Urban Farmers' Markets and a Sense of Place

Reader Contribution by Brent And Leanna Alderman Sterste

When I first started traveling to New York City for work, I was fascinated by the glamour of city life.  I stayed in fancy hotels (at least by my family’s standard!), ate in very nice restaurants (ditto), and spent my free time just walking around, being a part of the energetic rush of the city.  By my third visit though, I wasn’t really having fun anymore.  I was tired of the intense hurry everyone was in.  I was becoming annoyed with how impersonal and self-obsessed the culture felt.  I was disheartened by wandering through stores that not only could I not afford, but I was discovering, I had no desire to even aspire to afford.  So on my most recent business trip, I decided to take my family along for entertainment.

I only had to work Friday, so we’d have all day Saturday to ourselves.  That Friday, despite some of the best sushi I’ve ever eaten and a pair of designer knock-off sunglasses from a street vendor, my experience was still about the same.  I found myself in the middle of Manhattan just wanting to run screaming out of town.

Given all that frustration, I think I was well prepared for and deeply in need of Saturday’s discovery.  Heading down toward Greenwich Village to have brunch with some friends, my family and I got off the subway in Union Square and after struggling to wrangle our double stroller up the  handicap-inaccessible exit stairs, walked into the middle of the largest farmer’s market I’d ever seen.   We were surrounded on every side by apples, chicken and quail eggs, micro-greens, mushrooms, bunches of freshly cut pussy willows, potted tulips, goat cheese, and maple syrup.

My mood changed instantly as we walked back and forth through the market, visiting farm stands from upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and even Western Massachusetts.  I felt certain that my dear wife, LeAnna, would soon grow sick and tired of hearing me repeat, “This is amazing!  I love this!  This is fantastic!  Do we have room for pussy willows in our luggage?  We don’t right?  Really, there’s no way we could pack them …”  But if she was annoyed, she never really let on.  What I suspect is that she herself was drawn in by what was, for us, an exciting, refreshing discovery.

It was only after 20 minutes or so of wandering drunkenly through the market that I realized the irony of it all: I was in New York City, one of the so-called greatest, most culture-rich cities on earth, and my happiest moment all weekend was when I found a farmers market.  It reminded me of a book LeAnna just read in which the main character is a New York dwelling yuppie whose grandparents come to visit.  When they arrive, they insist on going to the Applebees in Times Square.  She pushes back, arguing that they have every culinary opportunity open to them there – why would they choose to eat somewhere they could eat any other day of the year, in any suburb in America?   If I’m remembering correctly, her grandmother responds, we want to eat there because your grandfather already knows he’s going to enjoy it.  Was I like that, I wondered.  Am I some provincial kill-joy whose favorite part of traveling is the part which reminds him of home?

The answer, of course, is a solid maybe.  But I’m okay with that because it seems to me there’s a bigger principle at work here too.  More than this moment just being about my particular preference, I believe that I, and if I may be so bold, all people are actually made for a meaningful connection to the land.  That there is something about us as people that’s inherently programmed to long for that sort of connection.  And I suppose that’s true in regard to the land, meaning the natural world, in general, but is perhaps even more true in regards to a particular piece of land.   

What I think that means is that people were originally made to be tribal – to live in one place where they know not only the land but the people who live on that land.  In that system, their destinies were all tied together – the destinies of the people together, and the destiny of the land.  But the modern world has done away with that.  We’ve created this thing called the city.  And the assumption, at least the way I was educated, is that you would find the city that best allowed you to fulfill the so-called American dream , namely financial achievement, and you would “Go west, young man,” until you achieved it.  The problem, of course, being that this entrepreneurial legacy has effectively created a homeless generation, disenfranchised not only from their people but also from the land by which their people were known.

In New York, there are no doubt innumerable pockets of rich community.  At least historically, there have been ethnic settlements, artistic neighborhoods, and co-ops of friends and neighbors.  Yet at the same time, I can’t help but marvel how in the midst of all that concrete and glass, all that glitz and glamour, people still long for a connection to the natural world.  In addition to the farmers market and, of course, Central Park, corner shop after corner shop is filled year-round with amazing flowers – a bit of life, nature, and beauty in the city.

Even on the somewhat blustery day we were there, people were filling the tables in the not-particularly-attractive-at-this-time-of-the-year Bryant Park – eager to be out of their offices, in the sunshine, near a few trees (leafless though they still were).  This all, to my mind, is more than simply a coffee break, or with cut flowers, the desire for something beautiful on one’s dining room table.   Instead, even subconsciously I believe it’s a longing for a sense of place long lost to most of us.  

My wife grew up in rural West Virginia on the same farm where her father and grandfather grew up.  She is shaped by the mountains she played on as a girl.  They inform who she is, what she values, and how she understands herself.  When we were first dating, for reasons I didn’t even understand at the time, I would refer to her as LeAnna-of-the Mountains.  Thoughtless though I was at the time about issues of place and of identity, I still understood on some visceral level that the woman I love is defined by her people and by her land.

So that Saturday, in the middle of New York, I was responding to something more than just a pleasure-filled taste of my preferred type of culture.  Instead, I think, I was, in the middle of millions of people, and towering sky-scrapers, feeling the call and pull of home.  It was very much the same as the experience of being abroad and hearing someone speaking your native language.  I was, for a brief moment, among my people.  I still deeply long to move to the country, to raise my children on a piece of land by which they will ultimately both be known and know themselves.  But in the meantime, perhaps my family and I can be content to connect with our tribe wherever we find them.  And now I know that when I travel, home is only a subway stop away.

I’d be glad for any of your own thoughts on this! 

  • Published on Mar 27, 2009
© Copyright 2022. All Rights Reserved - Ogden Publications, Inc.