A woman I know, a nanny from Central America, lives with her two tall, teenage boys in a tiny basement apartment -- the kind of place where the front door is frequently blocked by snowbanks and you have to squeeze sideways to get around each other once inside. It's several blocks from a bus stop that takes her where she needs to go, which is, on a daily basis, to the homes of the families for whom she nannies across the neighborhood. Before she leaves for work, she kisses her boys goodbye and sends them on a multi-block walk to the nearest subway station to begin their 45-minute commute to school, three towns away. This woman has been living in my neighborhood for more than two decades, has raised her boys here, and has grown to become a bona fide member of the many families she's served through the years. This is home, and she's given back to her adopted neighborhood in ways I cannot possibly list here.
For about a year, she's been looking for a place to live that's closer to the families she serves. A place that is a bit safer for her boys, and for herself. Closer to the public transportation on which she depends. She's run into roadblock after roadblock, as the part of the neighborhood where her families live is considered "up and coming," with some rents starting at roughly twice what she's currently paying. Many longstanding homeowners, seeing the investment potential in their properties, are selling their buildings to developers, many of whom are kicking out the tenants to flip the units into high-end condos or apartments. The woman I know has no guarantee that her current landlord will not one day do that to her. Still, she searches for a modest place for her and her boys to lay their heads, a bit closer to the families she works for, in the neighborhood that is her home.
I had an interesting online chat this morning with another neighbor — a young professional who's lived here less than five years. This guy is all for the gentrification we're seeing in our community and has no sympathy for the longtime residents who find themselves in a financial and residential pickle as rents go up and amenities become more expensive.
"It's fucking life," he wrote me. "Live where you can afford."
To him, any phenomenon, public or private, that raises the value of his property, attracts a higher crust of residents that do the things he likes to do, and fixes up "shitty buildings" is fine by him -- low- and middle-income residents be damned. That twentysomething hotshot who's buying up buildings, evicting existing tenants, and flipping them (mostly poorly, I might add) into high-rent college dwellings? He's "a saint," a hero. Housing developments that feature subsidized units? They're the worst, according to him, and contributing to the downfall of the neighborhood. In fact, he actually believes low-income residents in affordable housing overlooking the Harbor and the skyline -- a complex that has been, I might add, in that location for decades -- do not deserve to live there because "those are million dollar views."
I could be wrong, but to him, it seems, city living is all about the gradual aesthetic improvement of the built environment, the introduction of amenities that cater to him and people like him (high-end grocery stores, gastropubs with $9 beers, CrossFit gyms, and the like), and eventually making a return on the housing investment he made when the neighborhood was a mostly affordable, blue-collar place to live.
But cities are people, not buildings. Buildings and restaurants and grocery stores serve people -- real people, with kids and no kids, living alone and with partners or roommates, employed and unemployed, documented and not, of every racial makeup you can imagine. The city is humanity's experiment in existing together in peace and creativity as one, beautiful tapestry of lives. People who thrive in cities concern themselves with the wellbeing of the collective, not just themselves.
When one of us is displaced, we all feel dislodged.
When one of us sees a family member touched by violence or fire or substances, we all run to the aid of that family and advocate for the best care possible.
When a public school does not meet our exacting standards, we throw our back into helping to turn it around.
Come to think of it, that interdependence is the American experiment as well, and that of our Commonwealth ("common wealth"). But cities are an ancient but unique microcosm of the kind of world in which we want to live. Long before "sharing economy" made it into our lexicon, there were cities -- the original sharing economy. These were economies built not around wealth accumulation and personal interest, but ones centered on people -- coexisting and thriving together as one diverse patchwork of beauty and creativity. In our modern, American iterations of urban life -- where "all men are created equal" -- the more diverse that patchwork, the better.
If we, as individuals and families living in an urban community, not only believed that cities are people but leaned into that belief, what would that mean for our nanny friend and her boys? Would their imminent displacement still be viewed by some as necessary collateral damage of a real estate market that is free and unfettered? Or would we value their contribution to the community so much that we'd do everything in our power to keep them and thousands of families like them right here, in their homes, where they belong?
Last weekend, we accompanied some friends, Peter & Giordana, who have built quite a little reputation 'round town for their cider-making. What makes our friends different is that they don't pick their apples in Chelmsford or Ipswich, but right here in the heart of East Boston, the neighborhood we all call home. Our journey started at "The Rockies" on Marginal Street, a wild orchard across from gorgeous Piers Park, where we collected a large yard bag full of apples using a garden-variety fruit picker. Picking a basket-full of apples was almost as fun for the kids (ahem) as watching apples roll down the hill and into the street to get crushed by Marginal St. traffic.
From Jeffries Point, the apples went back to Peter and Giordana's house up on Eagle Hill, where they were washed, cut, ground, and then pressed into cider. How did it taste? Just as thick and sweet as the best bottled cider from Chelmsford or Ipswich, I guarantee. Completely free, with less than a mile traveled from orchard to table.
We've been back from Texas for more than a month, but several unexpected home repair projects and the everyday of living with a baby and a seven-year-old have delayed my posting the stories that came out of that trip. We were there to see family, but Chrissy and I made it a working trip to some extent. Thankfully, my work is mobile, and my subject matter is everywhere food is eaten or grown, so it wasn't hard to find some great stories in the Lone Star State. Enjoy!
