The City Heights Farmer’s Market recently celebrated its fourth anniversary. This market offers fresh fruits, vegetables and good food that speaks to the varying tastes of our diverse community. Here in City Heights we are also growing our own food in community gardens. Do you remember when First Lady Michelle Obama visited the Crawford New Roots Community Garden in 2010?
Community gardens offer something different than gardening in your own back yard or shopping for fresh produce at a farmer’s market. Community gardens are where the power of nature meet the power of people. Community gardens grow relationships. They grow community as much as they grow vegetables and fruit.
We have a history of community gardens in City Heights, and that history is part of our success stories. My personal story begins in 1991, when CalTrans razed over 1,100 residences and businesses along eight blocks of 40th Street in preparation for the SR-15 freeway that would divide our community.
The City Heights Community Development Corporation (CHCDC) solicited input from surrounding residents for ideas on how to mitigate the long brown scar that would exist for around five years before the first excavation actually began on the freeway. And that’s how City Heights got its first community garden. Like most community gardens in the United States at the time, it had a five year life span until the “higher use” of the land was undertaken.
This is a visit to the City Heights Community Garden, as I experienced it. Even as people referred to City Heights as the crime capital of San Diego, we were creating a new identity– City Heights, the Home of the Dancing Carrots.
Somewhere, a little east of Eden, there was once a garden
You could say that there is a community garden in City Heights because people traveling from Canada to Mexico on Interstate 15 don’t want to slow down to 45 miles an hour for eight city blocks through an old inner city community. Ditto for people traveling in the opposite direction. This garden was created in August of 1991 by a bulldozer and it will probably be destroyed in 1996 by a bulldozer. We exist between the demolition and an enormous ditch.
This garden is Laos, Minnesota, Cambodia, Pennsylvania, Vietnam, the Philippines and Mexico. Woven through it is California. The only language we all share is the green eloquence arising from the mute throat of a seed.
The challenges we face cannot be underestimated. We speak seven different languages and the majority of us only speak Hmong or Laotian. Others of us only speak Vietnamese or Spanish or English. Important subtleties and nuances often get lost in the translation, when translators are available. Chance brought us all together, but necessity made us look at our diversity of cultures and experiences as a strength in solving all the day to day problems.
Our community garden is a living and evolving presence, a green heart and set of lungs that reveals “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” in the words of Dylan Thomas.
What we grow at the garden transcends the plots filled with mustard, garlic, peppers and corn, plots which put food on the table of over 200 families, most of us poor. Our garden is a tangible expression of cultural identity through the specific types of vegetables and plants grown and even through the growing techniques ; it connects gardeners to the seasons, permitting us to exist for a while outside of the harsh arbitration of the clock hands. We garden because it connects us to homelands we will probably never see again.
Our spirits and our bodies are nourished by the act of gardening and our social fabric is strengthened by this safe place where our differences are subordinate to the need for cooperation and participation. This garden is a creative solution to the lack of parks and open spaces in City Heights. It is personalized, self-reliant and loved.
The community garden doubles in size and undergoes a dazzling transformation!
The garden is surrounded by a temporary fence to contain our meantime. Chain link fences come in two styles-ugly, the four foot version, and uglier, the six foot version. We chose the latter. But accommodation is not the same as acceptance.
We discovered the secret of making the fence invisible by commissioning the highly visible pieces of large scale public art funded through a California Transportation Commission grant. The artists we selected, in addition to lead artist Pete Evaristo are Wick Alexander, Michael Arata, Jim Bleisner, Robin Brailsford, Luz Camacho, Alexia Markarian, Todd Stands and Susan Yamagata. The pieces they constructed with the participation of hundreds of children, community members and friends, dance, beckon and meditate.
They reflect the vibrancy and richness of the garden and gardeners and the spirit of resiliency and hope of the City Heights community.
Thousands of people have passed through these garden gates. A few even did it in cars, unfortunately. There have been hundreds of school children here. We have garnered national recognition for our collective caring, democratic decision making, community involvement and creative spirit. We have been interviewed by social workers from Michigan doing a field study and a writer from North Carolina. A film crew from PBS in New York set one of their productions in our garden.
Five years had passed. Our splendid meantime had come to an end and the bulldozer would soon be upon us. Despite all of our substantial efforts to find a new home for the garden, we had failed to find a place to start anew.
The gardeners all came out for the final harvest. The artwork was dismantled from around the fence, some to be stored, others to be installed in a different setting. Americorp volunteers helped with clean-up. Our friends joined us.
The moment had come. Lue and I walked through a magnificent stand of sugar cane to the garden’s secret spring. Without a word, only our eyes mirroring each other’s anguish, we placed a hand on each of the water valves, gave a quick hard turn and …
Our garden was gone.
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