Film Review: “Growing Cities” — Searching for America’s Urban Farmland

Although “Growing Cities” plays a bit like a home movie, it at least scores points for enthusiasm.

A scene from "Growing Cities."

A scene from “Growing Cities” — a look at urban faming in America.

By Paul Dervis

The sixth annual Enviro-Film Festival is coming to Boston on May 18th: “Across 4 venues in Boston, the Boston Environmental Film Festival brings the latest films on current environmental successes, struggles, actions and animations along with investigations about energy and the sheer beauty of the natural world.” One of its offerings is Growing Cities, a film about urban farming in America. This is a documentary created by two recent college graduates who grew up together. Although it plays a bit like a home movie, it at least scores points for enthusiasm.

Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette come home from their respective East Coast and West Coast schools and back to Omaha, Nebraska. Though they live in the heart of the nation’s farming community, statistically the residents are more obese and unhealthy than the nation’s average. The two set off on an odyssey to find America’s urban farmland.

First stop the San Francisco Bay area.

Not surprisingly, Berkeley, California has a long and rich tradition in urban farming. They visit with Jim Montgomery, a physically disabled farmer who keeps livestock in the city. Between goats and chickens and rabbits he’s able to fully sustain himself. And we get to see Jim walking his goats through town! San Francisco has one of the nation’s longest traditions of urban gardening, an unbroken track record since World War 1.

The boys head north to Seattle.

There they meet with community activists who run victory gardens. Seattle actually reminds one of the victory gardens in the Fens. Not surprising in that these two cities have quite similar aesthetics.

Sensing a pattern here?

The rest of the film takes us to Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York, Atlanta, New Orleans and back to Omaha. We learn a little bit new in each city…but not much. In a way, Detroit is the most interesting because the city is so economically depressed. Gardens are popping up in burnt-out houses: the proprietors of these gardens are doing their best to offer fresh vegetables to a population that has very little access to such necessities.

We also get to see our own victory gardens in the Fenway area of Boston and learn of the multitude of rooftop gardens throughout New York City. In New Orleans’ lower 9th Ward, devastated by Katrina, has established a school for urban gardening. Our School at Blair Grocery takes at risk kids and teaches them the trade of growing food while also having them work toward their GEDs.

Finally, Dan and Andrew come home to their native Omaha and find that the first urban farm has already been started up their hometown. So what do Andrew and Dan do? You guessed it… now they’re running their own urban farm.

The problem with this compact documentary is that it’s fairly simplistic. There are interviews with many of the creators of these farms and gardens, but we hear from very few experts in the field. A professor from University of California Berkeley was interviewed three times — that’s all when it comes to getting the lowdown from researchers on the subject. We are left with folk who talk to us about their own very small domain.

The film is only an hour long, but its repetition borders on the tedious. Still, the filmmakers have a youthful energy that manages to keep the project afloat…if barely!

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for hs work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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