Austinites love local food so much that developers are building it into their housing communities. It was awesome hanging out with my friends Daniel and Brittany at their newly completed home, which was moved from South Austin to a shared plot of land with a garden in the middle. Pretty cool.
Nestled in the Hill Country north of Austin is Lazy Day Farm, a startup operation run by several middle-aged family members. They have chickens, goats, a donkey, miniature horses, bees and a great organic garden. (my son's favorite were the two baby goats) The plan is to expand the farm and open it up to visitors who want to get a taste for agricultural life.
When I saw "Richard's Rainwater" on the shelf at a market in Georgetown, TX, I did a double-take. "You can't drink rainwater!" I thought. I snapped this photo and went home to do some research. Turns out you absolutely can collect and purify rainwater to drink. In fact, Richard (of Richard's Rainwater) says his rainwater blows your standard tap or bottled water out of the ... er ... water in terms of taste and quality. For drought-stricken Texas, this is great news.
It appears the battle over the minds of America's food shoppers will be waged in the cinema. It started with the 2004 hit "Super Size Me," which documented Morgan Spurlock's 30 days of McDonald's gluttony. The film, combined with the bestselling book Fast Food Nation, opened the eyes of many Americans to the cheap, processed foods low-wage workers were handing us through little drive-thru windows. Then came "Food, Inc.," which dove deep into the political and corporate environment that brings us most of our food. Each of these films, and the books on which they were based, played an important part in uncovering aspects of the food system that had been previously hidden.
We all figured that eventually, the food and biotech companies would get smart and fight back with its own installment in the conversation. "Farmland" appears to be that installment, and its funding structure is certainly raising some eyebrows. Film funders the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance -- a PR front group for agribusinesses like Monsanto and the National Pork Board -- scored a huge Hollywood documentary filmmaker, Academy Award-winner James Moll, to direct "Farmland." Overall, the film is a sweeping yet personal look at five American farmers and their diverse struggles, triumphs, views, and methods. It's worth watching. But as one critic put it, it comes off as a syrupy, slickly produced infomercial for Big Ag that is long on the personal narratives and short on the systems thinking necessary to make change in our food chain.
Check out my two posts on the subject, posted over at TakePart:
Is This Documentary the Ag Industry's Answer to 'Food, Inc.'?
Ag Group Fires Back at Critics of 'Farmland'
Pretty excited about the plans for the 30,000 square foot Boston Public Market moving forward. I envision Saturday morning trips as a family to pick up Massachusetts cheeses, wines and beers, and fresh produce -- punctuated by some people watching at the cafe. Pretty cool that the European-style public market appears to be making a comeback in the States. 'Bout time. Read my post at TakePart.
This week I wrote about two amazing women -- Rachel L. Carson and Frances Moore Lappé -- whose writing and advocacy have changed the way we approach food and the world around us. Lappé wrote Diet for a Small Planet more than four decades ago, and the book helped sparked a movement that forced Americans to take a second look at what they were eating and from where it was coming. She is a sweetheart; we spoke on the phone Tuesday. (read my piece on Lappé and the biggest food movement victories of the last 40 years)
I wish I could have spoken to Rachel Carson. She died in 1964. Two years earlier, she wrote the first book calling into question the practice of spraying harmful chemical pesticides -- including the wartime nerve agent DDT -- on our farmland and forests. We still drench our food with chemicals, but thanks to Carson and others who came behind her, we can now choose cleaner food and the issue is no longer a dirty secret. The headline of today's piece on Carson and Silent Spring is quite appropriate: if you've eaten an organic apple this week, thank Rachel Carson. (read my piece on Carson and the current struggle against chemical pesticides)
Thank God for the women who pioneered the movements making a better world for all of us. Thank God for Rachel Carson and Frances Moore Lappé.
Look deeply into this precious lamb's eyes. They're telling you, "Please don't eat me."
Seriously, though, even for hard-core omnivores, the idea of "spring lamb" (for Easter, Passover or otherwise) doesn't seem to make much sense here in the States because they're out of season right now. In fact, most local farms are lambing as we speak so that the little guys will grow big and strong throughout the summer leading up to a late summer, early fall harvest. I got to visit a local lambing operation last Spring and missed a live birth by about 10 minutes. It really is a sight to behold. Check out my story about out-of-season lamb at TakePart.com. If you're interested, here's a link to my 2013 Edible Boston story about farmer's market meat that includes reporting from Signal Rock Farm in Charlton -- one of the state's preeminent lamb and sheep operations. Enjoy!
As an avid gardener myself, this story makes me happy: more Americans are growing our own food, and the fastest-growing segment of home gardeners are us Millennials. We may wear our hair too long, speak coursely, and possess a general lack of ambition, but boy did our radishes look good last season! Read the full post at TakePart.
I hope! And a coalition of organizations and advocates much smarter than me are working on enacting a plan to make it happen. Read the full post at TakePart.
A repository of my work, photos, and random reflections. Views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of publications or other clients with which I work.