By Paul Rockwell
In “Breaking Through Concrete,” David Hanson writes: “Urban farms are appearing in almost every corner of our cities, from strips along freeways, to warehouse rooftops, from concrete planters to entire city blocks.”
Oakland is no exception.
Recently I drove down Park Boulevard past Leimert, down past Oakland High. There’s a massage parlor just before the corner of Cleveland and Park, and the street art on the fence is quite bold and stunning.
Through an open gate I saw a community vegetable garden on the hillside, including a chicken coop at the top, where an excited child was holding an irate hen.
Amanda, one of the farm’s founders, described the tumultuous transformation of an “abandoned lot” into an edible commons.
“This space was on our radar,” she began. “There was a couch on the lot. The grass was as tall as the fence, and it turned out the developers were not even in the States.
One day a couple of folks noticed that the City dumped the old couch and weed-wacked the whole lot. So there it was…Ready to go!”
“We got a small school bus and packed it with manure. That’s right. We sat on pounds of manure, and steam was seeping out of the windows.
We were all nervous because we knew nothing about what we were doing. We parked the bus and moved fast to unload the manure. Someone mistakenly hit the fire extinguisher inside the bus. Smoky soot poured out.”
When we got into the lot we couldn’t even sink a shovel into the soil. Eventually we secured a rototiller and some pickaxes. The garden was simply meant to be,” she concluded.
Tobias Barton and Lindsay Zeb co-ordinate garden workdays Thursdays and Sundays. “We operate the space communally,” Barton noted. Some of the original founders were inspired by the success of Gill Tract in Albany, often named “Occupy the Farm.” The young activists and environmentalists, self-taught farmers who grow food in unconventional spaces, view farming as a social insurance policy, a hedge fund against climate change.
Battina Bell, a member of the garden co-op, lives nearby. She is proud of her community for turning a blighted lot into something green, peaceful and productive.
“When we first cleaned out the land, we found syringes and broken glass. The hazards were eliminated, and the area is absolutely turned around.”
It was her son who first got her involved. “My son, who was eleven at the time, became excited when he saw the open space.
He turned it into his own personal playground because it offered an opportunity for exploration. He was able to climb the big tree, and he set up his own little swing, doing what boys and girls love to do.
“The Park Boulevard garden closes a nature deficit. For parents it’s a garden through which their children can have a safe, enjoyable opportunity to be in nature.
“Some people,” she added, “contribute street art; some use the space to hold meetings.” A sense of place inspires a sense of community.
I could hardly quell her enthusiasm. “Because of the garden, I now know neighbors that I lived next to for years and had no other interaction than a brief, friendly hello.
It may sound corny, but I come here to find peace. I particularly enjoy bringing children here to collect eggs. This is a gift community.”
Urban community farms may be small and funky, but they are playing an increasingly important role in determining the future of the American food system. Manure and all.