Friday, July 22, 2011

But honey, think of the property value...

I've been thinking a lot about the recent "vegetable felon" cases.  I'd be surprised if anyone reading this blog hasn't heard about them, but the ones I'm familiar with are the "Julie Bass in Oak Park, MI" case, the "Compassion Farm" case, and the "Terrorized by CEDA" case.  The cases are all a bit different, and go to different extremes (i.e., threat of three months in jail, six months in jail, and the property being seized by the city and demolished, respectively).  But no matter how psycho the aims of each are (property demolition, srsly?), there is a common thread underlying all of them--no one wants to see your veggies.

From here on out, I'm basically only going to talk about the Julie Bass case, partially because it's the one I'm the most familiar with, and partially because the other two are so off the deep end crazy that it will only obscure my ultimate point (yes, this post has been brought to you today by an actual point).  So here's the basic scoop:  the city dug up her front lawn to do some needed sewer/drainage repairs--cool, thanks for that.  Then she needed to repair her front lawn because, well, it was big piles of dirt.  The family decided to put in a vegetable garden (after, they thought, obtaining permission from the city).  Ordinance violation citations followed, and now the City of Oak Park is the preferred internet pariah for their Stepford Neighborhood goals (apparently the Casey Anthony thing finally ran its course).

Basically up to speed now?  Good, because I'm going to say something very surprising, that I doubt you would expect to see from my fingertips--I sympathize with the surrounding homeowners.  Please note that I did not say I agree with them, but I do have sympathy for them.  How not?  They're a product of their generations, their society, their upbringing.  Look, I'm a trained philosopher.  One of the real downsides to this is that I am pretty good at seeing both sides of an argument.  It does a great deal of damage to otherwise wonderful rants of righteousness.  (But woe betide the world when, after careful consideration and seeing both sides, I still have enough venom for one side to launch into a rant.)  So unfortunately for me, I can understand the surrounding homeowner's positions.  They bought their houses with certain expectations about the nature of the neighborhood, its look, and the probable nature of their property value.  And they're concerned that the vegetable garden in the front yard will do harm to some or all of these.

Furthermore, they're right.  The vegetable garden probably will affect the character of the neighborhood, the look of the neighborhood, and will likely harm their property value.  [NB:  did you see what I did there?  I only claim that one of those three will actually do harm.  Sneaky am I.]  And this brings me, circuitously, to my point.  We now live in a society where being forced to see food growing nearby is considered harmful.  I don't think anyone seriously believes that if those garden beds had been filled with flowers, that Julie Bass would currently be in the media, or would be enduring harassment by anyone.  Besides, the citations specifically cite the vegetables as the problem.

I was mulling this fact over in my head while working in my own garden tonight.  And yes, it was hotter than Hades, let's just get that out of the way right now.  What is so offensive about vegetables?  I mean, there are many things that will lower a neighborhood's property value:  the presence of crack houses, the installation of a waste dump, the house collapsing or being obviously derelict and falling apart, etc.  I totally get why any reasonable neighborhood wouldn't want that sort of thing, and why there would be ordinances to assist in preventing or dealing with those situations.  Is "seeing food growing" on the same list as "waste dump"?

Yes, seeing food growing is indeed on the same list in a great number of neighborhoods in our country.  And honestly, I think that this fact all by itself goes a long way towards explaining the mess we're in as a nation right now.  What hope could a country have that can no longer endure the sight of food in its natural state?  What is the worth of a citizenry that thinks so highly of itself that not only does each individual feel that he/she does not have to stoop to the level of farmer, but that person can actually bring the law to bear on anyone who forces them to have contact with farming or gardening or food growing in any form.  You see, I might have some sympathy with those poor, benighted neighbors, but I've lost all sympathy for the culture that spawned them.

At root, I think this is a class issue--most things in America are anymore.  What is wrong with seeing food growing?  The same thing that's wrong with seeing laundry hanging to dry, or chickens in the backyard, or any other of the myriad potential offenses that HOAs across America decry.  It's not that it looks unseemly, it's that it looks poor.  We associate growing food with poverty, and thank god we don't have to grow our own food anymore because now we're RICH!  We can afford to make other people do it for us!  (And pay them poorly, and make sure we never see them, and often bring in slave labor to make sure our prices are acceptable.)  And we can afford machines to dry our clothes for us!  And chickens?!  O.M.G., those were from, like, the depression days or something.  No one in their right mind would want to do anything like that again!  Well, except for those folks who were too dumb to become investment bankers or interior designers. They can still do those things, but *ahem* Certainly Not Us.

So I guess my take-home message here, for what it's worth, is that this isn't about an insane property inspector in Oak Park (although that doesn't help), or about an abusive city government, or a freedom fighter woman defending her land (god bless her for it, though).  This is far more systemic than that.  It's about a society that is so deeply, fundamentally broken to its core that it can no longer endure sight of the most basic things that got us out of the trees and made us human beings in the first place.  We've become totally and utterly ungrounded as a nation and a society.

So just imagine how hard its going to go when our economy finally does bite it.

Have a happy weekend.


  1. "It's not that it looks unseemly, it's that it looks poor."

