Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Where Did All the Farms Go?

President Theodore Roosevelt once said, "If there is one lesson taught by history, it is that the permanent greatness of any State must ultimately depend upon the character of its country population than upon anything else. No growth of cities, no growth of wealth, can make up for loss in either the number or the character of the farming population." Unfortunately over the past 60 years we have seemed to all but forget this. According to the Gloucester County Farm Journal, in 1913 there were 2,252 farms operating in the county. Fast forward 100 years, and today we find a total of 669. Where did all the farms go? There are certainly more people living in the US now and it's not as if we're not eating food anymore (although increasingly Americans are consuming laboratory-made, genetically-modified and processed frankenfoods that have little in common with real food and are paying for it with their health). In 1913 all food was produced locally and walked or carted by horse to the local farmer's market or corner grocery store downtown (by train if the food was going a little further). But in the age of cheap oil it was perfectly reasonable to get all your food trucked in from across the entire country. This is no longer an option. The center will not hold. Next time you question the price of your food, think of the logistics (and the gas money) it took to get it from California to your stomach. James Howard Kunstler humorously describes this as the 3,000-mile Caesar salad. This type of unsustainable activity goes on everyday while we could perfectly supply ourselves locally. We did once before and we could certainly do it again... minus a few strip malls around our periphery.

Centre Street Farmers Market in Woodbury...
Oh and BTW, that beautiful church is gone too.
Image: Images of America: Woodbury/Gloucester County Historical Society
The last 60 years brought about the wide-scale destruction of farmland, gobbled up for single-use zoned residential and commercial development. Much of this led to the disappearance of large-scale farming operations. But productive farms come in all shapes and sizes and America during these "sprawl-years" also lost an entire culture of small-scale farming families. These smaller operations were able to exist much closer to the urban center. Reviewing detailed aerial photographs of Woodbury from the late 1920s reveal small-scale farms sprinkled throughout the city. One such example would be the case of the Charles H. Thomas Farm, 320 Delaware Street. Below we see pictured their lovely small farm operation just a few minutes walk out of the thriving urban center of  downtown Woodbury in 1913. One hundred years later it is a through-road to a single-use zoned residential section; an older attractive one, but no farms allowed there now. I'm sure they've been zoned out of the question like some insipid enterprise no one wants to be near.

1929 Sanborn map showing size and location of the Thomas farm
Today the farm is a through road to single-use
Another local example of the disappearing small scale farm, is the George Howland Croft farm, which once stood and operated on West Red Bank Avenue. It is now a single-use zoned apartment complex... no food grown there today, just a lot more people that need to eat to survive.

19th century: Farm
20th century: Farm 
21st century: Not a Farm 
 And how about another example.... 

A once thriving local West Deptford farm now obliterated by....
... this! Ughh...
 The original concept of living in the suburbs was an entirely more sustainable living arrangement compared with today. If a family wanted to live in the open country, it was expected that they better get to farming. Today, a Jane Jacobs, circa 1950s, quote comes to mind, “It is no accident that we Americans, probably the’s champion sentimentalizers about nature, are at one and the same time probably the world’s most voracious and disrespectful destroyers of wild and rural countryside. It is neither love for nature nor respect for nature that leads to this schizophrenic attitude. Instead, it is a sentimental desire to toy, rather patronizingly, with some insipid, standardized, suburbanized shadow of nature … And so, each day, several thousand more acres of our countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have killed the thing they thought they came to find.” 

Farmerettes at a farm in Woodbury. cira 1920-1940. NJ State Archives

Now for some good news.

For the first time in a very long while farmers are buying back their land slated for housing subdivisions. Leigh Gallagher in her new book, The End of the Suburbs, writes, "Residential land values plummeted so much--falling nearly 70 percent from 2006 to 2011--that developers who had bought up raw land during the boom started selling it back to the farmers they bought it from. It was a reversal from the boom years, when the amount of land for farms fell by two to four million acres a year as developers paid huge premiums to get their hands on farmland that they could develop. Now, farmers who sold during the boom, making multiples they never dreamed of on their land, were able to profit on the other side as well, buying that very same land back for a song. In an additional does of irony, crop prices had soared, jumping 20 percent from 2007 to 2011, at the same time that home values plummeted, so the land was now more valuable to the farmers than ever. The Wall Street Journal's Robbie Whelan recounted the tale of the Englands, an Arizona cotton farming family that paid $731,000 for 430 acres of cotton fields sixty-five miles southeast of Phoenix in 2004, flipped the property to an apartment builder in 2009 for $8.6 million, then bought the farm back out of foreclosure for $1.75 million."

