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From Small Farming to Urban Agriculture: El Monte and Subsistence Homesteading

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"People want to get outdoors ... and the small farms home gives them that opportunity," Ross H. Gast told an audience of San Diegans in 1933. "It is a good home in good and bad times and a place to save earnings with an incidental production of food supply." The writer--an editor at the Los Angeles Times' Farm and Garden Magazine and El Monte resident--had long advocated for the "small farm lifestyle," a return-to-the-land movement that stretched back to the turn of the century. "The way I see it, the small farm home is not just a piece of property but a mode of living, one that is being adopted generally in Southern California," he noted.

Through Gast and others, the Los Angeles Times had spent much of the 1920s promoting the "small farm movement." By 1933, the newspaper claimed that 5,000 households in the county engaged in the practice, with more than 2,000 joining the ranks in that year alone. For many working class homeowners in and around Los Angeles, the home held value productively rather than speculatively. Wage laborers, clerks, and even underpaid professionals by day, residents augmented their income with small acreage food cultivation. In suburbs like South Gate, working and middle class homeowners built their own bungalows and planted their own gardens as much out of economic necessity as any pretense to lifestyle or any hope of improving financial portfolios. As a federal official would tell the public in 1934, the hope was for the small farm movement to "develop a better standard of living and increase the security of families by eliminating their complete dependence on a paycheck."

This bulletin deals chiefly with the economic problems that will be met by those people who are planning to combine part-time farming and wage earning, 1934 | Photo courtesy of US Library of Congress
This bulletin deals chiefly with the economic problems that will be met by those people who are planning to combine part-time farming and wage earning, 1934 | Photo courtesy of US Library of Congress

San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys had also experienced a boom in the numbers of white settlers looking to live out the "small farms" existence. As an El Monte resident, Gast had witnessed the fruits of his promotional work close at hand. A 1934 Los Angeles Times article estimated that 3,000 newcomers had settled on small acreage plots in the growing town prior to 1933. At least six hundred El Monte families already cultivated their own fruits and vegetables on small farm plots. Advertisements "extolling the virtues" of small farm living appeared regularly in local newspapers, notes historian Robert M. Carriker.

Therefore, when New Dealers created the Department of Subsistence Homesteads (DSH) led by M.L. Wilson and organized within the Department of the Interior, DSH leaders looked to Southern California for model sites. With $25 million dedicated to the experimental, federally supervised "small farms program" known as "Subsistence Homesteads," Gast would oversee both the 40-unit San Fernando Valley and 100-unit El Monte homesteads: planning them, building them, and selecting 140 families from a pool of thousands of hopefuls to live on them.

Yet, while the two projects would offer struggling Depression-era families a chance at the combination of rural and urban lifestyles--what Gast called "rurban" living--they would remain exclusively white and in many ways demonstrate the racial impulses that had long fueled the small farms movement. In addition, subsistence homesteads served as symbols of the limitations of New Deal and progressive thought, and the racialized land and housing policies that would undermine the homeownership dreams of minority laborers in California and the nation for decades afterward.

Los Angeles County as the Spot

The combination of its film, agricultural, and manufacturing industries made Los Angeles County a prime location for the small farms movement. During the 1920s, manufacturing boomed as hundreds of local and national firms established plants in the county, including Ford, Goodrich, Firestone, U.S. Steel and others.

The Great Depression gave the idea of rurban living an added impetus. Between 1929 and 1934, workers' weekly earnings declined precipitously by an average of nearly 26%. In a climate of lowered incomes and joblessness, the idea of producing one's own food took on greater significance. Paradoxically, at the same time as wages dropped, some employers actually expanded their operations in the Southland. In 1929 Bethlehem Steel bought the California Iron and Steel Company and in 1936, General Motors built its famous plant in South Gate. Despite the economic downturn of the 1930s, by the middle of the decade, Los Angeles County ranked as fifth in industrial productivity nationally.

El Monte and San Fernando Valley sat within commuting distance of such employment. Only 14 miles from Los Angeles and within seven miles of the city's industrial sector, the fertile land of El Monte offered working and middle class residents a promising small farm existence. From the San Fernando Valley, a 37-mile drive to the center of the city and the local Pacific Electric Red Car routes and schedules expanded such opportunities.

