January 2009

Nowtopia by Chris Carlsson

Nowtopia by Chris Carlsson

This week, the L.A. Eco-Village garden blog features the words of Chris Carlsson. Carlson is a San Francisco-based activist, writer, blogger, and co-originator of Critical Mass (a monthly bike celebration that has spread world wide.) He will be speaking at Los Angeles Eco-Village on Friday, February 6, 2009 at 7:30 pm. Carlsson will read from and speak on topics from his new book Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners are Inventing the Future Today, published by AK Press.

The Friday night event costs $5, with no one turned away for lack of funds. Reservations are recommended, call 213/738-1254 or email crsp@igc.org

Here’s an excerpt from Nowtopia – Carlsson on vacant lot gardening: (Get your hands on the book for the full text, including much more on history, food security, and more!)

Gardening is not the revolution, nor does gardening turn every gardener into a cultural radical… Gardening…produces good food and other benefits outside the complex of exchange… Moreover, it is an art form, an area of creativity as rich and promising as any symbolic activity, and one which can roughly but easily transpire beyond the realm of representation and mediation. It can function as an important part of “everyday life” in the radical sense of that term.
—Peter Lamborn Wilson

…the urban community garden, with its potential for feeding households and generating local cottage industry, with its power to restore a measure of community life, and with its capacity to recycle organic wastes, is thriving throughout the world: in Karachi, La Paz, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Dakar, Dar es Salaam, and Bangkok, as well as in Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles. Globally, about two hundred million urban dwellers are urban farmers. Most of these farmers are women, and they provide food and income for about seven hundred million people. Is it so surprising that urban women of color would use community gardens to repair the fabric of our inner cities? Neither nostalgic for a pastoral past, nor Luddite in its sensibility, the inner-city community garden movement restores a nature banished from the industrial city, and offers a degree of self-sufficiency and neighborhood security, achievements that elude the master plans of urban planning experts.
—H. Patricia Hynes

Gardens are patches of land containing many purposes and possibilities, and have even become battlegrounds for opposing social dynamics, pitting an insurgent autonomy against urban reformers who see gardens as useful steps towards eventual gentrification and increased land values. While contending social forces seek to control land and the political structures that administer it, space is also provided to unregulated social interaction. Gardens are important arenas for multi-generational circuits of communication, memory, and experience.

Many of the agricultural skills that help urban gardening to thrive can be traced to recent arrivals from rural areas in the South, or the Caribbean, Africa, South America, or Asia (e.g. Central Americans and Mexicans in Los Angeles, Puerto Ricans in New York and Holyoke, MA, Hmong tribesmen from Laos in Seattle, WA, African-Americans from rural Alabama, Mississippi, or Georgia in cities from Detroit to New York to San Francisco, though it is true that newcomers and ethnicities from far and wide mix in all these places too). In a recent example, Annette Young Smith, a 66-year-old Alabama native who has lived in San Francisco’s Bayview district for 34 years, applied her rural roots to the rock-hard median where she lives on the 1700 block of Quesada Avenue. Since she and her friend Karl Paige started removing debris and planting a garden in 2002, the entire block has been transformed. Neighbors all know each other now, and the garden that anchors the community has won awards and attracts visitors and helpers from all around. The block is a quintessentially San Franciscan street, “young and old. Gay and straight. Black, white, Asian, and Latino. Newcomers and oldtimers. Immigrants and native born.” Gardening provides a common language and context in an urban environment that usually promotes private property and individualism.

Elders who have been gardening for 20 or more years, whose own forebears were often farmers, are sharing their know-how with younger generations to help extend the culture and knowledge across time and space. In the Bronx United Gardeners (BUG), long-time community gardeners are teaching young activists growing skills, but also helping the new generation sink their own roots into their community. “I started out as an activist, fighting broad ideological issues, and I wasn’t very connected to my local community,” explains Isabel Moore. “Through BUG, I have learned how to grow things, and I’ve learned more about the Bronx.”… It is a sweetly reciprocal relationship as older gardeners say they have been reinvigorated by the young people who have gotten involved.