Woodbury farm circa 1910, most likely the old DeHart Farm
Want some more good news? The urban farmer trend is growing. Community gardens, small-scale food co-ops, city rooftop container gardens, and backyard chicken coops coupled with a general renewed interest among the younger generations of Americans in homesteading and living a more sustainable, DIY-style life is a powerfully positive force. Local small-scale agriculture is a great solution to wide-scale, polluting factory farms. Friends who live in the City of Pittsburgh are raising chickens and their kids, whilst learning a valuable lesson, love it! Kate Madigan of the Michigan Environmental Council writes, "In a society that has become so far removed from agriculture, raising urban chickens is one refreshing way to reconnect with and appreciate where our food comes from." According to a recent South Jersey Times article, the backyard chicken phenomenon is here in Woodbury and I believe it should be supported, although it is "illegal" according to current ordinances. (UPDATE 2016: There is now a pilot-program allowing chickens in Woodbury). Small-scale farming does wonders to support a healthy, more sustainable way of life. "It's a serious issue - it's no yolk," said Mayor Dave Cieslewicz of Madison, Wisconsin, when his city reversed its poultry ban in 2004. "Chickens are really bringing us together as a community. For too long they've been cooped up."

Gloucester County was once called the, "County that feeds Philadelphia." We would be wise to nurture these roots. Notable New Jersey author, John T. Cunningham wrote in his 1953 book This is New Jersey, "If industry and people ever crowd agriculture out, Gloucester County will be sadly different. Ever since the Swedes first poked up Raccoon Creek nearly 350 years ago, this land has seemed meant for a plow. It was reserved, in a way, as a garden patch, when cities elsewhere expanded--and ate what Gloucester County grew." Supporting "Smart Growth" and New Urbanism alleviates wasteful development on much needed farmland by building better structured towns and cities. Personally, I am grateful for the 669 farms in Gloucester County we have managed to hold on to (The closest active farm operation to the City of Woodbury that I can gather would be DeHarts Farm Market in Thorofare). I believe that we may even see this number grow over the next few years. Local folks like Zeke and Hillary Stecher, Alex Gassner (a Woodbury resident), John Hurff, and many others are apart of a nationwide trend of younger generations getting involved in farming.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go turn my compost pile.


For a more complete overview (and more photos) of the Gloucester County Agricultural scene in 1913, please visit:

For another glimpse at Woodbury's agricultural past see our other post:

Enjoy some random historic rural scenes from Woodbury and beyond:

The following three images from the Images of America book: South Jersey Farming.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Golf under Gaslight: Woodbury Country Club

My extensive article on the life and death of the Woodbury Country Club (1897- 2009) has been published and is now available in the new Bulletin of the Gloucester County Historical Society, Vol. 34, No. 2. For more information on how you can receive this quarterly bulletin and support the greatest source for local history, please visit the GCHS website.

Featured below is a small excerpt from my article containing some rare photos which were not able to be published in the GCHS Bulletin. Enjoy!

Although it is hard to ascertain exactly where the Woodbury Country Club falls in the chronology of earliest golf courses and country clubs in America, it does most certainly rank among the first 200. It was, however, the very first in the country, if not the world, to provide a fully lighted course; a remarkable feat at the time. In 1911, both the entire golf course and tennis courts were illuminated by towering Welsbach gas light fixtures to the joy of club members wishing to extend their playing time into the night. The idea was introduced by Thomas J. Little, one of the directors of WCC at that time and not coincidentally, engineer for the Welsbach Lighting Company. The gas was supplied by the Public Service Gas Company. Numerous articles in Scientific American and various lighting journals of the day wrote about the amazing engineering feat of evenly illuminating the entire field and tennis courts. It was noted that the light was so effective that a golf ball could still be clearly seen at a distance of 200 feet. The January 1912 issue of Good Lighting and the Illuminating Engineer wrote, "It has been found at Woodbury that the [tennis] courts are patronized on an average of three hours an evening, with all courts filled, and a number on the waiting list." The article goes on to state that spectators lined up nightly along the fence to watch the game. What a testament of just how popular the Club was back then, even at night!

