Urban Gardens: Growing Community, Growing Food

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In the face of rising food prices, detachment from the natural world, and ever-more ominous reports of climate change, many residents of Potrero Hill are joining in a burgeoning urban agriculture movement.

Marianne Horine, who has tended a plot at Potrero Hill Community Garden for over 20 years and currently serves as Garden Coordinator, can testify to the increasing interest in gardening. “There are 109 people on our waiting list for one of our 51 plots,” Horine said. “Back in 2000, there were two people on our waiting list.” 

Meanwhile, every Tuesday and Saturday, up to forty volunteers show up for garden workdays at Texas Street Farm, a project connected to the rebuilding of the Potrero Terrace and Annex public housing complex led by BRIDGE Housing Corporation.

Potrero Hill’s gardeners do not fit a single profile.  They are second-graders and senior citizens; private school students and public housing residents; self-described “old hippies” of San Francisco and immigrants recently arrived to the United States.

The gardens themselves are also remarkably diverse in history, size and relationship to the public. While many are part of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s program of 38 community gardens on City-owned property, some grow on rooftops and in backyards, and others appear as so-called “guerrilla gardens” in vacant lots.

However, regardless of who they are and where they are gardening, many active in Potrero Hill’s urban gardens agree that they are not simply growing produce, but also growing community. As Texas Street Farm Garden Manager Steve Pulliam says, “I’ve seen this garden bring residents closer together—people who never would have talked to each other before from a wide range of ethnicities and ages.”

Marianne Horine also points to the educational potential of gardening as another part of the reason for the growing number of urban gardens and urban gardeners. “People want to teach their kids how to grow food and give them that whole experience, and schools are beginning to grow gardens. That just wasn’t in the curriculum when I was a kid.”

Since 2011, the Potrero Hill Learning Garden on Mariposa Street has brought together students, teachers, and parents from nearby Live Oak School in collaboration with the Rec and Park Department. The Learning Garden is an important part in Live Oak’s second grade curriculum, which includes both hands-on gardening experience and lessons about the food system and its change-makers, such as Cesar Chavez.

Garden Educator Booka Alon emphasized both the interpersonal and the institutional relationships she has built through the garden. “Along with students and parents, members of Friends of Jackson Park attend our workdays, and Animal Care and Control is kind enough to give us their bunny poop for fertilizer.” She continued, “Most of all, the garden is a way to steward community and highlight sustainability and resiliency.”

In a display of trust in community and commitment to building it, Potrero Hill Learning Garden, Texas Street Farm, and Potrero Hill Community Garden are all unlocked and accessible to the public at all times, with largely positive results. When Steve Pulliam stepped into his position as Garden Manager at Texas Street Farm, people asked him when he was going to put up a fence around the garden and laughed at him when he replied that there would be no fence or lock around the garden. “Now people are looking and it’s like a little oasis. Most people who come to the garden want to be proud of the garden and respect it. Not only does it give people a sense of accomplishment in a community where unemployment is huge, but it is also a safe place for people to gather.”

However, there are also challenges that come with unrestricted access. Booka Alon noted that often times people harvest fruits before they are ripe.

Objections to the industrial food system and its environmental costs keep many residents committed to gardening.

Steve Pulliam is one such gardener. “It’s about getting back in touch with food, not thinking of it as a commodity to purchase,” he said.

Joni Eisen, who often sports a hat that reads, “carbon tax me,” is another. She moved to Potrero Hill in 1973, and began gardening in her backyard shortly afterward. Today, she has an abundant garden of countless herbs, flowers, fruit trees, berry bushes, and vegetables, all graced by the presence her five chickens, who aid in pest control, generating rich compost and keeping kitchen scraps out of the landfill.

For Eisen, who keeps a sign on her bicycle that reads, “Bicycling: A quiet statement against oil wars,” the act of gardening makes a similar kind of quiet statement with its enormous social and environmental benefits.  “It lowers your carbon footprint, it lowers your water usage, you don’t have to use pesticides, and you have control. Keep it out of big ag, keep it micro-ag,” she said.

She takes a holistic view of the significance of gardening. “One of the most optimistic things a person can do is plant a seed into the ground. It’s a meditation. It’s good for your soul, good to pass on to the next generation,” she said.

Booka Alon’s second-graders would seem to agree enthusiastically about passing on the skills to the next generation. When asked about their relationship with gardening, one student said, “I love it because you can make homemade stuff by having a garden in your backyard.”