Late last year, I read an article detailing the prominent place fig trees hold in the cultural imagination of Italian-Americans and, of course, their backyard gardens. A demographer can trace the path of Italian migration in the United States by simply tracking the fig trees. They can be found in neighborhoods throughout New York City and New Jersey, including my own in Jersey City. This recent article prompted me to think differently about the conception and discourse of urban history.
While walking through my neighborhood, I regularly notice neglected fruit trees sandwiched between buildings, saint statuary crumbling in postage-stamp-sized lawns, and perennial flowerbeds choked by weeds. These stand as relics of past residents, many of who were likely Italian-Americans, and their now abandoned urban gardens.
Much discussion of urban history and preservation centers around the built environment. Buildings, public spaces, bridges, parks, and monuments largely determine the contours of how we physically explore and experience our streets, neighborhoods, and cities. However, these forgotten gardens, plants, and trees might present us with a new language to understand our cities — a green archaeology. Now, when I wander through my neighborhood, I pause upon spotting a peach tree sorely needing pruning or a worn and weathered Virgin Mary statue. I recognize them as artifacts of past residents and a stratum of local history.
Several years ago, my Italian-American mother-in-law gifted my wife and me with a tiny fig tree with no more than two or three short branches. (For the record, not one drop of Italian or Mediterranean blood flows through my veins.) I planted the tree in my wife’s and my backyard, dutifully nurtured it, and carefully wrapped it every fall. We didn’t expect it to survive, let alone thrive. To describe the tree as bountiful this past year would be an understatement: we couldn’t eat the figs fast enough and we offered bags of them to friends. When I pruned back the tree for the season, I gave cuttings to several fellow gardeners and the proprietor of a favorite local Italian bakery. I observed the the tradition of passing along a fig tree.
Our backyard fig tree will likely live well beyond our time in our home and on this earth. Fig trees can survive for two-hundred years. Future neighborhood residents might look out their windows and see our fig tree, maybe overgrown and heavy with rotting fruit or maybe lovingly tended and daily harvested, and wonder about its story and who might have planted it. The fig tree will stand as living history.
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