Some Grand Rapidians gardening in 1917. Grand Rapids Progress, May 1917, 6(5): p. 16 form Grand Rapids Public Library Special Collections.

Last week I left off thinking about that space between a claim and a reason in an argument. It was a good exercise in thinking about relevance and pushed me deeper into exploring how to frame my research. I know I want to use public retail markets and urban gardens as spaces from which to study the history of municipal political economy/ecology. More specifically, I want to emphasize the importance of mid-sized cities as historical representations of many (if not most) people’s experiences. Large cities and rural areas dominate the narrative, while “secondary” cities tend to be in the footnotes or the academic realm of amateur “local historians.” This is most definitely true when looking at the history of public marketplaces and public gardening programs.

Blueprint for Fulton Street Farmers Market, 1927, GR City Archives

While food history monographs are no longer a rarity, books dedicated to public marketplaces and gardening programs in the United States are still sparse. Concerning gardens, Laura J. Lawson’s City Bountiful[1] stands as the go-to source to cite if a food scholar wants a historical antecedent section in their work. Lawson draws off the massive trove of primary documents produced by organizations running gardening programs, most of which is promotional literature, [as a side note, MSU’s library has much of this digitally available thanks to librarian Suzi Teghtmeyer. Check it out here] to construct a narrative which starts with the vacant-lot programs of the late 19th century, most notably the work of Mayor Pingree in Detroit, and ends with her own ethnographic work on contemporary gardens. Lawson’s long durée is an invaluable addition to the historiography of public gardening programs in the twentieth century and her reliance on publications created to advance and report on gardening programs may get at the social issues these programs set out to solve, but it only scratches the surface of cultural presuppositions by those who implemented them. Further, her work barely includes programs outside large cities.

City Bountiful by Laura Lawson - Paperback - University of ...

Interestingly, Lawson’s periodization and framework comes from Thomas Bassett’s unpublished 1976 master’s thesis which incorporated a cultural ecology framework to analyze the history of vacant lot gardens in the United States.[2] Amazingly, Bassett’s work continues as the standard starting point for those studying the historical movements in urban gardening programs in the United States. It is not a surprise that the historiographical periodization for gardens would come from cultural ecology and urban planning. Indeed, it seems that people outside the discipline of history dominate histories of gardening programs and public marketplaces. Even my own first foray into the history of public markets and gardens happened while studying in the Community Sustainability program at Michigan State.

Concerning US marketplaces, the pioneering work on their history came from an article by geographer Alison Brown in 1999.[3] American Studies scholar Helen Tangires, however, went beyond “counting farmers markets” and placed public marketplaces within a social history framework. Her first work looked at 19th Century development of “civic marketplaces,” mostly in large cities, and their demise in the Progressive Era. She does not hide her activist spirit in this work and, reflecting the local food renaissance of the turn of the last century, she considers public markets as a barometer of a city’s moral economy. The current city dweller, she argues, can avoid the “dangerous and immoral consequences of growing genetically engineered crops, of using bones and offal from diseased animals for feed,”(p. xv) and other negative aspects of the food system at public markets, spaces which she calls the “city’s conscious.” While this may seem hyperbolic, there is some merit to the argument. [4]

Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century ...

Tangires’s second monograph follows the trajectory of market districts in big cities and their evolution into part of the corporate distribution systems of the 20th century. With the help of USDA direction, she finds, cities abandoned the neighborhood retail markets in the 1920s and invested in wholesale market districts. While this may have been the case in big cities, my own research in Grand Rapids and other cities in Michigan, tells a different story. [5]

Grand Rapids, in particular, opened three neighborhood retail markets, in direct opposition to a USDA report (but aligning with labor leader Samuel Gompers’ treatise Markets for the People). Tangires does mention in her first monograph that small cities like Dubuque did not need large marketing centers, and were well-served by “curb markets,” which are transient spaces where farmers can sell directly to customers on city streets and were very popular during the first world war. Yet, beyond a temporary bandaid, retail farmers markets fade into obscurity until their resurgence in the 1970s. As I have argued elsewhere, this periodization of public markets in the United States where market districts become the norm in the 20th Century is not representative of mid-sized cities. This is not simply a historiographical quibble. It can mislead development when feasibility reports depend on such histories. In Grand Rapids, such a perspective contributed to the current gentrification of public markets spaces that either cater to those outside the market or are part of a plan to “revitalize” a neighborhood on its way to a “market district.” But I digress.

Coffee and Supercars. The Grand Rapids Downtown Market Serving the People Living in a Food Desert.
Feeding Gotham : The Political Economy and Geography of ...

A more recent monograph comes from historian Gergely Baics on New York marketplaces in the 18th and 19th centuries. His work is helpful in thinking about markets as spaces of conflict. While I do not agree with his criticism of a moral economy framework being too focused on cooperation over conflict (I mean EP Thompson was writing about food riots, right?), his political economy framework makes sense, and may not be as far from a moral economy perspective as he argues. He presents a “tipartite model of political arbitration” whereby “customers, vendors, and city officials…constantly renegotiate the common good of food provisioning.” (p. 26) While he does not see the moral economy as a process, I do (I will explore this theoretical approach in a different blog). Epistemology and semantics aside, Baics uses spatial approaches to the study of public and private markets in New York city, mapping food environments and measuring food access based on social variables. Most fascinating is Baics’ work tracking, in the words of Braudel, the rhythm of provisioning for some typical New Yorkers, utilizing maps and diaries. Uncovering this agency of citizens is a goal I am pursuing. However, it will be more difficult to obtain the primary documentation in a city like Grand Rapids. Diaries of New Yorkers abound. [6]

This is not the first time I explored these works, and I will continually be revisiting them throughout my dissertation writing, I am sure. Although I planned to expand on my argument here, I went on a bit of a historiographic tangent. Oh well. Next week I want to explore some other examples of work on food and politics, extending my gaze to Latin America and possibly work in urban political ecology. Maybe I’ll find an argument.


Lawson, Laura. City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America. Berkeley, UNITED STATES:
University of California Press, 2005.

[2]    Bassett, Thomas. “Vacant Lot Cultivation [Microform] : Community Gardening in America, 1893-1978 /,” January
1, 1979.

[3] Brown, Allison. “Counting Farmers Markets.” Geographical Review 91, no. 4 (October 1, 2001): 655–74.

[4]    Tangires, Helen. Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2003.

[5]   Helen Tangires. Movable Markets: Food Wholesaling in the Twentieth-Century City. Hagley Library Studies in
Business, Technology, and Politics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.,uid,cookie&db=e000xna&AN=1916485&site=eds-live.

[6] Baics, Gergely. Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790–1860. Princeton University Press, 2016.

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