Andrea Crawford

WRITER AND JOURNALIST

On Culture: Staten Island, Farm to City

“Farm to City,” a phrase that began as shorthand for marketing methods, now also describes wholesale cultural transference, as urbanites keep chickens, butcher their own meat, can their own vegetables, and wear an overabundance of flannel and facial hair.

The resonant title of the exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York—From Farm to City: Staten Island 1661–2012—actually refers to the development of Staten Island. And in this way, it could also encapsulate the development of all five boroughs of New York City and pretty well all of civilization itself since the invention of agriculture. Next up, perhaps: From Farm to City: Earth 8,000 B.C. to Now?

The exhibition walks visitors through four patterns in the island’s development—farms, pleasure grounds, suburbs, city—pulled together with striking photographs by Taiwan-born artist Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao. The history of ferry service and the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge I expected; to learn that Staten Island was the birthplace of tennis in the United States was a delightful surprise.

The farm section held some revelations too. Frederick Law Olmsted, famed creator of Central Park, owned a farm on Staten Island in the mid-1800s and took part in efforts to apply scientific and technological innovation to agriculture. At the time, curators tell us, “Staten Island was a laboratory for experimentation” led by a “network of botanists, horticulturalists, and naturalists less interested in turning a profit than they were in educating American small farmers.” Frederick Law Olmsted’s Staten Island, it seems, was the Stone Barns Research Center of its time.

The factor that fueled the Island’s agricultural success was also its demise. Access to Manhattan’s markets had been key—a force that continues to keep small farms from Southern Vermont to Eastern Pennsylvania alive today. But proximity to the expanding city was then, as now, also a threat. By the turn of the 20th century, the Island’s rural charms served as an appealing marketing device for real estate developers.

Exhibition designers gave one of these advertisements prominent display: a 1909 brochure for a development called “Little Farms.” It offered bungalows in three sizes for sale on quarter-acre plots and included a detailed description of “how we plant the little farms.” Those plantings included, the ad specified, four apple, two cherry, four peach, three pear trees, as well as 12 blackberry, 6 gooseberry, 12 raspberry bushes, and 80 strawberry plants—in total some 24 varieties plus “12 assorted ornamental and flowering shrubs” and all “free of cost to the customer.”

To live on a farm in New York City? That’s a paradise—some might say paradox—that’s never been more highly desired than today.