Last month, I suggested that, rather than pursue the chimeras of Maytown and the Convention Center, Nashvilleans would be better served by taking the suggestions of the” Mayor’s Green Ribbon Committee” and running with them. Much to my delight, that’s just what Metro Councilman Jason Holleman is doing.
The step he is proposing is a no-brainer, really, and I was surprised to learn that it needs to be taken, but–get this: for the last fifty years, it has been illegal to have a community garden in Nashville . It doesn’t matter if you own the land and it’s an open field, you can’t legally farm it in the urban services district. And, even if you live on the property and just have a garden, it is illegal for you to sell your produce. Gee…I thought the only produce that was illegal to sell was the kind people grow in closets…but it turns out that the criminal agricultural population is not restricted to pot growers…all the urban community gardens springing up around Nashville–and there are more and more of them–are illegal. We are fortunate that Metro has not sent out the paddy wagons and bulldozers to round up these criminal gardeners and turn their paradises back into parking lots.
Holleman’s bill is co-sponsored by Kristine LaLonde, Emily Evans, Erik Cole, Mike Jameson, Bo Mitchell, Megan Barry, Jerry Maynard, Sandra Moore, Erica Gilmore, and Darren Jernigen. Remember those names–these are the Metro Council members who have at least a clue about where this country is headed. Councilman Holleman told me in an email that his proposal has attracted “questions about the details, but no negative feedback.” In other words, there’s a strong likelihood that it will pass.
One hair that the bill splits is that, while it legalizes the sale of produce grown in the city, which will allow gardeners to support and expand their operations, it does not allow “farm stands” at gardens in residential neighborhoods. In other words, you can’t have a stash of picked tomatoes sitting there waiting for customers. Gardeners must take their produce elsewhere and sell it, or contract with people through consumer-supported agriculture-type arrangements. My guess is that this barrier will increasingly, and informally, be breached.
The bill does not permit raising livestock in the city, which I think is another prohibition that will soon fall. Currently, if you have a few rabbits, chickens, or pigeons in your backyard, you have to be able to pass them off as “pets”–but who’s going to notice where your breakfast egg comes from, or complain if one of your “pets” disappears and ends up on the dinner table? Is this what the National Animal Identification System is intended to enforce?
“Mrs. Jones, we’re from Animal Control and we noticed that the transponder on one of your chickens went dead yesterday. Here’s our search warrant–why don’t you just tell us: where’s the body?” Yeah, right…
Backyard animal raising is a more complex issue, in some ways, because animals, unlike plants, sometimes make noises and create odors that are annoying to neighbors. Perhaps the way to deal with this would be to allow people to keep animals if all or most of a neighborhood is in agreement. It’s certainly worth discussing. What do you think, Metro Council members? Are you ready for the next bold step in local food security?
Now, besides food production, another tightly regulated part of the American urban scene is housing, which in our economic model is privately owned, or often privately owed rather than owned. As the economy has begun to stumble (and you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!), many people have fallen behind in their house payments or been unable to come up with their rent money and been evicted, frequently resulting, at first, in perfectly good houses standing empty. I say “at first” because often these empty houses are broken into and stripped of anything salvageable, such as copper pipes. They then become derelict shells that all too often get bulldozed, since we’re not yet desperate enough for building materials to take them apart stud by stud. Soon come, soon come.
But meanwhile, the stupid logic of private property dictates that these houses must stand empty while their former occupants, already unable to afford to keep a roof over their heads, have to seek shelter elsewhere. Many move in with friends and relatives, which is kind of good, since one of the things we as a culture need to relearn is how to get along with each other and share close quarters, but that’s a lesson better learned voluntarily. Some people who are evicted don’t have family or friends who can make room for them, and become homeless.
We can contrast this peculiar behavior with what happened during the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Since all housing was government owned, people were not made homeless due to their inability to earn money.
Or we can contrast it with the third world, where, from Sao Paulo to Calcutta, the poor scavenge together shelter from whatever they can find, and create vast cities-within-cities. Whenever homeless people in the US start to do that, the codes department soon shows up with a bulldozer and “cleans it up.” Property rights and appearances are still paramount in America. They trump compassion every time.
It would be great if we could change that and allow people a little freedom to create a roof over their heads if we as a community are otherwise unable to provide them with one. That’s a big step down the road from legalizing community gardens, and I don’t expect Councilman Holliman to propose it next month or even next year, but we are going to have to start examining all the ways in which unreasonable expectations create unsolvable problems–whether in the area of food, housing, or personal behavior–and don’t get me started on that topic!
Hopefully enough people will realize that it’s easier and more compassionate to change our expectations and relax the law than it is to try and keep a tight rein on things and create criminals ex nihilo. We’ve got enough real problems to deal with already.