Friday, September 17, 2010

Urban Farming in Philadelphia’s History

By Nicole Sugerman

On, an environmental news website, farmer and food writer Tom Philpott recently wrote an inspiring article, “The history of urban agriculture should inspire its future”. I urge you all to read this informative and interesting piece. In it, he traces the surprisingly deep roots of agriculture in cities, from 19th century dairy farms in New York City to the 1970’s rise of community gardens in post-industrial Detroit. Philpott is enthusiastic about the current popularity of urban food production and its roots, explaining: “In trendy neighborhoods from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to San Francisco's Mission district, urban youth are nurturing vegetables in window sills, fire escapes, and roofs. . . But growing food in the city isn't just the province of privileged youth -- in fact, the recent craze for urban agriculture started in decidedly unhip neighborhoods.”

Like the cities mentioned in Philpott’s article, Philadelphia has a rich history of food production that often goes unacknowledged in the current moment of burgeoning excitement around urban agriculture. When William Penn originally conceptualized the city of Philadelphia, he imagined it as “a greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and allways be wholesome”. Although shipping and industry quickly began to
dominate the agricultural roots of the city’s economy, farms and agriculture remained in Philadelphia. Beyond 40th street, West Philadelphia retained a primarily agricultural character throughout the 19th century, with farms remaining farther west even throughout the 1900’s (

Besides large farms existing within the city’s limits, small-plot urban gardening, for both subsistence and marketing, also has a long history in Philadelphia. In 1897, the Vacant Lot Cultivation Association was founded with the intent to promote land access, youth involvement in gardening, and to foster market gardening (Vitiello and Nairn, 26). Throughout the 1900’s, community gardens in Philadelphia fluctuated in popularity, with spikes in times of economic hardship or war. Urban gardening really took off in the 1970’s, spurred by deindustrialization’s effects on both the availability of jobs and the density of neighborhoods. Gardening was well funded and supported by programs through organizations like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Penn State Cooperative Extension. This support peaked in the 1970’s, then suffered a sharp decline in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s (Vitiello and Nairn, 34).

As detailed in Philpott’s article for, and evidenced by increased institutional support, media coverage, and empirical data, urban gardening is undergoing a new renaissance. As Philpott says, this “hip” new trend is not new. However, the face of the urban gardening movement has changed. As the historical trends illustrate, growing food in urban areas has traditionally been based on need, evidenced by its correspondence to times of economic hardship, and cultural preservation; in the Philadelphia Harvest Report, Vitiello and Nairn explain, “The majority of community gardeners in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s came to Philadelphia in the Second Great Migration of African Americans after World War Two, the contemporaneous Great Migration of Puerto Ricans, and the Southeast Asian migrations following the Vietnam War. Gardening offered opportunities for a combination of cultural preservation and, especially where gardens involved a mix of ethnic groups, for social integration as well”(p. 27).

While this is still true to a certain extent, the new poster child of the urban agriculture movement is young and, more often than not, white. The ‘new’ gardeners are growing heirloom tomatoes for personal use, or choosing careers in urban agriculture as conduits for living out personal politics of localism and ground-up change. While there is nothing wrong with these trends in and of themselves, I find myself troubled at times. Asking why there is so much attention paid to urban gardening now, despite the long, rich history of urban agriculture, is important. While perhaps unintentional, obscuring the history of this work by working class people and people of color is very unfortunate and seems unfair. I do not mean to suggest that all the people presently involved in urban gardening are white, nor do I mean to suggest that those of us who are white should not be excited about growing our own food.

However, I do think that recognizing that these ‘new’ trends in food politics- organic food, raising chickens, growing one’s own vegetables—are in fact quite old, is significant, and, furthermore, I recognize that these concepts have often reached
the consciousness of the mainstream only when adopted by upper-middle class, young, white people.

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 precedes me—work that has been done outstandingly well by others for a very long time.


Levine, Adam. “A Brief History of the Overbrook Neighborhood of Philadelphia, focusing on Changes in the Natural Landscape”. JASTECH Development Services. 2005. History.htm

Philpott, Tom. “The history of urban agriculture should inspire its future”. 3 August 2010.

Vitiello, Domenic and Nairn, Michael. Community Gardening in Philadelphia: 2008
Harvest Report. Penn Planning and Urban Studies, University of Pennsylvania. 2009.

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