In Philadelphia’s Glenwood Green Acres, a renowned four-acre farm with over 100 distinct plots among North Philadelphia’s abandoned warehouses and factories, the elders share a common past as disciplined, hardworking children on farms in the South with close ties to the land. During and after WWII they joined the great black migration to the north, coming to Philadelphia to work in factories, warehouses, and other “city jobs.” Now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s they are anxious to share their farming heritage, especially for traditional crops like sweet potatoes, cotton, and peanuts, which had been passed down to them by their grandparents.

The renewed impetus for community gardening can be traced to the upheavals of the 1960s. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan situates the problem of choosing what to eat in a new historic context created by the industrialization of food and the rebellious malcontents confronting it. Pollen traces today’s gourmet ghettoes, vegetarianism, passion for organic foods (and antipathy to processed food) to April 20, 1969 when the “Robin Hood Commission” tore down the fence surrounding a vacant lot owned by the University of California in Berkeley, California.10 They laid down sod and planted trees and put in a vegetable garden, and declared the establishment of “People’s Park.” One declared intention of the “agrarian reformers” with the new park was to grow their own “uncontaminated” food and give it away to the poor, echoing the 17th century English Diggers who had also reclaimed common lands to feed the destitute of their era (often themselves!).

The successful opening of People’s Park fired imaginations across the counterculture. San Francisco’s Diggers had already helped shape the underground with its free stores and wild public events in 1966 and 1967. Acid tests, rock-n-roll, marijuana, long hair, and a rejection of “straight culture” fused with draft resistance, anti-war protests, and rising black and brown power movements to challenge the American Dream at its roots.

Rachel Bagby is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Community Rehabilitation Corporation (PCRC). The PCRC rehabilitates housing, turns vacant lots into community gardens, and bedecks street corners with two story murals. She rebukes a lot of housing developers for their single-minded focus on buildings. “They do houses, I do lives,” she says. Her efforts are directed at the devastated neighborhoods of North Philadelphia. She explains the broken communities she faces. “We have almost lost two generations to dope, crime and pregnancy,” which, not suffering from typical American amnesia, she squarely blames on the Vietnam War. “Men came back shell-shocked and full of dope. Came back and had lost their human feeling. Now we have babies having babies.” The goal of most garden activists is to rebuild human communities with the garden serving as a focal point and shared mission.

Post-WWII federal policies led to the depopulation and economic destruction of inner cities. The GI bill gave housing and college tuition subsidies to returning white soldiers. Colleges would not admit blacks and banks would not lend to African-Americans; GI loans also would only finance purchases of single-family homes, not inner-city apartments. The interstate highway system promoted suburbanization and, combined with cheap loans and rapidly proliferating new housing, many white urbanites opted to move to the new suburbs. The Housing Act of 1954 funded “urban renewal” programs in most cities. Neighborhoods deemed “blighted” would be bulldozed to make way for new public and private housing. The Urban Renewal or “redevelopment” juggernaut leveled hundreds of previously inhabited inner city acres, displacing residents and often leaving the resulting lots vacant for years. In San Francisco, for example, the largely black Fillmore district was bulldozed and left vacant for a generation.

Political riots in the late 1960s also devastated hundreds of urban acres. After Martin Luther King’s assassination, black communities rioted in many cities, burning hundreds of city blocks. Ongoing social discrimination and police repression in black communities provoked additional disturbances in the late 1960s. Large urban areas were devastated by fire, leaving empty urban swathes of rubble and trash. In the 1970s waves of landlord arson and abandonment afflicted many inner city neighborhoods in New York, Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, etc. In New York the city was told to “drop dead” in 1975 by major banks when it went bankrupt, squeezed between rising infrastructure costs and plunging tax revenues from abandoned and destroyed properties. Rubble-strewn vacant lots became magnets for drug dealing and prostitution and the violence that accompanied underground economies in many neighborhoods.