    Can you hear me clapping (weakly, because I'm too hot and miserable to make a more spirited effort tonight) in New England? Bravo. You've hit the nail precisely on its head. I believe this is also why my grandmother stopped gathering wild herbs and greens, and refused to teach me how when I asked her, many years ago before she died - I think she felt that was for poor folks, and she was no longer poor, and more than that, didn't want THE NEIGHBORS thinking she was. Interestingly, she remained an avid canner until she died. Maybe it was all those ribbons she won at the county fair that convinced her that was still acceptable. ;)

    A lot of folks are going to have to get real, real humble before this whole post-peak-oil process is over, and figure out there's nothing shameful in raising and/or foraging one's own food. Heck, I've heard rumors that it used to be considered the epitome of Christian thrift, virtue and - yes - patriotism. My, how far we've fallen as a people since those days.....

  2. When our next door neighbor a few years ago saw us putting cardboard on our front lawn to turn it into veggies she came outside... and offered us an old carpet ans some more cardboard, to help :)

    We just met our new neighbors, a young couple. We gave them snap peas and lettuce. She is a self-described "big on gardening" person. "Phew!"

    There are places in this town where people might react with horror to veggies in the front yard, but there are no bylaws against them - nor against clothes lines. And we're just across the water from Lanzville, in BC.

    Maybe the fact that this is a "mill" town with a blue-collar history makes a difference. "Growing food = poor" is a connection I'm sure you're right that people make, but it will change as things change around us. And even now, it's not true everywhere.

  3. Fortunately we here never really made that connection. Everyone expected to grow some veges even if it was just a clump of parsley. But then farming is considered very important here and farmers were always looked up to - especially the good ones :) After all - they earned the overseas export dollars. The lowest of the low were the railway people and the people from the mill. (in our area) although the only ones we were discouraged from associating with were the shearing gang kids. They were transients mostly and pretty rough. Just a different culture really. I'm really glad about that as this means we can grow what we like. There are some limits on livestock but that is reasonable considering we live in a suburb.

    viv in nz

  4. @Kevin: I very much agree. Your own experience with gardening mimics my own when we put in the garden at our house. I saw my neighbor sort of stomping over, and I thought "Uh oh, here it comes." When she got here, she demanded (fairly politely) to see my compost, and informed me that I didn't have enough browns. =) She was right, btw.

    Also, your point about the "blue collar" town is well made, and I suspect that this is also what's happening here. Our town might as well be Billy Joel's Allentown for its history & economics. No silly city ordinances against gardens & clotheslines. But, like your town, we definitely have neighborhoods with HOA agreements that are aggressive to the point of malice. And I can't help but wonder if they're so bad specifically because they live in a town with a "poor" stigma. As if, perhaps, they really need to insulate themselves from all of that poorness or something.

  5. My backyard garden failed this year. My husband thinks it's because our huge tulip trees are too shady back there .... so.... a few weeks back I began thinking that sucks, but the front yard is so nice and gets full sun! But, what would the neighbors think!? I will give them free veggies if they tolerate it. I have it in my mind already for next year to plant my veggie garden in the front yard. I've envisioned it surrounded and camouflaged by a stone border and a beautiful flower garden so the city (health dept) won't drive by, see it, and cite me with a violation. I hope my plan works because that is what I plan to do!

  6. Have you read Tomatoland yet? One of the things that struck me is that one of the communities (and kudos to them) formed to help rescue some of these migrant workers from literal slavery disallows clothes line "because appearances matter." You are right: somehow, we've gotten the impression in this country that if we let anyone see the day-to-day basics of living going on around our houses, our neighborhoods will break out in crack dens and whore houses.

    I think this disconnect is psychologically damaging, as is the idea that it is OK to toil at a wage job to buy an iPad but not OK to work the soil to grow your dinner. This is why so many people groom those front yards, plant ornamental bushes, and coat everything in pesticides and herbicides, then retreat to their back yards. What is the point of owning a front yard if you can't actually use it as you see fit?

  7. Fifteen years ago I was involved in the planning and development of a cohousing community in a college town north of Sacramento. Now living in as cohousing project is as liberal as you can get before you have to leave the city limits and put up a yurt.

    There were several designated "garden" areas on the landscape plan along with an orchard and a large lawn. Wasn't I surprised when my presumably liberal neighbors express huge objections to the garden areas being used to grow vegetables, fruits or even kitchen herbs. The word "garden" to them meant flower beds. Vegetables were regarded as an eyesore even when integrated into a potager-style mixed garden of vegetables, herbs and flowers.

    Today, many of those beds I wanted to plant veg in are filled with anemic landscape plants, ill tended, with patches of bare dirt with remnants of three-year old mulch. But at least they don't have to look at an eggplant or an okra flower.

    At some time between the 40's and 60's the sight of a vegetable growing was apparently a signal of desperate poverty. Or at least the kind of lower class that "good people" didn't associate with. Today, even in farm country most farmers have no sign of a garden around their houses. It's bizzarre.

  8. and here comes Johny apple seed

  9. For those who have persnickety neighbors, stealth food growing might work. First plant some berry bushes, with maybe some radishes underplanted, and a few beans climbing the deck railing. Keep it super neat. Next year, add spinach and beets, in clumps rather than long rows. And so on... people tend to adapt best when change is gradual. :-)

  10. Just wanted to say I miss reading your blog. Hope everything is going well with your home and family, and hope to see you active online again soon.