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From Vacant City Lots to Food on the Table
By Madeline Ostrander
Guerrilla gardening boosts local food security and redirects “troubled youth,” at least until landowners capitalize on increased property value the gardens bring, writes Madeline Ostrander.
The first time I went to Richmond, Calif., nine years ago, my friend, who ran a punk music recording studio out of a converted warehouse, told us not to park our car on the street. The day before, vandals had walked the block and smashed several car windows.
At least a few things have started to change in Richmond since then: A berry garden sits beside a bike trail in the Iron Triangle, a neighborhood at the center of the city bordered on three sides by old rail lines. Once a month, Latino and African American families–often people who live just a few blocks from each other but rarely had a chance to meet in the past–gather at the garden and have a barbecue. Tomatoes, chard, and corn grow in raised beds across the street. Muslim families from the local mosque just a few blocks away pluck fresh mint from the garden for making traditional Arabic tea. The garden is the work of Urban Tilth, one of the dozen or so groups at the center of Richmond’s urban garden movement. It was built by community members, often young people, and is tended in part by students and teachers from the elementary school next door. And it has become a community gathering space.
Richmond boomed in the mid-20th century and now is like hundreds of other places around the country where industry walked away. The city is isolated from much of the cultural and economic life of the rest of the East Bay region. Young people can’t find jobs, and they move away, or their restlessness is channeled into all the wrong activities—vandalism, gangs, crime.
People rarely get a say in what happens to land when their city falls apart. But in the last five years, some Richmonders have taken matters into their own hands. Often with official permission but sometimes without, they have planted more than two dozen gardens in public lots and school grounds all over the roughest parts of town. Urban Tilth calls them “farms,” and last year grew 6,000 pounds of food, which went to dozens of local families.
Many Richmonders have gardening traditions that go back several generations, brought by families from the rural South who came for shipbuilding jobs during World War II and by more recent immigrants from agricultural regions of Central and South America. But many of Richmond’s young people haven’t been exposed to these traditions.
Now Richmond’s urban gardening movement is yielding a small but radical cultural change. Urban agriculture has become a regular part of the curriculum in two local high schools. Areas in and near the gardens that seemed off-limits or unsafe in years past are becoming gathering places where Richmonders throw picnics, play outside, pick berries, and ride bicycles.
And dozens of young Richmonders have been given the chance to grow something in a community they thought had little future.