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Published by EH.NET (August 2000)

Marc Linder and Lawrence S. Zacharias, Of Cabbages and Kings County:

Agriculture and the Formation of Modern Brooklyn. Iowa City: University of

Iowa Press, 1999. x + 478 pp. $21.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-87745-714-X; $32.95

(cloth), ISBN: 0-87745-670-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David B. Danbom, Department of History, North Dakota

State University.

I need to begin with a disclaimer. This year I was chair of the Agricultural

History Society committee that choose Of Cabbages and Kings County for

the Saloutos Prize, given annually to the best new book on agricultural and/or

rural history. Be advised that I am favorably disposed toward this book.

In Of Cabbages and Kings County, Marc Linder, a law professor at the

University of Iowa, and Lawrence Zacharias, who teaches management at the

University of Massachusetts at Amherst, attempt to show how rural Kings County,

New York villages such as Flatbush, New Utrecht, Bushwick, Flatlands, and

Gravesend were transformed from agricultural places to suburban or urban

components of Brooklyn and later New York City, why that transformation took

place, and whether there was an alternative to the result. They are not

satisfied with the simple answer that market forces determined Kings County’s

fate, noting that the market is a human creation vulnerable to the vagaries of

human nature. Not all of their alternative answers are definitive or even

necessarily satisfactory, but in the process of formulating them, Linder and

Zacharias provide us with the fullest examination of the urbanization — or

de-agriculturalization — process I have seen.

Linder and Zacharias devote the first section of their book to a discussion of

Kings County agriculture, with special reference to the nineteenth century. The

dominant farmers in the county were the descendants of the original Dutch

settlers, and in some ways their agriculture had not evolved very much since

the seventeenth century. The authors do not romanticize these folks, whose

narrow social conservatism was symbolized by the tenacity with which they clung

to the institution of slavery. Linder and Zacharias tend to downplay the

significance of the market in these farmers’ decisions, but one could argue

that the major change in farm operations during the 1860s and 1870s — the

shift from small grain to vegetable production — was dictated by the expanding

metropolitan market for potatoes, cabbages, and so forth. In any event, Kings

County quickly became one of the leading truck farming counties in the nation,

producing vegetables on fields fertilized with urban waste. The authors’

discussion of Kings County farming is fascinating, but at times Linder’s legal

background is betrayed by a tendency to over-argue, in the style of a legal

brief, and by instances of special pleading.

The heart of the book is devoted to a discussion of the process whereby this

agricultural area became suburbanized and then urbanized. The authors’ analysis

is impressively subtle and thoroughgoing, and they succeed in exploding a

number of simplistic popular myths. For example, they refute the notion that

property taxes are a device for driving farmers out of urbanizing and

suburbanizing areas by showing that agriculture enjoyed favorable tax rates. In

addition, they cast doubt on the notion that farmers were either grasping land

barons, or, alternatively, bucolic simpletons, by noting divisions among

farmers themselves over such issues as annexation, land-use restrictions, and

the extension of streets, streetcar lines, water systems, and other

improvements.

As Linder and Zacharias elaborate it, the process of de-agriculturization is a

complex and subtle one. On the one side, real estate developers offer

increasingly attractive incentives for farmers to sell, and they are always

able to find some who are willing. On the other side, the Dutch patriarchs die

out or retire from farming, leaving the land in the hands of tenants or

children less committed to an agricultural life. As urban development slowly

unfolds, the agricultural infrastructure decays, labor become more expensive,

and farmers find themselves encroached upon by people with little sympathy for

farming, who steal or vandalize crops, and who complain of the noise of farm

wagons or the pungent smell of agriculture. As this process advances, a sense

of the inevitability of suburbanization takes hold, and farmers decide not to

reinvest in agriculture, looking to sell out to developers instead. As

individuals sell out, the implicit pressure on their neighbors to do the same

increases. Linder and Zacharias detail the push-pull process in an admirable

fashion, providing a sophisticated and convincing explanation of a complex

phenomenon.

Linder and Zacharias conclude with a rather unsatisfactory discussion of

whether the de-agriculturization of Kings County was inevitable. They argue

that it was not, citing farm-preservation programs in nineteenth-century

European cities and in such selected areas of the modern United States as

Oregon and Long Island. I find this conclusion unsatisfactory in part because

it ignores the strong traditional American bias in favor of individual control

of private property — a bias that has hardly disappeared — and because it

seems to suggest, ahistorically, that nineteenth-century Americans could have

behaved in a way in which they almost never behaved.

The conclusion to Of Cabbages and Kings County is one of the few

unsatisfactory portions in what is overall an attractively produced, abundantly

illustrated, and impressively argued book. Marc Linder and Lawrence Zacharias

have made a major contribution to the sub-fields of urban, rural, and economic

history, and the American history as a whole.

David Danbom’s recent works include “Born in the Country”: A History of

Rural America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).