FALL 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 2
Bag Ladies and Blue Jeans by Dorothy Thomas '78, who studied with former UM art Professor Walter Hook.
How the Missoula Farmers' Market may reverse the decline of democracy.
by Dan Kemmis
...the city comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. - Aristotle, Politics
The Saturday Morning Farmers' Market
By the time Abe and I get out of the house, onto our bikes, across the river and down to the north end of Higgins Avenue, the bell has already rung and the first exchanges of the Saturday morning Missoula Farmers' Market have been completed. In fact, there are already a few people leaving the market as we walk our bikes across the last intersection, into the plaza near the old Northern Pacific depot. I'm always surprised and just a little annoyed that anyone would take such a flatly commercial view of the market. They've got their strawberries¬the first of the crop¬and now they're going home. Arriving after the bell rings, I know that I won't be getting any -berries, and my flash of annoyance shifts briefly from the departing shoppers to Abe, until I remind myself that a teenager can't be expected to wake instantaneously after a mere twelve hours' sleep. As for the -berry-grabbers, I have told myself often enough that it takes all kinds to make a city, and I'm about to experience the city at its best, so let them take their -berries.
A week earlier, I had been asked to help the market celebrate its twentieth anniversary. It had been a special event for me, not only because the Saturday morning market had become such a pleasant staple of my summer routine, but because one of the founders who was to be honored that morning had been a friend of mine since shortly after my arrival in Missoula, during the market's first summer. She had also been one of the first people to urge me to run for mayor, years before I finally decided to seek the office from which I now had a chance to honor both the market and my old friend. Mavis was to receive a plaque as one of the market's founders, but when I arrived at Circle Square that Saturday morning, one of her friends drew me aside, showed me the garland of home-grown flowers she had prepared, and asked if I would crown Mavis after I presented the plaque. I would, and I did, and all the early-birds laughed and cheered as the market master rang the bell to begin the market's twenty-first year.
Now, a week later, the festivities are behind us, but I catch a glimpse of Mavis across the square and remind myself to watch for her as I make my way through the crowd. After twenty years of maturing, the market has become so popular and busy that you can never be sure you'll actually get to talk to someone you've spied at a distance. Knowing from experience how chancy connections can be, Abe and I agree to rendezvous in half an hour beside the nineteenth century locomotive which recalls the railroading history of this end of Missoula. Then I get in line for the best coffee in town and Abe heads into the crowd in search of cinnamon rolls. An old friend joins me in the line. His wife scolds him for attending to coffee before cauliflower, but his attitude is much like mine: the market is more than produce and commodity exchange. We'll visit while we wait in line for our coffee, then sit and listen to the live brass quintet while we drink it, visit some more, and greet a few friends. Then it will be time enough to start buying vegetables.
Sellers Old and New
The sellers at our market are about evenly balanced between Western Montana old-timers and Hmong immigrants who have been our neighbors now since shortly after the market was launched. The market experienced a crisis a few years ago when the Hmong began arriving at the plaza long before the opening bell and claiming all the prize spots. To some, they were simply being as aggressive as any new culture might well be in carving out a foothold in a strange land, but from the perspective of many of the old-time native sellers (who had no intention of getting up that early on Saturday morning) they were being altogether too aggressive. I remember Mavis and my former law partner, Joan Jonkel, calling me as their representative on the City Council and a tireless (if not tiresome) advocate of consensus decisions, to ask what in the world they were supposed to do about this conundrum. Their beloved market was in danger of coming apart at the seams, and what was worse for my two liberal friends was the fear that if it did, it would be over an issue in which an eager observer could readily see or imagine racist overtones.
I had little advice to offer at the time, except to keep talking, and to talk straight about everything, including the concern about racism and about the market. Guided far more by their own common sense and passion than by my advice, Joan and Mavis and the Hmong leaders worked out a space assignment policy which most of us never knew about except indirectly, as this morning Abe would know where the Mammyth Bakery cinnamon rolls would be and I would know where Neng Moua and his family would be offering the most generous portion of the season's first green beans.
I would know, too, that at the end of the block-long arcade, the brick-lined avenue which had once been Railroad Street, I would find the booth of the region's most prominent organic farmers, Lifeline Produce. At the Lifeline booth, as at every other stop I make on my tour under the rapidly warming July sun, I'm almost certain to find my purchases mixed with talk as friends, acquaintances, or, in the case of the mayor, utter strangers, inject conversation into the midst of the broccoli, green beans and fresh-baked bread. During the course of the market's two hours, the conversations will run a gamut from Little League to potholes to events in Eastern Europe, but what I have come to be as attentive to are the unspoken conversations. As Steve weighs my broccoli and Lucy counts out my change, the whole history of their farm and of our friendship is part and parcel of what we exchange. When I come across Mavis and she launches into one of her "I've got a bone to pick with you, Daniel" speeches, all those years of her urging me to run for mayor lie behind the fierce but friendly challenge in her eyes. Moving through the market, back toward the spot where I'm to meet Abe, I see in dozens of conversations around me an interweaving of these life stories, and I find delight and security in realizing once again that this fabric is Missoula, my home, my city.
Vegetables and Democracy
Just as I catch sight of Abe eating his cinnamon roll and balancing mine on his knees where he sits next to the plaza's ancient locomotive, I am intercepted by another old friend, a retired university professor whose fine-tuned insights I have treasured since I studied German with her as a graduate student during my first years in Missoula. Smiling as she approaches me, she sums up everything I have been thinking, as with a sweep of her hand, taking in the market at large, she asks in her soft German accent, "Isn't this civilized?"
Finally, the sum of all the unspoken conversations from one end of the market plaza to the other comes down to an acknowledgment that this is pretty much what we all had in mind. The twenty-year tradition of celebrating the coming to fruition of the valley's gardens has finally itself ripened into a second-order coming to fruition. Increasingly now at Farmers' Market, Missoulians celebrate the maturing of their own life together. When Gertrud refers to the market as "civilized," she uses a term I have heard more than once in this setting. It is not a word that comes easily or lightly. The tone with which it is spoken always seems to recognize that this is a word hallowed by its application to places and times of proven excellence. But in calling the market civilized, its celebrants acknowledge that the good life is not just some abstraction mummified in history books or perhaps occurring half a world away, but that it is richly if only roughly present here and now, in this plaza, on this July morning.
I know that one of the reasons I enjoy the Farmers' Market is because it represents for me the best of the city in microcosm. If I can understand the market, I will know more about my city. And if I can see what Gertrud means when she calls the market civilized, I might learn something about the city's own capacity to sustain that word, and thus to nurture both the good life and the healing of our political culture.
Why would anyone even imagine that something like the Farmers' Market could play a role in mending a suffering democracy? Fixated as we are on "important" state and national issues like term limits, campaign finance reform, crime, health care, or welfare reform, this suggestion seems at first to be merely frivolous. But in fact, none of the other paths to reform on which people expend so much energy will reverse the decline of democracy, and none of the policies that we enact to deal with pressing problems like poverty, racism, environmental damage, or drug and alcohol abuse will do any more than slow the worsening of these evils until we begin to understand the political importance of events like the Farmers' Market. No amount of reforming institutions which are widely and rightly perceived to be beyond human scale will heal our political culture until we begin to pay attention once again to democracy as a human enterprise. Without healing the human base of politics, we will not restore democracy itself. One thing alone will give us the capacity to heal our politics and to confront the problems and opportunities which politics must address. That one thing is a deeply renewed human experience of citizenship.
To redeem the democratic potential of citizenship, we need to take an entirely fresh look at its essential features. One of those, surprisingly, is citizenship's intimate connection to the city, from which both its name and its fundamental human significance derive. What makes a city civilized is something that is also absolutely fundamental to citizenship: in both instances, the basic feature is the human element. In the case of citizenship, this facet will make its claim most clearly if we allow it to appear, not where we might expect to find it, in governmental institutions, or in theories or documents, but in the most unassumingly human settings. City markets, both in their evolution and in the way people relate to them, might have something hopeful to tell us about the human roots of democracy. M
Excerpted from The Good City and the Good Life with the per-mission of Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company.
Frankel Prize Honors Kemmis
On January 9, 1997, Dan Kemmis was the second University of Montana faculty member in three years to win a trip to the White House and national recognition for his outstanding contributions. The interim director of UM's Center for the Rocky Mountain West and former Missoula mayor was one of five Americans who were awarded the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities from the National Endowment for the Humanities and President Bill Clinton. William Kittredge, acclaimed author and UM English professor, received the prize in 1994.
The other four honorees were public television journalist Bill Moyers, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin and Trinity University Latino scholar Arturo Madrid.
A nationally recognized authority on the West's special challenges of growth and development, Kemmis has written two books on citizenship and community building¬Community and the Politics of Place and The Good City and the Good Life: Renewing the Sense of Community.
Mark Sherouse, executive director of the UM-based Montana Committee for the Humanities, nominated Kemmis for the honor last June while he was still mayor. A frequent lecturer at UM during his political career, Kemmis left City Hall in early September to lead the center, which studies the Rocky Mountain region. "Kemmis has been a champion of the humanities and of the great bearing that reflection on values, heritage, reason and civility have upon our communities and our lives," Sherouse said.
Kemmis said a lot of people should be honored along with him. "Missoula makes me look good," he said. "Missoula is such an intensely human community that anybody who has spent time trying to explain what Missoula is all about is going to come across as a humanist. I'm really sincere in saying this is more about Missoula than it is about me."