Depopulation, abandonment, and crumbling infrastructure frame the decomposition of the urban working class, most visible among urban communities of color, but also apparent in the atomized white-bread “middle class” lives filling suburbs around the decayed cities. Decomposition, though, is not an end point, but a stage for new growth. Faced with the destruction of communities, livelihoods, and the neighborhood-based relationships that sustained earlier generations through tough times, resilient residents began slowly to reclaim their streets. Facing official indifference or open hostility, inner city residents had only themselves to rely on as they began to sow the seeds of class recomposition. Small acts of solidarity and neighborliness were the kernels of a direct approach to the system’s destructive policies.

Mark Leger moved to New York at the end of the 1980s and has been an activist gardener ever since. He describes what community gardening meant when it emerged to confront the urban catastrophe of the 1970s: “It meant people taking direct action to transform their environment. When New York was on the skids, that meant converging on trash-strewn vacant lots, cleaning them up, making them green, making them community centers where people wanted to be rather than wanted to avoid.”

In San Francisco, African-American men who had migrated from the deep South to work in World War II shipyards had been left unemployed by cutbacks and a shift to shipbuilding overseas. Acres of undeveloped land controlled by the Redevelopment Agency were farmed. At one point corn fields filled several contiguous blocks of the old “Harlem West” Fillmore district. Pam Peirce, scrambling in 1980–81 to find new funds to sustain the local gardens, claims that it was San Francisco’s gardening program that managed to get community gardens qualified for federal housing grants under the rubric of “fighting blight,” an ironic way to use the system’s own twisted logic. As we’ll see below, institutional support for community gardening is often based on the demonstrable rise in property values that accompanies the reclamation of vacant lots through greening projects. The “social improvement” implied by rising property values has been widely touted by nonprofit organizations seeking support for their community gardens, even if their real goal would be better understood as one of building sustainable, safe, urban communities.

In the new century plenty of urban land is still depopulated. In spite of the frenzied dotcom boom and bust that drove Bay Area property values to dizzying heights, poor, long-time black neighborhoods in Oakland remain “underutilized.” About 500 parcels of land in West Oakland are vacant or unused properties, representing about 7% of the total acreage of the neighborhood. People’s Grocery was founded in 2002 to bring fresh produce to the redlined neighborhoods of the East Bay far from any modern supermarkets. In a solar- and biodiesel-powered stepvan, young employees roll through neighborhoods selling locally grown fresh produce and other organic goods. Co-founder Brahm Ahmadi says, “We believe that it’s possible not only to transform those lands, but to create viable food-producing farms in urban communities, and that’s really a key foundation for revitalizing a local economy and increasing open green spaces in urban neighborhoods.”

Many community gardens grow food, but—just as importantly—they also grow community. The isolation and fear left by government bulldozers and fences, following massive capital flight and deindustrialization, has challenged those people who stay to reinvent the bonds that knit together a community. In the practical work of clearing vacant lots and planting and nurturing gardens, a different kind of working class emerges, independent and self-sufficient, improvisational and innovative, convivial and cooperative, very often led and organized by females.

Mark Leger explains, “Gardens can bring people together for community because they are a place where people meet face to face and create something together. Community unfolds from there. For me, community involves something that reflects life across all its phases. Being a child, young, middle-aged, old. Good times, bad times. Ordinary life. Celebration. Being flush. Being on the skids.”

As Eastep puts it:

People come together as individuals and smaller groups and form informal coalitions, or even temporary ones. My [blood] family is distant, but I’ve chosen a new family for myself in my adult life, folks around here and around this project… I’m also volunteering at other gardens and the People’s Grocery. It’s just good to hang out with people that you have things in common with.

At West Oakland’s City Slicker Farms for the past six years Nan Eastep has worked, mostly as a volunteer, though recently she has been earning a small monthly stipend as the on-site resident (she lives in the house next door with her 2-year-old). City Slicker Farms is integrated into a small, informal network of organic urban farms stretching from the southern reaches of East Oakland up to their place not far west of downtown Oakland (where there are several small but productive gardens in the vicinity), and further north to some West Berkeley gardens. Since they started in 2005 they have helped establish 37 backyard gardens in West Oakland, cultivating nearly 8,000 square feet of land between the Community Market Farms and the backyard gardens. Friendships and practical needs knit them together, as do the recently established Farmers’ Markets and the People’s Grocery delivery business.

Not far from West Oakland’s City Slicker Farms is the Linden Street Garden. By providing education for children and work for teenagers and adults, the Linden Street garden has created a social structure for the area. “Neighbors talk to each other more,” says Dana Harvey of the West Oakland Food Security Council. “At least on a micro-scale, it’s really helped to build a sense of community.”

On the East Coast a nonprofit organization called Nuestras Raices builds community in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. It was founded in 1992 by members of La Finquita community garden in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Holyoke had a well-developed Puerto Rican neighborhood that, following the familiar pattern of the era, converted some abandoned lots into gardens. Dan Ross, Executive Director of Nuestras Raices, said: “The heart and soul of the organization is the community gardens: all of our projects grow out of the gardens, and all of the projects are planned and implemented by the garden members. It’s not just about food. It’s about building community and building connections. It isn’t just agriculture, it’s culture. If you recognize that, you end up being more sustainable within a community because you build greater networks and you tap into a lot more resources.” Again and again we see communities establish gardens as anchors to rejuvenated neighborhood life. As the food grows, so do the human connections.

In the vast empty acres of Detroit, burned down during riots in the late 1960s and never rebuilt, the city government sponsored a 1970s program called “Farm-a-Lot.” With so much vacant land, the city couldn’t afford to maintain the lots at public expense. Instead, residents can fill out a simple one-page application to allow land to be converted to gardens and farms. In the mid-1990s the Detroit Agricultural Network (DAN) was founded by the Farm-a-Lot farmers, Gardening Angels, and master gardeners from Michigan State University. Participants envisioned Detroit as a Garden of Eden and a gardening city rather than the urban planners vision of turning Detroit into a casino city. A DAN spokesman sums it up: “The idea is to grow community, to grow people, and to grow food at the same time.”

Well, maybe it should be called mining urbanite? Urbanite is what we call the chunks of broken concrete that we use to build terraced garden bed projects like las trincheras. I didn’t coin the name urbanite… some visitor to eco-village many years ago called it that, and it stuck. I am a big proponent of urbanite and use lots of it in my garden.

LA Conservation Corps crew breaking up concrete for tree wells on Vermont Avenue.  Note my hand truck loaded up with urbanite in the foreground.

LA Conservation Corps crew breaking up concrete for tree wells on Vermont Avenue. Note my hand truck loaded up with urbanite in the foreground.

This week I was bicycling up Vermont Avenue, and, in front of the Rite-Aid just below 3rd Street I came upon a Los Angeles Conservation Corps crew. They were using a jackhammer to bust up concrete and create holes where street trees will be planted. There was a pile of rubble in their truck. I asked one of the crew if I could take some pieces. On my bike I could only take two pieces, which I carried under one arm.

I am really happy when I can get broken concrete within a mile or so of eco-village (during the shared street construction on our block each night I’d carry as much as I could,) that way I can harvest it without using fossil fuels. It’s great to be able to use waste where it’s generated. Sometimes, though, I across a big stash and then borrow a car or truck to haul it. Sometimes, I’ve been able to get folks to drop it off. They generally will need to pay a tipping fee to dump it at a landfill, so giving it to us saves them money.

