Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Gergely Baics's "Feeding Gotham"

Gergely Baics is assistant professor of history and urban studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860, and reported the following:
Page 99 takes the reader to the seasonal rhythms of public market trade and household provisioning in early nineteenth-century New York City. The main paragraph of the page concludes: “In the peak seasons for food shopping, from around late spring through early fall, the public markets were beating faster: they pulled together all imaginable foodstuffs, attracting crowds of vendors and customers twice as large as during the winter, filling New York’s teeming neighborhoods with a cacophony of sounds and smells while also clogging the surrounding streets with increased traffic and waste.”

Indeed, time, or rather, the different rhythms of market trade and food shopping, including seasonal cycles, weekly and daily schedules, are the focus of chapter 3 in which page 99 is located. The chapter reconstructs how the public market model of the Early Republic determined the temporal dimensions of residents’ access to food supplies. Even more significant than time was the markets’ grip over the spatial dimensions of provisioning. Functioning as the privileged sites of the food trade, municipally managed and owned marketplaces supplied neighborhood dwellers across New York’s still compact geography. As an institutional setting and municipal infrastructure, they served to ensure fairness and equity in life’s necessities—at least, in theory. The underlying principle was that access to food was a public good to be sustained by the city government. Feeding Gotham presents a comprehensive economic, social and geographic history of how the public market system was developed and regulated, and how it functioned to provision New Yorkers.

Yet this is only the book’s first half, for the second half, in fact, the book’s main narrative, explores the subsequent era of deregulation. In the antebellum decades, access to food was redefined as a private good, left to free and unregulated markets. With liberalization, the public market system declined, private provision shops and street vendors of all kinds proliferated, and in general, food markets differentiated depending on the local customer base served. Further, with the city’s surrender of all regulatory oversight, food quality generally deteriorated, hurting especially the tenement poor who could only afford the cheapest provisions. In the emerging immigrant working-class metropolis of the 1850s, access to food became another source of structural inequality—part of the city’s increasingly stratified built and social environment, much like the better-studied resources of housing and sanitary provisions. Feeding Gotham reveals how the first iteration of an unequal geography of food access came about by the mid-nineteenth century to become a defining and enduring feature of the American city.
Learn more about Feeding Gotham at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue