“No Weeds to Be Seen Anywhere”: Pingree's Potato Patches and the Visual Culture of Vacant Lot Gardening in Detroit, 1890–1900

Sunday, January 4, 2015
2nd Floor Promenade (New York Hilton)
Joseph Cialdella, University of Michigan
During the spring of 1894, following the economic panic of 1893, hundreds of “poor and unemployed persons” in Detroit, primarily Polish and German immigrants, participated in a municipally sponsored “experiment” to cultivate “wasteland” on the peripheries of the city.  Dubbed “Pingree’s Potato Patches” after the mayor who started the program, these spaces are typically examined by historians as one of the first examples of municipal urban agriculture in the United States. Although these gardens no longer exist, a rich visual archive documents much of this past.

Looking at a curated set of these photographs that once appeared in reports, magazines, and newspapers, this poster will use images to argue that more than just a means of growing food, city leaders also used gardening and ideas about the urban environment to occupy idle hands and idle lands, quelling social unrest, and thus promoting social stability during this economically turbulent era. In doing so, these images demonstrate how organizers of the plan linked ideas about social class and ethnicity to material spaces in the city.  By examining these photographs in their historical context my research also reveals how some of the residents and civic leaders on the ground used a visual culture of the garden to negotiated complex social and environmental ecologies to craft their relationships with the non-human world, and each other, in a developing industrial city.

See more of: Poster Session #2
See more of: AHA Sessions