When I got to eco-village I grabbed our hand truck and walked the two blocks back down to the site. I loaded it up with the nicest biggest pieces I could find. My general recommendation is that the really useful pieces are ones that are the size of a brick or larger. The bigger the better, as it’s easy to break pieces down, but impossible to put them back together.

The second, and somewhat heavier, load of urbanite, in front of the bicycle gate behind the Bimini Terrace

The second, and somewhat heavier, load of urbanite, in front of the bicycle gate behind the Bimini Terrace

I brought two loads of urbanite back to the village. The first load wasn’t so heavy, so then I proceeded to really load up the second time. It got too heavy to lift at that point, so I had to push it along the ground on four wheels. Thanks to Brad who I encountered waiting for the bus and who helped me get it up the curb ramp at 3rd and Vermont.

One urban permaculture strategy is to harvest the immense waste streams generated by our cities. Of course, nature is really good at this; the output from any natural process serves as the input for another. From trash to rainwater to sewage, we city folks generate and discard a lot of stuff that is really useful. If we’re going to live sustainably, then we need to close these loops; to use our outputs as input.

Clearly I can’t make a serious dent in the massive urban waste streams that are generated by the sprawling urbanity that is Los Angeles, but nonetheless, I am happy when I can divert some of our castaway things into good uses.

Nick, the security guard from the Taste and Style Plaza strip mall looks through the branches of the pomegranate at my haul of urbanite

Nick, the security guard from the Taste and Style Plaza strip mall, looks jealously through the bike gate and the branches of the pomegranate at my haul of urbanite!

Ripe Jujube Fruit - Photo from Papaya Tree Nursery

Ripe Jujube Fruit - Photo from Papaya Tree Nursery

There’s a spot at the top of the trincheras garden (in the front yard of the Bimini Terrace building where I live) where a tangerine tree was planted. The tangerine struggled there and never really did well and never yielded fruit. I had hoped that, as part of the trincheras project, I could build a sort of berm around the tree in order to help capture and infiltrate rainwater… but… alas… before I got there the tree pretty much died.

I say pretty much died, because the entire top of the tree did die, but there was one sucker alive that was coming out of the rootstock. Like most nursery-bought fruit trees, the tangerine tree was grafted. The top is a clone of a good fruiting tangerine tree; the bottom is a tree that grows more rigorous roots… so it’s not really worth saving if just the rootstock is growing, because it’s very unlikely that that will provide good fruit.

All this to say that there’s a spot at the top of the trincheras where I’ve been thinking a new tree needed to be planted. Fall/winter is the best time of year for planting trees (and other perennials), so I had been thinking about wanting to get a tree into the ground there.

Enter, stage left, Erik Knutzen. Erik is the co-author of the Homegrown Evolution blog. I also highly recommend the book he co-authored The Urban Homestead. Erik and I work out together at the downtown YMCA. He mentioned that he was hoping to visit a couple of unusual nurseries in the valley and I requested to tag along. We planned to visit the Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery (in Sunland) and the Papaya Tree Nursery (in Granada Hills.) I needed to pick up some native plants at Theodore Payne for a landscaping project that I am doing for a friend’s mother – but I will leave that story for another blog entry.

Homegrown Evolution in the Papaya Greenhouse

Homegrown Evolution in the Papaya Greenhouse

On to the Papaya Tree Nursery. Papaya is located in the middle of an unassuming suburban neighborhood in the northwest end of the San Fernando Valley – about as far from LA Eco-Village as you can get and still be in the same city. It seemed like we might have the wrong address, but we pulled up and the proprietor Alex Silber was unloading bundles of bare-root trees being delivered by a big truck. Turns out the place is open by appointment only… but Silber was nice enough to accommodate us. He needed to finish unloading and watering the trees being unloaded, so he invited us to go back and explore. The home has a very large backyard, which is highly organized and packed to the gills with all kinds of wonderful trees – pomegranate, tangerine, cherimoya, jakfruit, coffee, caperbush, sapote, Persian mulberry, and much much more. It’s actually pretty incredible that we can grow all these exotic fruit trees in Southern California. On the left is a shot of Erik in the walk-in greenhouse that covers a small portion of the yard.

