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From Vacant City Lots to Food On the Table

How to grow food where we need it.
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SPREAD Food 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.

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.

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.

The Comeback Kids

The train to Richmond leaves Berkeley and passes miles of strip malls, junkyards, and abandoned warehouses before reaching the Iron Triangle. Doria Robinson, Urban Tilth’s executive director, meets me at the station, wearing sweat pants with a racing stripe and talking nonstop.

The granddaughter of an avid rose gardener and a local minister, she was one of the kids who left Richmond as soon as she could.

“I wanted to get out, like most people. I was like, oh, my God, what a lost cause. Nobody ever said anything positive about Richmond,” she says.

 She went to college on the East Coast and lived in San Francisco for several years. She moved back five years ago to take care of her great aunt’s house and started working with Urban Tilth. Now, at 36, she’s focused on bringing young people back into the fabric of the community.

Robinson and her colleague, Adam Boisvert, drive me through the city in a pickup truck, first to the berry garden and then to Richmond High School, one of Urban Tilth’s two school-based farms.

We have to clear a pair of security guards and pass through a temporary metal fence before walking into Richmond High’s paved schoolyard. The school is still reeling since one of its students was gang-raped by a group of teenage boys after a homecoming dance last fall.

Behind the rust-colored trailers that serve as extra classrooms stand 12 vegetable beds and a shed that has been remade into a greenhouse. Beyond them and behind a football field are six long raised rows, nearly 800 square feet of cultivation space. They were built on a Sunday in February by 67 Richmond High students, teachers, administrators, and volunteers from local neighborhoods.

A class of 30 students has planted chard, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and beans, with help from Urban Tilth staff and a teacher paid by the district. The content of their “Urban Ecology and Food Systems” class is a little subversive. It’s about fairness, nutrition, food deserts, oil, and why some people get left out of the economy.

Robinson enjoys a certain act-now-apologize-later approach to getting hold of land. At Richmond High, the project started when students wanted to fix up an old garden that had been neglected for a decade. At other schools, Urban Tilth has gotten keys from staff and teachers and persuaded groundskeepers to switch on the water, then asked the administration for permission. Only in the last six months has the school district itself negotiated a formal land-use agreement with the organization.

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