rise of the drug trade in Mexico, then leading to the violence that has been making international news over the last few years. According to Livesey, NAFTA policies had the effect of stoping the flow of drugs through Florida from Colombia. This forced cartels to shift to Mexico, which resulted in a large increase in truck flow through the US border - and included shipments of a much more diverse product line in cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth. This resulted in making the drug cartels wealthier than ever before, allowing them to confront Mexican law enforcement and military.

Another interesting result of NAFTA is that it allowed US produce into Mexican market, which effectively wiped out much of Mexican agricultural sector, and pushed workers off of their land and to factories near the US border. With rise of China and India in production, poor displaced workers were in Mexico were suddenly out of work, turning to the cartels and the drug trade as their only option. Livesey provides an interesting argument, and brings to light why neoliberal policies like NAFTA have not been kind to the workers and the poor. Check out the video here:

Inequality in the US

Questioning one's critique of the US is probably more common than we realize. While critique is often viewed as criticism, that is less the point here then who actually raises such objections. I may expect to run into blind faith in the US at my local watering holes, but I am often surprised when my students object, or more commonly are indifferent to such critiques. A series on Slate by Timothy Noah (titled the United States of Inequality) offers a number of excellent reasons why more people need to critique the current state of affairs here in the States, and while there are numerous and varied reasons to offer such critique, Noah is focussing on the growing gap between the rich and the poor in a country that has historically held a propensity for the myth of equality.

What current analyses show is that the richest 1% of the US - and especially the ultra-richest 0.1% - are making more then ever, and represent the largest percentage of wealth since the era of the Robber Barons and the Industrial Revolution. Thus forms the basis of the Slate series:
"This was the era in which the accumulated wealth of America's richest families—the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies—helped prompt creation of the modern income tax, lest disparities in wealth turn the United States into a European-style aristocracy. The socialist movement was at its historic peak, a wave of anarchist bombings was terrorizing the nation's industrialists, and President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, Alexander Palmer, would soon stage brutal raids on radicals of every stripe. In American history, there has never been a time when class warfare seemed more imminent. That was when the richest 1 percent accounted for 18 percent of the nation's income. Today, the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation's income."
Noah shares that the top 1% (those who make about $368,000 or more) saw their income share more than double since 1973, while the ultra-rich top 0.1% (those who make $1 million or more) saw their share more than quadruple in the same time period. There are a number of such fascinating statistics and graphics that delve into how this has happens, and explanations about what it means. Noah brings attention to the fact that the US is more unequal than most countries in Latin America - a region usually thought of as being dominated by the descendants of the European aristocracy that ruled for hundreds of years. He offers an analysis of the role that race and gender are playing (or more accurately, not playing) in these changes, along with what some may see as surprising insight into the immigration debate:
"When economists look at actual labor markets, most find little evidencethat immigration harms the economic interests of native-born Americans, and much evidence that it stimulates the economy."
Stay alert to forthcoming pieces in the series, as the first few have been insightful and interesting. This is the type of information that helps to justify critique, and may aid in furthering the realization that all is not well in the world of the US.

Graphic Source: Catherine Mulbrandon of

Some of the Ways 'Work' Works

Worker exploitation and mistreatment or barbecues and farewells to summer? The history of Labor Day and the way it is celebrated captures an interesting dynamic in the way "work" works in the U.S. A few recent articles reflects these different issues, and what better time to reflect on them than on the holiday that has a unique way of simultaneously commercializing and challenging the structures that prop up the country's approach to working and, by extension, to living.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, along with other grassroots labor organizations, continues to take Trader Joe's to task for the corporation's refusal to sign onto the Fair Food Campaign, which would provide better working conditions for Florida tomato pickers. As reported by Leslie Hatfield and Karen Kanan Corea on Ecocentric, the CIW, Jewish Labor Committee, Just Harvest USA and the Farmworker Solidarity Alliance, protested at a Trader Joe's store in New York City two weeks ago in an effort to pressure the company to join the leagues of Whole Foods, Taco Bell/Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Subway, and Compass in the Fair Food Campaign.

In Dissent Magazine, Mark Engler writes about a new report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco called "The Effect of Immigrants on U.S. Employment and Productivity." The report's findings clash with the twisted-lingo of current anti-immigrant campaigns. The report concluded that “there is no evidence that immigrants crowd out U.S.-born workers in either the short or long run.” While this report does little to address the real problems affecting immigrant workers in the U.S., it does, in Engler's words, set the record straight.

And, on the other end of the way "work" works spectrum, the author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, John de Graaf, compares the Dutch approach to the U.S. approach to work in an article titled "Wake Up Americans: It's Time to Get off the Work Treadmill." Citing a number of recent books and articles arguing just this, de Graaf is putting out a call to "Take Back Your Time," a U.S. and Canadian-based initiative "to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine" that threatens health, relationships, communities and environment.

Happy Labor Day, and enjoy the day off, if you're fortunate enough to have it.