By Michelle Glowa, Leslie Lopez, Kathy Chaput, and the dedicated students and mentors of the Corre la Voz Program
At the foot of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, a popular Bay Area tourist attraction, grows a garden which has been flourishing for over 20 years. Rows of corn, beans, tomatoes and more provide a kind of oasis in the predominantly latino community of Beach Flats, the neighborhood most impacted by the seasonal onslaught of traffic, crowds, and screams of amused riders. The Beach Flats Community Garden is a place where local people come to rest, to play, to grow food, and live as they would like. Yet, the garden is now at risk of being lost. Following this introduction, the photos and voices of local Santa Cruz youth will document the garden as it is today in an effort to honor and advocate for this important space, as well as highlight the radical openness of a child’s spatial imaginary.
The land where the garden is located is owned by The Santa Cruz Seaside Company, the Boardwalk proprietor who has provided the land at low cost over the last two decades and who announced this would be the last year for the garden in its current state. Seaside also owns the majority of the properties in the surrounding Beach Flats community and its history of working with the city on neighborhood redevelopment has many worried about what this move to take the land could mean. Some worry the garden may soon be white-washed away, like the murals located down the street, which were painted over this last year as both the city and private residents attempted to “improve” or conversely negate the Beach Flats community. In a region with some of nation’s the most competitive land markets, the story of this garden tells of the lives of these individual gardeners as well as struggles over community involvement in land use decisions, tourism-related economic development, and questions surrounding gentrification and the erasure of community histories.
In the early 1990s, residents of the Beach Flats organized to address community concerns, and in the process transformed a neighborhood that had been largely overlooked and neglected by both landlords and city planners. They painted murals, advocated for the development of community programing and created a community garden. Some community advocates now recall this as a time of neighborhood self-organization to create a safer, healthier place to live in their predominantly Latino community. Don Emilio, one of the garden founders and a community elder, described the threats and raids from la migra before the city council passed a resolution declaring Santa Cruz a sanctuary city in 1985, and now understands the garden as a place of peace after many years of suffering. The garden space was reclaimed by local activists interested in empowering youth, in conjunction with some older men from campesino backgrounds who knew how to farm. The large plot had previously been used as a dumping ground after the Seaside Company tore down Victorian houses at the site, and was unsafe for children playing in the abandoned materials. Local non-profits and the City assisted residents in arranging a lease for the land, to turn it into a garden, provided that neighbors supplied all labor and resources need for improvement.
Now, over two decades later, the neighborhood is beginning to change – recently plans have been approved to tear down existing housing to put in a large conference hotel, new condos have gone up, and the large murals created in the 1990s, the last remaining public Latino heritage murals, were recently painted over in favor of a more ‘up to date’ and ‘universally appealing’ style. Amidst these changes, the Seaside Company announced that they would terminate the yearly lease for the garden, explaining that they would like to reclaim the land for company landscaping uses. Activists and gardeners speculate: will the company just put up more parking, the real money-making element of the Boardwalk? will this be part of plans the company had in the late 90s to change the character and aesthetic of the area through more commercial development? Gardeners ask: why now? why didn’t the company take care of this land 25 years ago when cars were abandoned on the lot? what of all the community labor that went into improving this space?
In the face of community pressure, the City Council has approved a proposal to try to buy the garden land and protect it in perpetuity, but the short-term future of the garden is uncertain. The lease has expired as of Nov. 13th. The city is negotiating a lease to keep 62% of the current garden for the next three years, but gardeners and advocates would like to see the whole garden protected.
Over the last several months, organizers working to preserve the space have brought many school groups to the garden, to visit, play, learn, and ask. Over 250 school-aged children have come thus far. The way these students view the garden and the situation offers simple yet incisive interventions at this critical moment. Children have also brought energy, laughter, and kindness to the garden, inspiring the movement forward. Don Emilio has hosted each of these trips. During a recent visit of this sort he articulated how proud he felt to have these children in a place he has devoted so much of his life to imagining and building. In exploring the garden with Emilio, children ages five to thirteen have shown creativity and conviction in thinking of the possibilities of saving this place when adult visitors are fraught with pessimism.
Corre la Voz (CLV) is an afterschool program based in one of Santa Cruz’s Elementary Schools, and funded through a collaboration by UC Links, from the Office of the President of the University of California, and Oakes College, at UCSC. The program brings university faculty and classroom teachers together to work with university students (Mentors) and fourth and fifth graders (Students). The program develops innovative methods of language and literacy education, and emphasizes a positive, empowering learning community.
As part of the field trip, the students were asked to photograph things that they thought would help them explain the garden to others.
The schoolchildren had prepared by performing prior research, online and in the classroom, but when they met Don Emilio, and spoke with him, they formed a relationship, and “got it.” When they set foot inside the garden, they felt the care that had been invested there, and knew it in an entirely different way. The visit connected for them how this garden is a space of actual relationships and everyday experience, a living culture – providing a positive alternative to our everyday immersion in work or school.