A great historical diagram showing the original golf course layout.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Preservation Potentials: Green Castle Hotel

Very excited to present the latest Preservation Potential! A once lovely 1880 building chock full of history and potential is up for sale. The building has been under threat of demolition and this could be a chance in a lifetime to save it whilst investing in this historically scenic gateway into Woodbury. Situated on the corner of Cooper and Railroad, the former Victorian-era hotel built by a 5-term mayor, Lewis M. Green is located across from a successful cafe-style restaurant and a few steps from the active Priya art gallery! It will also be nearby the planned light rail stop which is in development now. The building needs some restorative work but the bones are good! The potential is enormous! This spot would be an amazing coffee shop, arts center, museum, storefront, bed and breakfast... you name it! Original exterior window shutters as shown on the photo below are currently stored in the basement. Available grants for restoration funding are available to non-profits. Also because the property is a contributing building in the New Jersey Register of Historic Places' Green Era District potential grant aid is available. More information HERE.

From the listing: The subject property is a combination two and three story building with a partial basement. The Owner has authorized the sale of the building, subject to the City of Woodbury approving a formal minor subdivision plan creating a lot with the building on it of approximately 45' x 90'; this will result in a non-conforming lot requiring a variance(s). The Owner will consider a license for the land retained by the Owner for a buyer's adjacent on site ingress and egress as well as parking use under terms and conditions to be determined by the Owner. The building contains approximately 24 rooms with various bathrooms and kitchen areas. The total estimated gross building area is 5,348 SF. The building is in need of complete restoration and remodeling both inside and out. It is the intent of the Owner to have the building restored by and investor or user. The proposed sale is part of Block 118 Lot 27. Real Estate taxes would be determined after an approved subdivision. Located in the Historic District.

Offered at $250,000! 

Full listing HERE.

For the back story visit HERE and HERE.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Geography of Nowhere

American artist, R. Crumb's "A Short History of America" from 1979. He moved to France in the 1980s.
In 1993, James Howard Kunstler wrote his landmark book, The Geography of Nowhere. I hope we are beginning to wake up to the issues he presents, but I fear many of us still "evince complacency." Twenty years on, his words are still poignant:

"Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading – the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the ‘gourmet mansardic’ junk-food joints, the Orwellian office ‘parks’ featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chaingang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call ‘growth. "

The newspaper headlines may shout about global warming, extinctions of living species, the devastation of rain forests, and other world-wide catastrophes, but Americans evince a striking complacency when it comes to their Everyday environment and the growing calamity that it represents.

I had a hunch that many other people find their surroundings as distressing as I do my own, yet I sensed too that they lack the vocabulary to understand what is wrong with the places they ought to know best. That is why I wrote this book."

The 20th Anniversary Edition is now available as an eBook.


To sum it up... for the future of America... we need more of this:

Average European commerce. Image credit: HERE

and MUCH LESS of this:

Average American commerce: the geography of nowhere. Image credit HERE

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Woodbury's view of the Philadelphia Skyline

I recently toured the former Masonic lodge (Florence No 87) on Broad Street for an upcoming feature on the new owners, XS/RE's adaptive reuse efforts. What a great building and downtown location! Check out the view of the Philadelphia skyline from their roof! Only 9 miles away... as the crow flies.

I wonder how many other locations in Woodbury could potentially utilize this million dollar view!?

Philly skyline from Woodbury, NJ
image: Jacqualynn Knight

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Arrested Redevelopment

What has become of the places I loved? - Sarah Guimond
When historic buildings come down, the predictable cries from preservationists are heard throughout the land. But the reason behind these cries is often misunderstood. The cause of the outcry is not merely based on historic sentimentality due to the often misguided demolition of an old building, just because it is old, but it is actually what replaces these demolished structures that is at the root of good preservationism and the more serious of issues. The decline of our stately architecture within American cities, towns, and communities replaced oftentimes with slabs of tarmac or significantly inferior structures in the form of unadorned and windowless boxes (not to mention what we put in them) signify a frightening symbolic collapse of American standards and ultimately America as a whole. The great majority of what has been built over the past 50 years in America has been either blatant and wasteful sprawl or a sad attempt at urban infill with little, if any, aesthetic appeal. Aesthetic appeal to foster pedestrianism is worth more than we could ever imagine. We can no longer continue to ignore the damaging side-effects that disposable architecture wreaks in our towns.