Then again for all the promise of employment, the number of persons on the federal dole boomed. In 1932, the county recorded 37,500 residents on the relief rolls; by 1933 that number had ballooned to 120,000. Employment might have been available but it depended on service employers and low income workers. Rapid population increase along with the county's high percentage of elderly citizens left Los Angeles particularly vulnerable. The city's swift growth, from 936,455 in 1920 to 2,208,492 in 1930 added further pressure. Even those with jobs had to make do with less as their yearly incomes declined to between $600 and $1,000.

Moreover, outside of Republican Mayor Frank Shaw, elected in 1933, most of California and Los Angeles' politicians were either resistant to New Deal policies, like Governor James Rolf (R); uninterested as one could describe William Elmore Evans (R- Ninth Congressional District); or mired in political scandal, which was the case for James Henry Hoeppel (D - 11th Congressional District). Though Senator Hiriam Johnson supported many New Deal policies, he washed his hands of the subsistence homesteads. "I have made a distinction ... between those projects which are designed to help some and profit some," he wrote Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. " I have been extremely wary of the latter class, and if any time I am compelled to communicate with you respecting them, [I] will frankly advise you of that fact." Considering all these factors, it should come as no surprise that in terms of relief, journalist Lorena Hickok described Los Angeles as "the blackest spot in the United States"--hardly the famous "white spot" that inhabited the dreams of out-of-work Midwesterners, Easterners and Southerners.

Photo by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USF34-T01-001709]
Photo by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USF34-T01-001709]

Planning El Monte's Rurban Homes

Despite local political reticence toward the homestead program, the enthusiasm and political support provided by Shaw combined with Gast's stewardship and expertise guided the El Monte and San Fernando projects into existence--and for the most part, success. As a writer and editor for the Times and an official with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Gast knew how to pitch an idea, which he did to Washington bureaucrats in early 1934. "The story's around too," Farm and Garden magazine editor Harold Finley wrote, "that Gast confronted the division with a trunkful of clippings, photographs, charts, plans, diagrams and reports relating to small farm homes and that they hastened then and there to break the news of his appointment [to the DSH] lest he attempt to exhibit them all."

Gast moved quickly, buying up 40 acres in San Fernando Valley and 100 in El Monte. He purchased the former from Irvin Pertz and his wife for $335 an acre and the latter from Jonas Killiam and Minnie Joughlin at $500 per acre. He tapped El Monte resident and architect Joseph Weston to design all 140 homes.

Much as with Gast's other decisions, Weston had been more than well vetted. He had been a winner in a 1928 contest sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce devoted to small farming; Gast had overseen the competition and drew upon this experience when appointed to his position with the DSH. Weston also had the credentials: a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture, he was a practiced architect in California, Europe and Mexico with respected homes in Bel Air, Arizona's Hope Ranch, and Hollywood's American Legion Club. Moreover, he had helped Gast with the original proposal to DSH, which included Weston's home designs based largely on the New England style popular at the time.

Weston's designs proved economical, pragmatic, and aesthetically pleasing. The Los Angeles Times celebrated the El Monte architect's dedication to form and function, nothing that he had figured out how to "shorten a room a few inches and save enough to get a better kitchen sink, and where to put his doors so Mr. and Mrs. and the kids can save steps to and from various corners of the outdoors." The federal government applauded his efforts as well: "probably in no other instance has greater care been taken in the matter, type, design, and placement of houses than at Rurban Homes." Rex Tugwell, head of the Resettlement Administration (RA), declared the two projects as the most successful in the U.S. and "by far the most beautiful." Visitors from 22 states and four countries descended upon the project to see its visionary progress. Gast estimated that nearly 100,000 visited.

Completed several weeks early in September of 1935, Rurban Homes cost approximately $402,113 (El Monte's total cost came to $299,400 and the San Fernando Valley units $102,735)--several thousand under the $410,000 dedicated to the project. Throughout the country, most other DSH projects ran over budget.

The Subsistence Homestead project and the Organized under and administrated by Rurban Homes Inc, a federally controlled non-profit corporation, the homesteads would not be relief projects. Placing it under the auspices of the Department of Interior rather than the Federal Emergency Relief Administration signaled FDR's intent that the program be aimed at social reform rather than charity -- Dust Bowl refugees arriving in the state would find no opportunities with subsistence homesteads.

Though only 1.3 percent of those selected were native Californians, most had lived in the state for over a decade. According to the California State Planning Department, the most common occupations among the new homesteaders were those that worked as mechanics or in the trades. Employment in transportation came third, commerce fourth, and five applicants identified themselves as miners. The average income of the El Monte small farmers amounted to $971 a year, while the San Fernando Valley's selected residents averaged $1,156.