Afterwards, they wrote photo-letters conveying their feeling and understanding of the situation. This was a powerful experience for them—especially for those who live in the Beach Flats neighborhood. These students said they were proud to be hosting a school project in their community, and to demonstrate how beautiful (in many ways) the garden is. Students who had previously been struggling to engage in school, and with reading and writing, were galvanized by this project. It mattered to the kids, and matters to the community, that this is about real people: Don Emilio, and Don Domingo, who they are able to know, and love. These are people who raised not just abstract children, but real, unique individuals who are members of that community. In other words, these are not just replaceable cogs in a “community machine,” or a “collective plot.” And the same might be said for the place itself, and for the way the garden works–there are deep-rooted trees and plants there, soil structures and fertility built over decades of cultivating the rotation system of mesoamerican farming, la milpa. It matters that the same people who are getting up at five in the morning to tend the garden are also out in the street sweeping it clean of garbage, caring for the community and bringing in leaf debris from the streets to add to the soil organic matter.
Collectively the students defined the garden as “a place to…
- gather as a community and have fun!
- learn about farming, traditional agricultural practices, crop rotation, nutrition
- provide a positive space in the neighborhood
- support an ecosystem of birds and insects
- hide and play
- work hard, sweat, and respect the work of other people
- enjoy an apple under one’s favorite tree
- pass along traditions
- enjoy rare Mesoamerican plants
- take pride in a harvest
- experience beauty, nature, color, and peace”
This kind of understanding may be difficult to convey to people who have not set foot in the garden, but by highlighting the importance of these relationships of care we honor why this garden is sacred, and at the heart of the Beach Flats neighborhood.
The following are photos taken by students, along with captions they selected from the letters they wrote to articulate their feelings and understanding of the garden. We would love to give credit to these young digital artists and global citizens, but recognize the need to protect their identities in this online environment. The talented and committed mentors who worked closely with them throughout the process were, in alphabetical order: Carol Amaya, Ruben Barrera, Adriana Delgado, Frida Flores, Oscar Navarrete, Ivette Olguín, Jennifer Pérez, Juan Pérez, Radhika Raman, Lizette Tejeda, and Gracie Vazquez.
“We don’t believe that you will only leave a little space and we’re worried that you will take everything away from our community. I think you are being unfair because you are taking the garden when you have other choices. If the farmers have to go to different places, they won’t have a big space to come together in a positive way. They need a special place to meet in the neighborhood. Please let the farmers keep ALL of their land!”
“This land is for the people because they need food — healthy food, not fast food.”
“This garden is like a second home to the community and the threat is affecting everyone.”
“This is a delicious chayote. You have to take the spikes off before you can eat it.”
“This is a banana tree and here are the banana leaves and flowers that grow from it.”
“You and other volunteers work hard to grow the food, and give it to people in the community for free. I want to let you know that I stand with you and the Beach Flats Community and want the garden to stay for good.”
“The Beach Flats Garden is a beautiful place you can visit. It’s also an open garden for the community. There is a park next to the garden that’s not being used, I was wondering if this could be used instead of taking the Garden.”
“It has taken the gardeners over 25 years to make the Beach Flats Garden a special place for the Santa Cruz community. Also I think the garden helps people calm down because it’s so beautiful.”
“The Milpa – it’s a great place to hide in our neighborhood!”
“If you go there you will see how beautiful, peaceful, fresh, and colorful it is. If you put a parking jot or whatever you are going to put there it won’t be the same to the community.”
“I want you to save the garden because it gives food to the Santa Cruz community and I also play there.”
“Don Emilio and others have worked there most of their life and all that hard work is going to go down the drain if you take it away. Would you like it if someone took away something that you have worked for your whole life?”
“I care about the garden. When I entered the garden I felt welcome and safe. It is a loving community. This community cares about this and will lose a lot if you take the garden away.”
“Yo aprendí que en el jardín crecen muchos vegetales. Como chayotes, elotes, frijoles de El Salvador, limones, y cempasuchil.” (I learned that they grow many vegetables in the garden like chayotes, corn, beans from El Salvador, limes, and marigolds)
“The garden grows food from different parts of the world. If the garden was taken away, that food would disappear and a lot of people would not have very much food. The food is fresh and not bad for you.”
“When I entered the garden I was amazed with what I saw. Also I would not take the garden away because most of the community is looking forward to go to the garden in the future.”
“Finalmente, Yo quiero que no cierren el jardín y creo que la comunidad debería de tener la decisión final de que pasa con el jardín. Gracias por tus esfuerzos en la lucha del jardín.” (Finally, I don’t want them to shut down the garden and I think the community should have the final decision on what happens to the garden. Thank you (Don Emilio) for your effort in the struggle for the garden.)