Our standards have gone downhill fast...
8th and Chestnut, Philly. Then and Now
 A good preservationist's role is about more than just saving historic buildings. It is more so concerned with the overarching ideal of preserving once-proud American standards of urban fabric --our neighborhoods, our communities, our places worth caring about. That is what a good preservationist is ultimately trying to preserve when they question and oftentimes resist the status quo of poor choices and inferior development that the past 50 years of automobile-centric planning, AKA sprawl, has brought to the table. Architect and Urbanist Dhiru Thadani defines sprawl as a pattern of low density development that is characterized by dependence on the automobile, large lot residential development, and strict commercial development.
Unfortunately the general American public does not know any better to question these inferior living environments as we have nearly all been forced to live in them and accept their short-comings. There is a definite connection between our living environments and how they affect our psychological makeup. If sprawl development was the right way of doing things, it would not have failed... but it has on so many levels. Auto-dependent-suburbs in the form of the single-use subdivisions have only been successful in establishing segregation, higher taxes, declining property values, higher fatality rates, higher obesity, more traffic congestion, higher suicide rates, higher carbon footprint, higher pollution, and a slew of other horrible things. Even good old mainstream TIME magazine is finally announcing The End of the Suburbs! 2.7 million more poor now reside in car-dependent suburbs as compared to intact walkable downtowns and cities.

NOW is a crucial time to ask our city officials exactly what direction we plan to go in. A greater number of individuals now seek a denser, walkable, bikeable town, especially the young creative class Woodbury so desperately needs to attract and retain. More people every year are choosing not to drive (the numbers of drivers in the U.S. has steadily decreased since 2007). City planners should absolutely take this into account when proposing any new development. As an aside, I have always asked myself if we as Americans value our freedom so much, why do we continue to develop our towns in ways that enslave us to machines in the form of automobiles? Can there exist a better-planned suburb, one that is not a large metropolis that retains a respectable amount of personal space which made the original "idea" of suburbia so alluring? Yes, of course but it must favor Smart Growth over sprawl growth!

Why do I Care?
I, among a growing number of younger individuals I have met, moved to Woodbury for two things: 1) the city's remaining intact aesthetic historic architecture and 2) its potential to be a thriving urban center as it once was. My wife and I have spent many years living previously in Collingswood and watched the town go from desolate downtown (not unlike Woodbury's today) to active and thriving. Why we left is an unrelated story but we saw the same potential in Woodbury and decided to take a chance. Downtown Woodbury currently has a Walk Score of 65 (Somewhat walkable), which is not too bad, but we absolutely need to work on getting this higher. It should also not be limited to Broad Street. The Country Club Redevelopment would have been a perfect opportunity to introduce proper urbanism, to build a better neighborhood, but more on that below. Why should we care about this? Because higher Walk Scores are directly linked to higher home values. Homes with above-average Walk Scores are worth between $4,000 – $34,000 more than similar but less walkable homes. Other benefits of a high Walk Score include:
·  People in walkable neighborhoods weigh 6-10 lbs less.
·  Walkable places make you happier and healthier.
·  Significantly decreased carbon footprint.
·  Short commutes reduce stress and increase community involvement. (read more reasons: here)
Collingswood, with a Walk Score of 86, gets this and are accomplishing it by following a New Urbanism style Smart Growth plan incorporating their existing historic infrastructure with a firm grasp on aesthetic beauty. They are most fortunate to have a much narrower main street thoroughfare and therefore have predominantly escaped the damaging effects of the past 50 years of unsightly commercial strip mall development which unfortunately surrounds downtown Woodbury on both ends of Broad Street; the unfortunate consequence of having a state highway (45) run through your town. This is why I completely opposed the way Bottom Dollar was allowed to ignore our Main Street and Historic Preservation District designations AND Redevelopment Plan and build the junk of a building they did which is more aligned to an automobile strip mall than something you should see in a functioning walkable downtown. From this point forward we must strive to keep this stuff out of our downtown at ALL COSTS. Anyhow, I digress and I'm sure there are plenty of folks quick to dismiss the Woodbury/Collingswood comparison but it must be noted that for being a smaller location they have done a great job at retaining their urban density and as a result, Collingswood has nearly 4,000 more people that choose to call the borough home... and many of them are of a younger set. According to the 2010 Census, Collingswood boasted 2,337 citizens between the ages of 25 - 34, the slightly larger City of Woodbury reported 1,548. This variance will only grow in Collingswood's favor if we don't focus on bringing the right kind of development and better aesthetics to Woodbury.

"Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things." - Russell Baker

Whereas Group Melvin Design created a fairly nice Downtown Redevelopment Plan with semi-New Urbanist principles for Woodbury a few years back (which the city has yet to follow), I'm not quite certain why this same design firm dropped the ball on the recently announced Country Club Redevelopment Plan. This plan, complete with sprawling driveways, expansive parking lots, McMansion subdivisions, single-use convalescent rehab medical facilities, and what will be Woodbury's first cul-de-sacs (welcome to the 1960s!), is a completely outmoded waste of space that does nothing to contribute to pedestrianism, commerce, or to the betterment of the city. This will do nothing to attract residents to live here and will ultimately contribute to more traffic congestion. It is the complete antithesis of Smart Growth. In other words, and as shown by population trends, it is exactly what young, educated professionals do NOT want to live near. I'm not against progress, I'm against bad progress and I really oppose development for the sake of development.
I'm disappointed that City Council voted 6-0 to approve this McMansion padded office park. Why did they not question the unsustainability of its design and the potential effect it will have on Woodbury's increasingly vanishing allure? The defense of  "more-rateables-is-good" will be touted I'm sure but we should all realize by now that it's the design of the development that will dictate whether these added taxables will be of any benefit when compared to the added "tax" the same development will have on our towns' resources and residents. The Sierra Club further explains that: our tax money subsidizes new sprawling developments, rather than improving our existing communities. Sprawl costs our cities and counties millions of dollars for new water and sewer lines, new schools, and increased police and fire protection. Those costs are not fully offset by the taxes paid by the new users. Instead, sprawl forces higher taxes on existing residents and hastens the decline of our urban tax base. In other words, this type of progress rarely even pays for itself and only serves to hasten the decline of residency and the overall attraction of the area.

On a side note: It was recently explained to me the reason for the sparseness of the design lay in the fact that the Country Club grounds are largely wetland and that our current school system could not handle a more densely designed, mixed-use community. Fair enough, but I still find it worrisome that the Country Club, something designed to increase health and fitness of the social community, is being replaced by a convalescent rehab medical center. In other words, a proactive health establishment is being replaced by a reactive health establishment. The symbolism is crushing. Like some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, we are constructing medical-building monuments to America's increasingly destabilizing health which is largely brought on by our increasingly unhealthy living environments and lifestyles.
So this is what we're getting:

When we could've had this:

Or this (Rowan Blvd):

I speak for the growing number of us that are frankly tired of living in U.S. cities and towns that for the past 50 years have been self-destructing. That is why I continually advocate via social media the positives and negatives of living in Woodbury, a classic small American city, to over one thousand unique visitors to my sites every week. At times I use this blog to vent, as in this post, but ultimately it is in hopes that someone in a position of power in our city hears the cries of the younger generation. We simply want a better functioning place to live, one that is designed to place its residents over damaging commercial enterprises, a city that places people over automobiles. I hope our city officials realize that the growth they so crave is contingent on attracting new residents... not quite sure long-term convalescents count as that, but again it's more a question of how a development is designed that will align it with Smart Growth principles and the Country Club Redevelopment Plan is sorely lacking in proper density. Personally the deadline for how long I will continue to call the city "home" has now been set. Until then, I refuse to sit back and watch the decay of our standards and intellect which are constantly being weakened by the status quo of doing nothing and I will continually advocate:

aesthetically pleasing Smart Growth...

... over psychologically damaging and unsightly sprawl:

All in all, I know that New Urbanism style planning is still widely unknown in local circles and I will need to conjure a certain amount of patience while the predominant thinking that has led us down the wrong path dissipates in the face of solid facts and growing population trends. Anyone who is concerned with the future of our country should absolutely be concerned with these issues. We're at the forefront of a new modern sustainable city ideology, one that looks as good as it functions... one that uplifts the psychology of its residents and makes them proud. If it is anyone that could be considered "old-fashioned" it is those that persist in continuing down the same path that for the past 50 years has culminated in this current pitiful state. As a preservationist I am not merely concerned with our history but rather the future of our history. Good preservationists are not "stuck in the past"... they are truly concerned with what's to come.
- Bryan Alka

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