Growing A Community: Part 2 of 5

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this posts to be entered in a drawing to win a Kitchen Herb Value Pack of seeds from Hometown Seeds — one comment per post on each post in the series means you can have up to five entries in the drawing to win!


Pingree’s “potato patches” and the birth of community gardens

Small-scale, community-based urban agriculture, as we think of it today, developed with the rise of the modern industrial-era city—and the poverty that often comes with urban life, especially during times of economic depression. The first American community gardens arrived during the last depression of the 19th century. During the Panic of 1893, over 15,000 companies and nearly 500 banks simply collapsed. With around 18% unemployment, coupled with innumerable life savings wiped out when banks closed, it was the worst depression the United States would know until the the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In 1894, plots of land across Detroit were standing idle after being bought up in anticipation of a real estate boom. Mayor Hazen Pingree made a public appeal to the owners of these lots to allow using their properties for vegetable gardens—”potato patches” as they would come to be known, the first efforts at urban community gardening. Applications for garden plots almost immediately began pouring in.

The city of Detroit invested about $3,000 in this new urban gardens program; even the mayor pitched in, putting his thoroughbred horse up for auction and turning the proceeds over to the potato-patch fund. The first year, the urban gardeners grew 14,000 bushels of potatoes and other vegetables, worth about $12,000. For just a few thousand dollars’ worth of seeds and implements, food shortages were reduced to a minimum. Other cities took up the plan, and “Potato Patch Pingree” was heralded as a champion of the poor.

Despite this overwhelming success, these first attempts at community gardens set up a rather dangerous precedent. When the Panic of 1893 ended, and making money off the land the gardens used became an option again, Pingree’s potato patches and others like them across the country were plowed under, built upon, and forgotten—and community gardens came to be seen not as a permanent part of the urban landscape, but only as a makeshift effort during a crisis. During World War I, food shortages saw the development of patriotic “Liberty Gardens” (an idea that would be resurrected as “Victory Gardens” during World War II) while “Relief Gardens” supplied food and work during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Next: New York’s community gardens: from Green Guerrillas to Giuliani


Even though this is the briefest entry in the series, it was all I could do not to expound on this at length — people LOVED Hazen Pingree (and not just because he looked exactly like England’s King Edward VII). He was the first American mayor to realize public works means less unemployment and Pingree’s administration built schools, parks and public baths for Detroit. When he died at only 60 years old, his memorial statue calls him “The Idol of the People.” Don’t forget: leave a comment for a chance to start your own “potato patch” even though there are no actual potatoes involved.

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