The Post-Standard has an important and very welcome front-page story today about elevated levels of lead and arsenic found in some community gardens in the city of Syracuse. (One of the beneficial side effects of the paper’s shrinkage: a front-page story really stands out and focuses the attention.) Although some of the contamination can be traced to street traffic and to homes that used to stand on the properties, a more sinister possibility is that the city simply provided contaminated dirt from construction sites elsewhere, for the residents’ use. Gee thanks!
“Sinister” is possibly too harsh a word for the crime of simply not thinking things through – after all, who really eats homegrown garden veggies except hobbyists? – but the specter of environmental racism is not exactly non-sinister. The comments at the Syracuse.com posting of the story (which I have linked to) are the usual mix of shadowy characters dismissing any whiff of racism in the community. So maybe it’s more helpful to use the term “environmental classism” than “racism” since that’s really the underlying issue that lurks.
If there are any smug suburbanites out there thinking something like this could never be a concern for them, they’d better think again. I’m not going to reiterate all the latest thinking about peak oil and the future need for locally-grown food or even subsistence kitchen gardens; but I really doubt many suburban residents in Onondaga County really know what’s in their own backyard dirt, or in the dirt they buy at the garden store. They do not know the history of their own patches of dirt. Don’t know who farmed it before houses were built, what was grown, what fertilizers (chemicals) used, or what might have been dumped there. Does anyone know what their own back yard looked like 100 years ago? (I’ve done some nitpicky research on the history of my burb, and I still don’t know what precisely used to be where my house is sitting.)
And yet, some of these same scoffing locals – if they’re not thinking about it now in the backs of their minds – will someday expect to get some kind of yield out of their future kitchen gardens. I have a feeling that 20 years from now, they will be asking the “lowly” city gardeners for a lot of serious advice on how to raise healthy food from poisoned ground.