Urban Ecology

The Vegetable Car, Berkeley, California

In Arcology Circle, then becoming Urban Ecology in 1979, Richard and his associates had occasionally discussed the idea of initiating a campaign to directly attack America’s sacred cow and had played with the idea of calling the campaign Car Wars. They thought the idea was a little overly negative unless balanced by positive things they were doing for actually building the alternative. But by the summer of 1979 they were already solidly at work on positive projects, so why not be a little negative?

Then came the opportunity.  Reading a newspaper one morning Richard noticed an article that seemed rich with potential mischief.  On September 13, 1899, it seemed, one H.H. Bliss was run down and killed by an electric taxi in New York City at the corner of 74th and Central Park West.  He was the first automobile fatality in history and the 80th anniversary of his death was coming up in a few short months.  Maybe they could make a folk hero of this guy and get the Car Wars campaign going.  What could they come up with to serve as a proper monument, something to grab attention and launch the anti-car campaign around the misfortune of Bliss — the automobile misfortune of everyone?

In 1972 Richard had rented a semi-abandoned country house for a sculpture studio near Santa Fe, New Mexico — complete with a deserted old red convertible Oldsmobile in the front yard. No wheels, no seats, the top was in tatters, and the engine was long since “recycled,” along with hub caps, door handles, hood ornament.  He decided to plant a garden in it, and a very productive garden it was.  The memory came back and within three months they produced the Vegetable Car, a baby blue metal flake Pontiac GTO Companion-planted Biodynamic that graced the streets of the Bay Area for three years producing carrots, celery, lettuces, cauliflower, tomatoes, peas, beans, artichokes, corn, melons, squash, sunflowers, irises, cyclamen, poppies, marigolds, violets, Johnny jump ups, even a live annually decorated Christmas tree.  Through two Christmas seasons it actually had lights.

Why plant a car?  And why dedicate it to H.H. Bliss?  As they said in their literature at the time,” planting a car is among its highest and best uses.  To make a car into a planter is considerably safer than driving it. To grow food in the cast away husk of our illusions of freedom and access to the ‘good life’ is to turn cold steel into the new container of life and nourishment.  And, those people who have difficulty stooping to do their gardening will find car planters very easy on their backs: one need not bend over to seed, weed and harvest.”

Why dedicate car plantings to Henry H. Bliss, first auto fatality?  To get attention for a good cause, that he may not have died in vain.

The Vegetable Car got great press around the city and some coverage in foreign countries.  Go America, 1982, the travel guide for young people, said the Vegetable Car was what to see in Berkeley, giving out the Urban Ecology address where it was usually parked.

In 1980 Urban Ecology issued a parking ticket for the Car Wars campaign and took our theater to the streets or roller skates, tagging about l500 car windshields with a little slip of paper that looked exactly like our local parking ticket.  But it said: “Important — Read Carefully.” Then in small letters: “But don’t worry, this in not a parking ticket.  It is a friendly reminder that your car is taking up space that could be l.) home to hundreds of happy vegetables feeding dozens of people, 2.) housing for people, 3.) shops providing goods, services, and jobs, 4.) pedestrian street, park, garden, playground, cafe, theater, etc., 5.) parking space for 15 or more bicycles.”   Where the fines for various offenses were listed on the real ticket, they listed the statistics since 1945 about oil costs and production, exports (declining) vs. imports (increasing) and so on.  Some people were furious, others delighted, but it got the idea across.