- Free Food, Free Space:People's Stews and the Spatial Identity Politics of People's Parks
As radio host and historian Studs Terkel discovered when he arrived at Chicago's activist-created Poor People's Park at the corner of Halsted and Armitage one fall evening in 1969, food served as a symbolic form of cultural and territorial reclamation. Created spontaneously by activists days prior, the park was the most recent spatial occupation by Lincoln Park residents who had been protesting the impact of urban renewal on affordable housing. Terkel heard the crunch of shovels and rakes hitting the rocky dirt, yet the smell of simmering Puerto Rican asopao de pollo or chicken stew continued to draw the residents' attention.1 When asked by Terkel why she came out to cook for park workers, Ceil Keegan explained that the dish honored the ethnic heritage of the Young Lords leading the park's construction. Her calm and earnest tone conveyed her pride in cooking for these activists as a form of emotional caretaking, encouraging denigrated members in her community to be proud of their culture. Local newspapers had characterized the protest as militant and hypermasculine, yet Keegan made a public display of slowly cooking a delicious vat of chicken stew—its tantalizingly rich aroma pouring into the lungs of their surrounding white middle-class critics who looked on from the sidewalks with derision. Within Poor People's Park, food was a medium for asserting power and reclaiming space that became a foundation for building cross-cultural alliances across boundaries of race, gender, ethnicity, and class in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. [End Page 103]
Focusing on "people's stews," this article examines the racial politics embedded within shared meals cooked within urban spatial takeovers in the late–Cold War era. People's stews were collectively produced potages made from scavenged ingredients that, when cooked together in public bonfires, symbolized a cross-cultural unity of resistance to the Man. Soups were one of several key meals frequently served in "people's parks"—urban recreation areas created illegally on vacant lots between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s. As part of a larger pattern of "placemaking" protests in the postwar era, people's parks were created to protest a range of issues, from the Vietnam War to urban renewal to police brutality.2 While historians have focused on situating select case studies of people's parks within broader patterns of Vietnam-era activism, as well as the emergence of hippie modernist design, putting these parks in conversation with one another reveals food as a lens into how American identity shaped the successes and struggles of coalition building within this era.3 Food not only served as what Warren Belasco has called a "marker of revolutionary consumerism," but shared feasts like people's stews functioned as spectacles, forms of sustenance, and symbols of occupied territories that have shaped how some participants have remembered these protests.4
Scholars of the U.S. postwar left have increasingly uncovered diverse narratives of alliances during this era that challenge rigid political distinctions, revealing what historians Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle have argued is more of a disjointed trajectory of social justice commitments than a cohesive movement.5 While art, performances, and the underground press have been analyzed as mediums for countercultural and leftist political expression, food was also a critical component of the resistant aesthetics within the politics of community-based urban design as a radical protest movement for the postwar left.6 Activists used food to link identity, space, and power in the postwar era: protests over segregated dining spaces in white homes and restaurants helped launch the civil rights movement; a back-to-the-earth, whole-food movement transformed hippie communalism into popular capital enterprises; and feminists used kitchens, restaurants, and bars to create safe spaces while enabling women to reclaim radical domesticity as a form of revolutionary group identity empowerment.7 Structural inequality embedded within the food system fueled the Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast Program and the United Farm Workers' (UFW) international grape boycott, and it inspired the creation of alternative economies like food cooperatives and communes within the...