Still, the combined confusion and excitement surrounding the plan required Gast and DSH to clearly outline just what they meant by Subsistence Homesteads. "To clear up any misconception which may arise from the title, the circular makes it plain that the [DSH] does not offer free lands nor lands for homesteading," a Times article pointed out, "but through local corporations will establish model communities of small farm homes and sell those homes to approved applicants on a loan amortization basis which will not allow transfer of title for five years." As Times columnist Shippey Lee wrote in 1935, families "had to make good for five years, no matter how rapidly [they paid] out." Estimated total costs to homesteaders ranged form $2,600 to $3,000, depending on location and size of the home. When the first families moved in in November 1935, they assumed a 40 year monthly payment of $23.34, a bargain when compared to what private lenders offered at the time.

Race, Class and Ethnicity in the Building Subsistence Homesteads

Thousands of prospective homesteaders applied for one of the 140 positions, though exactly how many seems a matter of dispute. In some moments, Gast claimed 30,000 applied and in others 1,850. The head of the Resettlement Administration (RA), Rex Tugwell, told the U.S. Senate 37,000 hopefuls sent in applications. The RA later said that 2,027 applied to El Monte alone. Regardless, we do know that Gast selected 1,500 applicants for personal interviews and whittled it down to the required 140.

Who were the members of the two communities? They were all native born and white. While DSH had planned communities for Native Americans, African Americans, and Jews, all were to be racially or ethnically distinct, a reflection of the racial biases afflicting New Deal policies. Creating a mixed race homestead, noted Carriker, would threaten its viability. Gast wanted the project to demonstrate the benefits of part time farming and low income employment, and any challenge to that was unwelcome. He would make clear he had little interest in reforming society. "We simply tried to create an intensely practical environment for 100 fine families," he later told observers.

In addition to government policies that privileged white males, the back-to-the-land, small farm movement had promoted a white ideal for decades. Admittedly, in its early stages, the movement was seen as radical in nature. Progressive Era reformer Bolton Hall saw small farms as a means toward a more egalitarian society with a greater distribution of wealth.

However, many of the movement's leading lights based their beliefs on racist understandings of non-whites. One of Southern California's small farm pioneers, Charles Weeks, excluded "Orientals" and "Negroes" from his San Ysidro farming community. Another leader, William Smythe, wrote in 1908, that "[t]he Chinaman can no more compete with the 'little lander' than he can compete with the white laundry which has reduced his business in that line to the most insignificant proportions." Elwood Mead, a vocal supporter of the subsistence homesteads and former University of Southern California professor, described Japanese farmers as "alien renters" who "put 'rural life on the downhill grade'" and thereby threatened to ruin American agriculture.

During the 1920s, Los Angeles boosters and real estate interests called whites returning to the land "gentleman farmers," seeing in them an ideal of masculine, rugged individualism on one hand, and a means to increase suburbanization and land speculation on the other. The Los Angeles Times, particularly through Gast, provided a promotional outlet for these developments. In essence, the "little landers," as men like Weeks sometimes referred to them, merged with the rural/urban ideal of the Southern California lifestyle and carried with it all the racial implications embedded within it.

San Fernando Valley serves as a prime example. As Laura Barraclough has demonstrated, this image of the Jeffersonian independent farmer (or as noted, gentleman farmer) rested heavily on the labor of Japanese and Mexican workers. "Gentlemen farming ... cultivated a collective sense of entitlement among whites to live a rural lifestyle with the urban state's subsidy and protection, with few strings attached, that remains meaningful to this day." In San Fernando and Pacoima, Mexican and Japanese workers clustered in multi-racial communities in close proximity to "gentleman farmers" and larger agricultural interests.

El Monte's Hicks Camp demonstrates an identical process that unfolded in San Gabriel Valley. Though never recognized officially as part of the city, the 22-acre barrio served as a migrant camp and home for Mexican and Mexican American field laborers working in the local agricultural industry. El Monte officials refused to provide police or fire service to the community, forcing it instead to rely on Los Angeles County, a situation that had dire effects in several instances. In 1933, protesting low wages and poor work conditions in the local berry industry, Hicks Camp residents along with other workers in the region, struck against their employers, mostly Japanese tenant farmers, who were ironically themselves targets of discrimination.