Erik was looking for quince (which they actually don’t carry) and gojiberry (which they do carry.) Erik has black walnut trees in his backyard. These walnut trees’ roots secrete a substance that inhibits many plants from growing nearby. Quince and gojiberry are two plants that aren’t inhibited growing by walnutes.

I asked Alex about jujube. He responded asking me if I had read about his special jujube trees – a variety called Chang. I’d heard that one needed to plant two jujube trees for them to fruit well. His variety didn’t need two trees. It fruited heavily. It’s drought tolerant. It grows in a “columnar” shape which makes it pretty manageable to garden under, with mainly vertical growth it shouldn’t get too huge and shade too much of the garden. It’s a variety that was given to his father by a old Chinese man. If you’ve never had a jujube (pronounced “jew-jew-bee,”) it’s a bit hard to describe – but it’s more-or-less like a sort of nutty apple flavor. The fruit can be eaten fresh and crisp, though it’s also very common dried. In Asia, I am told, dried jujubes are used for soups, teas, and medicines.

I also asked about citrus, and managed to hear stories about sapote and mulberry (all of which Papaya Nursery has incredibly special versions of) before ultimately deciding to purchase a jujube tree. We picked out a tree that had a relatively thick trunk, and was a little taller than I am. With no small effort, we loaded it into Erik’s car and brought it back to eco-village.

Semi-Circle Ring of Urbanite around the Jujube

Semi-Circle Ring of Urbanite around the Jujube

Last Saturday, Federico and I planned out where it would go. We put a placeholder stick in the ground, tied a string to it and traced a circle. It’s a fairly large space (about 5 feet in diameter.) We lined it with a level semi-circle of urbanite, allowing an opening at the upstream end for rainwater to enter and soak into the root area. Federico, eco-village’s mushroom aficionado, suggested that we use old phone books that would serve a double purpose – acting like a sponge to soak up water and serving as a matrix to grow oyster mushrooms. You can see some phone-books buried spine down in the lower left of this image. We’re actually going to rework the phone-book scheme, though, because it turns out that we need to inoculate the mushrooms into the phone-books before we bury them, then we need to cover them with mulch. We’ll have to report more on how that goes in a later installment.

Somer and Hunter watering the newly planted Jujube tree

Somer and Hunter watering the newly planted Jujube tree

On Sunday, eco-villagers Hunter, Jimmy, Somer, and I dug out the circle and a much deeper portion in the middle and planted the tree. I have to say that nearly every time I’ve planted a tree, it has been after digging and digging and deciding that it’s about deep enough… then later I regret that I didn’t dig just a few inches deeper, so the tree would be ever so slightly below grade, so it would actually collect rainwater, instead of shedding it. This passive rainwater harvesting strategy is a trick that I learned from hearing presentations and reading books by Brad Lancaster. Once we got it plenty deep, we planted the tree, which, once out of the pot and into the ground, was just shorter than I am.

There are still some edge treatments that I plan to do around the circular root area, and we’ll add the phone books, mushrooms, and plenty of mulch… but I was really happy to get the tree into the ground… and look forward it fruiting, hopefully starting this summer.

I wanted to share this photo to show how the Bimini Terrace used to look before the bulb-out went in during the Spring of 2008.

This is the Bimini Terrace new terraced garden made with urbanite in 2006, before the bulb-out went in during the spring of 2008

This is the Bimini Terrace new terraced garden made with urbanite in 2006, before the bulb-out went in during the spring of 2008. Notice the street painting in the forefront which was part of the City Repair Project completed in 2005. The street paintings were covered up during the City's street construction program in 2008, so it was all newly asphalted. But-t-t-t, we hope to have another intersection repair project with all you great artists out there soon.