A lot of what makes living in a city so fun is the ability to walk or bike around and see surprising things that you wouldn’t expect, made possible by being in the streets and moving at a human pace, without the membrane of a steel box and corporate radio to mediate your experience. It’s even more fun when you juxtapose the oddities that you encounter with the history that is obscured or revealed by those discoveries. I took such a ride Saturday, down to the Bayview neighborhood to visit some community gardens I’ve been reading about via the Quesada Gardens website. I’ve visited Quesada Gardens a half dozen times since its original establishment in 2002, but this was the first time I met Annette Smith, one of the founders and guiding lights of the neighborhood renaissance that has accompanied the flowering of this remarkable garden.
What I’d only heard about before was the new gardens that had started nearby, inspired by the success of the Quesada effort. To get there on an overcast day, I rode from my home in the Mission through the gauntlet of junkies under the freeway that is still the best-and-only way to bicycle from the Mission to the southeast. Cutting through the sprawling warehouse district behind Bayshore Blvd., I came upon this spot at Newcomb and Barneveld which seemed to echo with the history of trains and industrial production that once occupied this area.
Long before that, as recently as the early decades of the 20th century, this area was still largely wetlands. You can see a charming video clip of George Williams describing getting clam parts at the Old Clam House at Bayshore and Oakdale and going fishing in those wetlands when he was a kid. Here is an aerial photo of the area before it was fully urbanized:
I was searching for the new gardens at Newhall and Bridgeview, and another one on Latona above Third Street. But I found more than that… a rumored community garden effort on Palou led me to stop here and find this strip, as yet ungardened—sitting as it does above the Caltrain tunnel across from the Phelps-Palou Minipark seemed like a promising spot for a new common garden.
Just west of the hoped-for community garden I noticed this place, which is almost certainly a home built on an original earthquake shack. You can tell by the dimensions and the odd way the rest of the structure is built on and out from the basic shack:
The view towards downtown is one most people don’t get to see, so I found this angle that really pleased me. The curving I-280 freeway beneath the distant Bay Bridge, foregrounded by heaps of rusting car bodies… not your usual sourdough view of the City!
Anyway, I made it up a steep block of Newhall to the top of the Quesada Garden, where there was a nice view across the Bayview/3rd Street neighborhood.
A block further is the lot that has been reclaimed as the Bridgeview Garden, but frankly it seemed a bit abandoned, overrun with winter grasses and weeds. Annette Smith told me later that the main people maintaining it had been UC students doing community service hours and it wasn’t easy getting neighbors to participate.
Caddy corner across from the garden, though, is this venerable home with its prolific sidewalk garden, clearly cared for over a long period of time (clearly there are neighbors who are quite involved in their urban environment).
Riding further I came upon this scene, trash obscuring the sign announcing the Charles Drew Alternative School Butterfly Garden. In also seemed to be abandoned to the winter rains, but it was a gorgeous green under gray skies day. Obviously the establishment of a community garden or a school-based butterfly garden is just the first step in a much longer and more difficult process of truly reinhabiting our urban environment. The ongoing work of maintaining these places didn’t seem to be happening as I cruised by today, but it is the depths of winter hereabouts so perhaps they’ll get more energy as the seasons change.
Even Annette told me that when she gets dirt in her shoes, she has to stop working and get it out… “I still hate to walk barefoot in the dirt,” alluding to her southern childhood on a farm. So maybe that’s part of it, that a lot of folks still harbor memories of agricultural labor, and hold it in a less-than-honorable place. Rejuvenating our engagement with urban farming will take more than sweat equity… it’ll take a deep shift in attitudes.
I liked the Latona garden, a scrappy urban oasis perched above the 3rd Street Youth Center and Clinic at Latona and Thornton. It is in an unlikely narrow strip, but it has an undeniable spirit. At first I came up on this nice art piece on its fence, with the ironic juxtaposition of a car transmission (I think?) leaning against it. But the big old tree, a California Buckeye I think, gives the place personality, and the signage that dots the inside of the fences brought a smile to my face…
Dogs are welcome… people, not so much?
After looping around, I stopped at Quesada where I met Annette Smith. She’s a charming,soft-spoken woman. I asked her whether she and her neighbors had been discussing food security and she spent the next few minutes describing how she grew up on a farm and used to grow all kinds of potatoes, chard, collard greens, corn, cotton, tomatoes, and much more. She still makes sure to keep collard greens, corn, and sweet potatoes growing, and explained how she got some seeds for collard greens from her mother at the other end of Quesada when she lived in the projects. It’s always been a staple, and even her daughter told her she couldn’t remember her mother ever buying collard greens.
The re-emergent community around gardening in Bayview is one of many social movements in gestation in the City. Transforming how we think about urban space, whether abandoned lots or overly wide asphalt-covered streets, is based on this artistic and community-based reappropriation of common land. A funny but telling last note: Annette explained with some genuine puzzlement that the two sides of Quesada and its center median had been level with each other when they started gardening only 7 years ago. Today, the south side is six to ten feet higher than the north side, and the garden is steeply sloped between the two! Nature will have the last word, after all…
These developments are growing amidst the push by the City to "redevelop" nearly the entire neighborhood (historically this has meant removing the existing population, like in 1960s program to bulldoze the African-American Fillmore District when "urban renewal" meant to that neighborhood "negro removal"). In the industrial wastelands near Cesar Chavez, slowly getting its share of lawyer lofts and so-called "live-work" spaces, there are plans to build 30,000 new housing units! All this would be inconceivable if the City hadn’t already spent a good deal of money on extending light rail down 3rd Street. Here’s a couple of final shots illustrating the newly renovated streetscape centered on the light rail line in the middle of 3rd Street.