In Your Neighborhood/Opinion

Will the sidewalk be unbroken?

A local farmers market offers an opportunity to walk in a garden of serendipity

Photo by Richard Asinof

An example of a sidewalk segment built 84 years ago as part of the WPA program in Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/21/19
Getting off the daily news treadmill can provide opportunities to engage with a garden of serendipity of convergence and conversations.
How do we measure the value of connectedness when we go shopping at a farmers market? How much of our chronic diseases are related to chemical and toxic contamination of our food products? How many times a day do you talk with someone in person, face to face?
One of the more fascinating grassroots campaigns now underway is the effort by Breast Cancer Action as part of its 2019 Think Before You Pink Campaign, focused on the message, “Say Never to Forever Chemicals, addressing a class of chemicals known as PFAs and PFOAs, or “forever chemicals,” because they do not easily degrade an persist when they enter the environment.
As part of the campaign, Breast Cancer Action is targeting 3M, alleging that they have attempted to conceal the serious health risks of “forever chemicals” while continuing to develop new chemicals in the class.

PROVIDENCE – No doubt, we are living in extraordinary times, at a time when the nation seems to be devolving into a Constitutional crisis with the looming impeachment of the President, in which many of the conflicts appear to be the result of the current administration’s own making. Despite the admonishment of Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, that we need to “get over it,” that seems unlikely to happen.

As the decibel levels of divisiveness keep increasing, abetted by the political messaging attached to the constant urgency of the news flow, it keeps adding an extra level of anxiety and stress to our daily lives. Who needs to watch a scary movie for Halloween when all you need is to follow the daily Twitter feed of the President?

To break free and escape the constant barrage of incoming news flow, I ventured out to visit the Hope Street Farmers Market on a crisp Saturday morning, which was holding its second-to-last outdoor weekend market in Lippitt Park at the end of Blackstone Boulevard.

I found myself engulfed by a friendly crowd of shoppers, most in no particular rush, meandering from vendor to vendor, encountering parents with young toddlers in strollers, older couples with their vintage shopping bags, bicyclists, people accompanied by dogs in all shapes and sizes, all entertained by an ad hoc quartet of musicians playing a request of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a spirited up-tempo version of the Carter Family song from the 1930s, recently featured in a segment of the new Ken Burns film documentary on country music.

I found myself singing along, softly. [My knowledge of the song, I admit, had come from a 1972 album, produced by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a three-record set named after the song, on which numerous country classics were featured, played by the many of the original performing artists.]

It was, by definition, a very different kind of engaged community than the online variety, where sights and smells and encounters were unplanned and unpredictable. Call it a walk in a garden of serendipity. It offered a very different vibe than shopping in a local market, where it often feels as if you have become captive on a conveyor belt of carefully packaged persuasion techniques to get you to buy more now.

And, if I am being honest here, my stroll through the farmers market was my attempt to break free from the pressures of writer’s block on deadline, to take in the sights, sounds and smells, to put myself in a listening and observing mood.

It was also a conscious decision to try and work on my own mobility, following surgery, in a non-stressful manner, as suggested by the physical therapist.

In search of conversations
At the Barden Family Orchard stand, where I was buying my weekly supply of Macoun apples, the women next in line was wearing a jacket with an old Fleet Bank logo and the promise that the firm had the solutions.

“Do you have the solutions?” I inquired, in a friendly manner.

She smiled, realized that I was responding to the phrase on her jacket, and laughed. “No.” She had worked for Fleet for more than 20 years, she explained, but no longer. Fleet, once a staple of the Rhode Island banking industry, was no more, having been swallowed up by Bank of America.

It had been a good job, she continued, but toward the end, there had been a lot of bad business decisions, she explained, as she selected a number of honey crisp apples.

Purity of product
At the DELIcious stand, where I purchased a container of freshly made babaganoush, I asked about the importance of farmers markets as part of the regular venue for selling products. For instance, I said that I often purchased the DELIcious brand of hummus at Four Town Farm.

The Hope Street Farmers Market, the person managing the stand said, was one of several farmers markets where DELIcious products were sold. There was a steady following, he explained, driven in larger part by customers who were looking for a higher quality of product.

He described himself as a refugee from the commercial restaurant business.

In his opinion, much of the vitality of the food industry in Rhode Island was driven by the desire to find food products that were free of chemicals and additives, because so many young people had developed allergies and sensitivities to additives within overly processed foods.

He blamed the heightened sensitivity in part on the overuse of chemical sanitizers and cleaning products.

He told the story of how his own daughter, who has a nut allergy, and had gotten sick every time she visited the school nurse, because the nurse had a hand-washing liquid that contained a nut-based lotion.

It is a small world, after all
Slowly making my way back to my parked car along Blackstone Boulevard, I stopped at the stand for New Harvest Coffee, a local coffee roaster, grabbing a cup of dark roast to fuel the rest of my journey. Because I was in a listening mode, I did not share the story about how the owner of New Harvest, Rick, had been a former coffee roaster at the Coffee Exchange, who some 20 years ago decided to launch his own business, an example of Rhode Island food entrepreneurship, with the young workers staffing the stand.

On the way out, walking slowly, standing aside as other shoppers moved more quickly down the sidewalk, I bumped into Mark Binder, who is a local author, busy selling his books., autographing them for purchasers.

Binder had once ventured into electoral politics, running for a seat in the state House of Representatives. His campaign manager, Jeff Britt, had been the person who had been indicted on Friday for alleged money laundering as part of the 2016 campaign in which House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello had narrowly defeated his opponent.

Binder volunteered that he had been interviewed by Boston Globe reporter Dan McGowan the day before, but he hadn’t seen the story yet.

Would Binder ever consider running again? He shook his head, adding, “Never say never.”

In focus
One of the things that happens following extensive neck surgery is that your neck tends to need to become more flexible; you have a tendency to look down, in a somewhat bent over posture.

As a result, I found myself looking at the metal marker in the sidewalk alongside the park where the farmers market was held, which proudly declared that concrete sidewalk had been built by the Works Progress Administration, 1935-1937, one of the jobs programs featured as part of the New Deal under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an example, depending on your political persuasion, of how government can do good things to support the economy.

The fact that the segment of the sidewalk has survived for 84 years and was in relatively good shape, with its metal marker intact, was a sign, perhaps, that there was some meaning in the state motto of “Hope.” Indeed, the farmers market bordered on Hope Street, one of the few avenues that traverses the entire city of Providence, north to south.

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