Today, one of the biggest trends in American cities is the revival of urban agriculture, including a rash of suburban homeowners tearing out their grassy yards to plant edible gardens. There is a cottage industry in “urban homesteading” books and blogs, teaching readers to jar and preserve their own veggies, raise chickens, and be as independent as possible.
But few people remember that the New Deal once underwrote a national experiment in subsistence homestead gardening that between 1933 and 1935 built 34 new communities around the country dedicated to the idea that a family could own their own home, raise much of their own food, and escape the crowded poverty of urban life.
In his exhaustively researched book Urban Farms in the West, Robert Carriker recounts how the Division of Subsistence Homesteads (DSH) created a model for what the agency hoped could be a new American way of life. The overarching goal of the program was to encourage decentralization of population and industries. The DSH sought to build communities to which urban families would be relocated where they would benefit from part time farming and rural living while still finding local employment that would enable them to buy their houses from the government.
The program was meant to popularize the idea of the subsistence homestead but was derided from its inception. To the right-wing critics of the New Deal, it was further evidence of creeping socialism.
Carriker dedicates a chapter each to homesteads in Phoenix, Ariz; Longview, Wash; and El Monte and San Fernando, Calif. Some readers may wish he had covered more ground, but by focusing on the West, Carriker is able to bring together dominant themes in American history: Jeffersonian romanticism, industrial progress, and the West as land of new beginnings.
One of the book’s two appendices explains how the homesteads came to be documented by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers. Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the El Monte homes can be viewed in the Photogrammar project.
In summary, Carriker acknowledges that there are many reasons historians have largely dismissed the arcadian efforts of the DSH, but he defends the program for all that it did achieve — above all, for the potential and hope for a better tomorrow embodied in the little houses with the big yards that remain as a forgotten experiment in American self-sufficiency.
Reviewed by Alex Tarr