City Lit: A Fruitful Searc

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These days, sprawl is everywhere. As strip malls and housing subdivisions continue to spread into rural areas adjacent to cities, controlling this growth and preserving agricultural land have gotten national attention and even high-profile political support. Sprawl has become mainstream environmentalism’s issue du jour. At this opportune time arrives Of Cabbages and Kings County, a chronicle of the transformation of Kings County from an agricultural landscape to, well, Brooklyn.

Hard as it is to imagine now, until the mid-19th century Kings County was home to many successful farmers, raising mostly wheat and livestock. The farming hardly ended with the explosive growth of the city of Brooklyn and neighboring New York City–on the contrary, those hungry markets gave farmers a mighty incentive to grow fruits and, vegetables instead. It didn’t hurt that the cities’ huge populations of horses provided a reliable supply of fertilizer.

The shift to growing produce, say the authors, marked the beginning of the end of agriculture in Kings County. Where wheat farming relied on vast areas of land, growing greens was heavily dependent on low-wage labor provided by Irish and German migrant workers, as well as investments in fertilizer and pesticides. By shifting their crops, Dutch landowning fanners were transformed into businessmen. The book convincingly argues that through investments in infrastructure and labor, the Kings County landowners competed successfully with farms in the South and other regions to supply New York with food.

But even a thriving agricultural industry couldn’t compete with that land-eating beast, real estate. According to Linder and Zacharias, the Dutch landowners sold their properties to developers because it was more profitable than what farming paid. In the brief span between the mid-1870s and the turn of the century, nearly all of the county was transformed into a residential city.

The first town to undergo this transformation was Flatbush, which had become a mix of farming village and affluent suburb relatively early, in the late 1860s. From there, major roads like Ocean Avenue began cutting through the farm country in southern Kings County, connecting rural farmers with their markets but also laying the groundwork for the eventual demise of their farms by making it easy to commute into Manhattan and urban Brooklyn. As he had done in Manhattan, Frederick Law Olmsted also played a role in this process: His creation of Prospect Park after the Civil War seemed to publicly acknowledge that the end was near for farming in Kings County. Why, after all, would farmers need an urban park? Fascinating historical details such as these emerge from a mountain of sometimes mind-numbing information about the lives of farmers and landowners. Repeatedly, commentators at the time refer to the spread of development to all of Kings County as “manifest destiny,” consciously drawing parallels between the growth of the American empire and the development of farmland into cities. Yet the authors–professors of law and business who practice history on the side–don’t stop to think about the implications of the phrase. They do a better job dissecting the class and ethnic politics that surrounded the 1873 annexation of Kings County’s towns into the city of Brooklyn.

Largely, their analysis reads like a list of what didn’t end agriculture in Brooklyn: It wasn’t a lack of workers; it wasn’t that the increased cost of the land associated with development drove the farmers out, nor was it increased property taxes. In the end, the book simply argues that too many landowners had ceased identifying themselves as “farmers” with attachment to the land. Instead, they were capitalists looking at the land as a commodity, and when the offer to sell the land was attractive enough, they sold.

Unfortunately, the argument doesn’t go further than that, compromising the book’s stated promise to draw conclusions about the 20th century advance of sprawl from the experiences of the last century. Once it has chronicled the sale of the land, Of Cabbages and Kings County falls to consider consequences such as the social and environmental effects of urban growth and the divorce, well advanced now, of most Americans from the people and places that grow their food.

Like many modern critics of sprawl, Linder and Zacharias instead simply assume rapid outward development is undesirable, without examining it further. But urban growth can’t just be seen as a negative–we have Brooklyn, and a whole lot else, to be thankful for. Their own research tells us that the lost rural Kings County, with its dependence on worker exploitation, was hardly paradise. Indeed, the authors’ determination to unromanticize this history is one of the book’s core strengths. By connecting Brooklyn to its forgotten agricultural past, they’ve succeeded in bringing us a little closer to the land.

James DeFilippis is a doctoral candidate in geography at Rutgers University, conducting research in community development.