Gast played a role in the strike and gained a bit of notoriety. Working for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce under Dr. Frank Clements, Gast issued a report on the situation in El Monte. Clements opposed unionization but also restrictions on Mexican immigration. Gast related these concerns to the public, noting that "our particular interest is ...to maintain our Mexican labor supply." Though Gast acknowledged the low wages paid by Japanese growers, he believed that they had acted in good faith and offered a fair compromise to Hicks Camp residents.

Such experiences contrasted with the experience of white El Monte and San Fernando subsistence homesteaders, putting into stark relief the very different realities facing whites, Japanese, and Mexican laborers during the Great Depression and afterwards.

The End Results

Upon its completion, the local El Monte community welcomed the 100-unit homestead project with open arms: "We are glad that you, the 100 federal subsistence homesteaders, have come to dwell among us, and we want you to know it." City officials created a homestead float for the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade in 1936. Later, El Monte High School students established a demonstration garden within the project and recorded their successes. The city's embrace of the community exceeded the expectations of Gast and other DSH leaders.

Gast, however, stepped down soon after the project's completion. In 1935, DSH was placed under the more experimental Resettlement Administration (RA). Gast did not share the RA's approach and resigned in October of 1935. "None of the exotic social and economic theory which has ruled in the development of subsistence homesteads in some parts of the country was considered in carrying out the Rurban Homes," he stated in his final report, confirming his reticence toward the new management. The Farm Securities Administration (who had documented the development of the project through photographer Dorothea Lange) inherited Rurban Homes one year later and in 1942 the Federal Public Housing Authority assumed responsibility for the project, but mostly to organize its sale to homesteaders.

In the intervening years, local development largely erased the influence of the Rurban Homes on the El Monte landscape. However, in the nearly three decades following their completion, 25,000 small farm households would be established in the region. One can even see the seeds of the small farm movement in current urban agriculture.

While Bolton Hall, one of the founders of the small farm movement, had promoted the conversion of vacant lots in turn of the century New York into "gardens for the poor," today Compton's 10-acre Richland Farms community provides residents with access to gardens for cultivation and even livestock. "It's a garden paradise," Lloyd Wilkens told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. Smaller versions of Richland Farms have emerged in cities across the nation; in 2014, New York City counted 900 alone.

Though less about "rugged individualism" or more about providing residents with access to fresh vegetables and fruit (particularly in minority communities that lack access to the same), the urban farming movement, like its small farms predecessor, also emphasizes the importance of nature in the lives of urban residents. Additionally, if the small farms movement and subsistence homesteads fretted over masculinity, the new urban gardening movement features far more women's faces than those of men. "City farmers will tell you that the green-collar work on these small holdings is the province of a largely pink-collar labor force," New York Times columnist Michael Tortorello observed last year.

More collective in nature and with greater number of persons of color, participants in the urban farm movement differ in many ways from "gentleman farmers" of the 1920s, but so does El Monte. Today, San Gabriel Valley, as demonstrated by Wendy Cheng's recent book, "The Changs Next Door to the Diazes," might be one of the most multicultural regions of the United States. In 2010, with funding from the State of California Strategic Growth Council and help from BASE landscape architecture, the city established the El Monte Urban Agriculture Initiative Program. Over approximately 10 months, plans for community gardens, farmers markets and the like were developed. South El Monte's Earthworks Urban Farm has also contributed to the urban agriculture initiative. Matching the diversity of the local population, the farm grows a variety of produce, including crops native to Mexico and Asia. With an overabundance of stores selling junk food, no real supermarket and an obesity rate that hovers around 27 percent for children and 28 percent for adults, El Monte struggles with access to healthy food. Through its crop production, community outreach, and educational programs, Earthworks performs an important task locally.

In the end, the subsistence homestead of the early 1930s might have been problematic in terms of gender, race, and class, but it did establish and perpetuate a tradition in El Monte. Today, residents have reengaged that tradition on different terms and with different goals, and perhaps they can improve on the past.

Earthworks Community Farm is currently getting El Monte and South El Monte residents re-acquainted with growing their own food. Photo courtesy of Earthworks Community Farm.
Earthworks Community Farm is currently getting El Monte and South El Monte residents re-acquainted with growing their own food. Photo courtesy of Earthworks Community Farm.

Note on the photographs by Dorothea Lange: As part of the Farm Security Administration, photographs by Dorothea Lange document the productive gardens and family-friendly surroundings of El Monte. She is best known for her Depression-era work.

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