Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Tourists, femivores, and panhandlers: The urban market blend

I've fallen off the one-post-a-week wagon again, mainly because I ended up unexpectedly teaching a summer class and my time has filled up with prepping and grading again.  It's actually been quite a lot of fun, and one of the things I've been enjoying is that the class is fairly small and the time block is long, so we've had a chance to go on some field trips around Boston.  Yesterday we went to the Copley Square farmers market as part of our discussion of economic systems and exchange relationships, and I found it a useful check-in for thinking about where the new food movement fits in the trajectory of economic redevelopment in this particularly successful postindustrial city.

I moved out of Boston in the late 1980s, just at the time when Copley Square was being redesigned from a sterile, high-modernist kind of open plaza to a greener and more inviting urban space.  The market was launched in 1990, just after the landscape re-set was finished.  I haven't really been in that part of the city much since then, so it was interesting to hang around for a couple of hours watching the mix of people and activities that overlap with and are enabled by the market.  Some highlights, of relevance to this blog's focus on history/heritage and the local food movement:
  • The market fits seamlessly into the effort to create what Bella Dicks has called "visitability" and what Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has termed "hereness" for Copley Square and for Boston as a whole.  Although the sellers--particularly the farmers, as opposed to the more locally-based bakers and other specialty vendors--were mostly from central and even western Massachusetts, the presence of the market itself conveys a sense of being rooted in a specific place, which goes along with the iconic architecture (especially Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library, which anchor the square on two sides) and links with various pieces of local lore (especially the Boston Marathon, which finishes here and which is referenced in Nancy Schön's 1995 "Tortoise and Hare" sculpture, much photographed by tourists).  
  • The market itself is a tourist attraction of sorts, with an interesting relationship to visitors from both far away and within the city.  The market manager, Ben Sommer, told me that the customer base includes a lot of people who work in the surrounding downtown buildings, but also many international tourists who happen to be in the square and many people from elsewhere in Boston who come downtown to do some of their food shopping (and, presumably, to run other errands or see other sights--an important part of the argument that organizers of farmers markets often make for their power of attraction and their economic "multiplier" effect).  
  • Overlapping with the nearby workers, tourists, and day-trippers were many people from the core demographic of farmers market shoppers: the well-educated, professional, mostly female, mostly white, mostly 30-to-50-year-old, leftist/progressive/environmentalist shoppers whom Peggy Orenstein has labeled "femivores" (see "The Femivore's Dilemma" in the New York Times Magazine, March 14, 2010) and who embrace the chance to shorten the food chain as a pragmatic expression of their political and social values.  My students were struck by the way that two groups of market "extras" were working the particular sensibilities of this crowd:  panhandlers and petition-pushers were equally active in approaching market shoppers, both clearly seeing opportunities to mobilize uneasy liberal consciences or righteous liberal indignation.
One of the benefits of teaching is that it pushes you to stay at least somewhat current with the academic literature, and my thinking about the Copley market was enriched by a couple of good recent articles that I assigned as readings for this class trip:
  • Kathleen Bubinas, "Farmers Markets in the Post-Industrial City," City & Society, Vol. 23, Issue 2, pp. 154–172 (2011)
  • Nana Okura Gagné, "Eating local in a U.S. city: Reconstructing 'community'—a third place—in a global neoliberal economy," American Ethnologist, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 281–293 (2011)
Both Bubinas and Gagné point to the ways that farmers markets and postindustrial urban redevelopment can complement one another, for better and worse--creating a potentially politicized alternative to purely commoditized food exchange, on the one hand, or playing into purely consumption-oriented revisioning of urban spaces, on the other.  I've spent a fair bit of my own time critiquing the latter, but like others who are now focusing ethnographically on new food activism, I'm heartened by the sense that the potential for real change exists even within touristic or consumerist market projects.

Maybe it was just the exemplary gluten-free brownie that I scored at one of the booths, or the beautiful weather yesterday, but I left the place mentally agreeing with Rachel Slocum, whose 2006 article "Whiteness, space and alternative food practice" (Geoforum 38[3]:520-533) I also assigned as a reading for this class, that these markets may be spaces where the exclusionary can coexist with the transformative, and where we as scholars might lodge critiques that are sharp without being unproductively harsh. 

No comments:

Post a Comment