Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Urban Farming in DC: A modern phenomenon or an indelible part of the city's past?

An Interview with David Quick of the Neighborhood Farm Initiative

David Quick; Image Courtesy of WAMU, Jonathan Wilson
 Last year, the Neighborhood Farm Initiative conducted an extensive oral history project, interviewing over 35 long time community gardeners throughout Washington, DC. The interviews were funded by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC as part of the DC Community Heritage Project, a partnership between the Council and the DC Historic Preservation Office. David Quick and his team rapidly built a collection of narratives that manage to broadly survey DC's recent history despite a determined focus on a very particular topic - urban farming. Last week, Quick swapped seats at the interview table to give us some insight into his team's goals, processes, and hopes for the future of their project.

What was the overall goal of the DC Gardener’s Oral History Project?
Our goal was to gather personal historical narratives from long-time DC gardeners and uncover the way that gardening and food-growing have been a part of DC urban life for many many years. Our primary mission at Neighborhood Farm Initiative is to educate people about how they can grow their own food, but we also know that gardens are spaces where people connect with each other and share stories. We wanted to document those kinds of connections and stories.

How did you decide who to interview?
Our only criteria were that interviewees be long-time DC residents and long-time food growers. Mostly, this meant that we were interviewing older DC residents, but we also talked with some people in their 30's and 40's who've lived here and gardened here their whole lives. As long as we felt that someone had a lot to say about growing food in this city, we wanted to talk to them.

What did you learn about community gardening and urban farming in DC?
Again, it's certainly evidence that DC residents have been doing this activity for a long time, well before urban agriculture and local food became as popular as they are right now. These interviews also highlight how often urban food gardeners (or their parents) often tend to have moved here from another country or region of the United States. We had quite a few stories of people who had grown up on farms and found ways to continue to grow food when they arrived in the city, and the interviews show the many techniques used by gardeners and farmers from around the world.  Likewise, they are people who feel passionately about food, and that passion comes out in the garden.

What was your favorite story?
Bennie Harris
I will cheat and name two. First, we interviewed a few people from our home Mamie D. Lee
community garden. One was with a long-time leader at the garden Bennie Harris who was also an advisor on our project. Mamie D. Lee has changed quite a bit recently with many more young professionals of a wide variety of backgrounds gardening plots, but for many years, there was a smaller community of African-American gardeners who were the primary stakeholders at the garden and who kept the garden cultivated so that the National Park Service would not perceive it as unused. There's a lovely moment in the interview when Josh, the interviewer and a MDL gardener, thanks Bennie for maintaining the garden so that newer gardeners have a place to grow their own food now. Bennie also talks about the way that the garden community shared their produce with folks who walked by and asked for food. Also, the changes in the make-up at MDL reflect many of the ways that DC is changing, so the interview is a valuable window into how gentrification is affecting many kinds of spaces.
The other interview is with a woman named Fannie Hamilton who grew up in Barry Farm but has lived with her family in Takoma, DC for many years. Throughout her life, Ms. Hamilton has gone out of her way to teach and educate others about how they can grow their own food and herbs and the health benefits that come from that, so hers is a powerful story about how gardening creates community and improves people’s lives. Our interviewer Mia has a similar passion for teaching others about growing herbs, and plants, and foods, so the interview is a wonderful record of the two of them sharing that love.

What did you learn about the oral history process?
This was my first time coordinating an oral history project like this, so I learned all kinds of things. One thing that I understand much better is the importance of training and preparation. The two fabulous interviewers that we hired were new to the world of oral histories, so I tried to do as much early preparation to convey the value of oral history and practice the interview process. Likewise, it helped to check in with the interview team as the project went forward so that we could continue to learn from each other and become more confident as interviewers.
 I was also reminded of how wonderfully open people are to being interviewed and sharing details about their lives. I expected us to have to work much harder than we did to find willing interviewees, but again and again the simple offer to sit down and listen was enough to convince people to be interviewed.

How do you hope people use the collection?
I definitely hope that there is real research value in this collection, not just into the history and culture of food, but also into different aspects of community, neighborhood, race, immigration and class in an urban environment like DC.
I'm also hopeful that these stories will be an inspiration to people who are interested in growing their own food in an urban place. The people that we interviewed have a deep reverence for this activity, and I'm so glad that it comes across in their stories.

Listen to the full collection in the DC Digital Museum!