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  • Urban Farming in the West: A New Deal Experiment in Subsistence Homesteads
  • James E. McWilliams
Urban Farming in the West: A New Deal Experiment in Subsistence Homesteads. By Robert Carriker. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010. Pp. 252. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 9780816528202, $50.00 cloth.)

In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created the Division of Subsistence Homesteads (DSH), the stated goal of which was to foster “the redistribution of the overbalance of population in industrial centers” by “aiding in the purchase of subsistence homesteads” (155). Robert M. Carriker’s Urban Farming in the West: A New Deal Experiment in Subsistence Homesteads offers the most thorough account to date of this program’s western operation. Whereas previous considerations of the subsistence homestead projects have dismissed the DSH’s work as an “utter failure” (159), Carriker demurs, providing a balanced corrective that, while not necessarily presenting the DSH as a success, usefully situates its work in a less polarized framework.

Among other things, the Great Depression laid bare the vulnerabilities of [End Page 320] industrial work. Carriker astutely notes that this “new class of property-less, displaced, and voting industrial workers” quickly became politically relevant. “People both inside and outside the government saw the desperation,” he writes, “and postulated that the answer to rehabilitating America lay in establishing rural communities.” This was the intellectual and social context in which New Deal architects pursued FDR’s vision of “a lower cost of living by having a greater percentage of our population living a little closer to the source of supply.” The idea was simple enough: American families would work urban jobs and, with federal support, grow and raise some of their own food on their “rurban” homesteads.

Problems ensued. Program director Milburn Wilson favored “a decentralized subsistence homestead program” while Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes seemed to prefer “slow moving centralization.” Other bureaucrats did not know what to make of “this ambiguous subsistence homesteading thing,” incessantly worried over the communist undertones that rang throughout the promotional literature. In the end, Carriker laments the “confusion over disparate objectives” that undermined DSH goals. In highlighting these problems, Carriker demonstrates how public projects were intimately dependent upon the forethought and planning of bureaucratic entities–entities, it turns out, that were often marked by contradiction and confusion.

Urban Farming in the West does an excellent job of highlighting the finely grained experience of the homesteaders as well. Whereas the government often sought to direct “attractive and enticing communities,” the residents themselves did not always follow the preferred script. California’s two demonstration projects, El Monte and San Fernando, certainly enjoyed more than a modest share of success: families farmed part time, ran local markets, and maintained a demonstration garden. All these efforts, for a time, prevailed with “community-wide acceptance.” But tensions eventually arose from residents who, after moving onto the homestead, refused to follow the rules of community upkeep, homesite regulations, and farming stipulations. In time, enthusiasm for “subsistence homesteading, on the wane for some time, took the same downward turn.” To an extent, this general trajectory characterized the experience in Arizona and Washington, too.

Carriker’s emphasis on the many successes and failures marking the rise of the homestead communities leads to a model of institutional history. But in many ways the book’s studied objectivity has a tendency to bog the reader down in details without suggesting a fuller sense of what these details are supposed to add up to qualitatively. Mishap follows mishap, accomplishment follows accomplishment, and Carriker’s ultimate assessment is lukewarm. He believes that the DSH deserves considerable credit for building “thirty-four communities” that “remain, in various forms, living legacies of this New Deal agency’s high-minded, if short-lived, experiment” in housing development. Clearly aware of his own ambivalence on his subject, Carriker ultimately acknowledges that “determining the successes and failures of the DSH in the Far West is only part of the tale.” The other part is placing DSH’s “peculiarly diverse agenda” in “the broader context of the New Deal and the New Deal in the West.” According to these standards, Carriker’s highly specialized book is an important...


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