Richmond’s gardens, deeply-rooted, sow new seeds

Amani Hill, 8, prepared soil beds on the schoolyards of Richmond College Prep School, where she attends elementary school.
Amani Hill, 8, prepared soil beds on the schoolyards of Richmond College Prep School, where she attends elementary school.

Richmond, California, is a city of contradictions. Chevron operates its second largest oil refinery on the city’s western border. The city is emerging as a leader in “urban greening” – city planning that upgrades public spaces with walkable and bikable routes and natural vegetation. It’s as if ex-spouses are living next door to each other. The mayor, a member of the Green Party, has consistently cited Chevron as a major contributor to the health problems of Richmond’s citizens.

Inner city Richmond’s active network of grassroots groups has won the city recognition over the past few years, even with the impressive refinery perched in the backdrop. The trailblazing community garden nonprofit Urban Tilth won county grants last year, while the city itself won an urban planning award—almost a quarter of a million dollars—to steer its landscaping and greening efforts. The vanguard of Richmond’s progressive also includes the city’s job-training agency Solar Richmond. Green Party mayor Gayle McLaughlin sturdily backs both organizations.

Richmond’s first annual Cesar Chavez Community Garden Day, held on April 2, was just one example of the city’s proclaimed long-term commitment to redefine Richmond’s identity as a city that nurtures its own. Neighborhood groups hosted the event to plant trees and gardens around the schools of Nystrom Village, which sits at the center of some of the city’s toughest blocks.

Community Garden Day honors the Mexican-American labor icon who founded the United Farm Workers, with Dolores Huerta, leading to better wages and working conditions. But Chavez’s life served more as a background emblem for efforts toward collective organization and beautifying inner city blocks.

In the foreground, said Urban Tilth Director Doria Robinson, were present-day efforts to build up Richmond’s open spaces. Urban Tilth was at the core of the gardening event and accounts for much of the city’s burgeoning green image.

Beatrice Walker, 75, fills envelopes with vegetable seeds donated by the seed lending library. She moved to Richmond's South Side from Arkansas in 1963.
Beatrice Walker, 75, fills envelopes with vegetable seeds donated by the seed lending library. She moved to Richmond’s South Side from Arkansas in 1963.

The organization’s small full-time staff directs paid apprentices who can make their way up the ladder to assistants, project coordinators, and managers of the outfit’s dozen-odd projects throughout the city.

Organizers of the event aimed to get the ball rolling on a long term effort of residential beautification, replacing dry crab grass with new trees in mulch, and giving out free plants, vegetable starts, and seeds to residents.

“You need festivals of identity like today,” said Matt Holmes, an educator with the Parks Service here. “This is a historic segregated village,” said Holmes, referring to the Iron Triangle’s separation from the rest of the city by railroad tracks and a freeway. “It’s a nexus of violence on the west coast.”

Robinson, 37, is no stranger to her neighborhood’s reputation. A lifelong South Side resident, she’s heard the lamentations of Richmond as a “food desert,” lacking adequate grocery stores and therefore dooming residents to ill health.

Robinson thinks characterization this misses the mark. “What’s really a desert is opportunity,” she said. The food is less the focus than is having a place to go—in the neighborhood and in life. Urban Tilth, said Robinson, is about “people building resiliency to create what they need.”

A virtual absence of an economy within the city’s boundaries lends little enticement for youth to abstain from drugs and violence. “We’re actually trying to create a place where you can train and get paid for what you do,” said Robinson.

Urban gardening, Robinson said, puts jobless young hands to use, constructively and with visible outcomes. “There are tons of people and tons of open space,” she said, “but there’s not enough opportunity for people to do something positive with that space.”

Residents, several of whom brought their small children to help prepare soil beds and water seedlings, said that making the neighborhood look better will help curb gun violence.

“If all you see if ugly all you do is ugly,” said Alicia Jackson, a South Side resident who remembers leaving doors unlocked in Nystrom Village as a small child in the 1970s, and coming home from school to her family’s ducks and chickens. Much has changed since then.

Richmond’s crime prevalence, poor health statistics, and proximity to the largest oil refinery on the west coast has made it something of a laboratory for nearby Berkeley environmental, health, and urban planning researchers. The data pours in, painting a clear picture of Richmond as a poor city plagued by intractable social ills, but little is said of the city’s efforts to combat those ills.

Fifth grader Eddie Navarro says he learned how to plant flowers from his father, who keeps a garden.
Fifth grader Eddie Navarro says he learned how to plant flowers from his father, who keeps a garden.

Many believe that there is enough of a movement in Richmond to support homegrown workers trained in landscaping and gardening; Robinson has seen young people evolve within Urban Tilth into manager and educator positions. The apprenticeships combine gardening skills with positive social interactions. New interests form.

Like Cesar Chavez, Tania Pulido is a child of working class migrants, but her story echoes the irony of urban farming, evoking a hobby removed from working classes. Tania became convinced that tilling the dirt, while once dignified with Cesar Chavez, once again has to prove itself as a payable, legitimate profession.

Barely graduating Richmond High School and feeling depressed about her prospects, Tania said she stumbled on Urban Tilth at an after-school class on urban agriculture. Her family was caught in a new poverty tide sweeping the inner city in 2007; her father was laid off, her home was going into foreclosure. Her parents did not see tending gardens and hauling dirt as the gateway to a respectable profession.

“I started learning about composting, water conservation, things like that,” said Tania. “My mom wanted to send me to a psychologist.”

Her parents, a construction worker and a housecleaner, came to Richmond as undocumented migrants, hoping for their daughter to advance in a traditional career. They were “confused and worried” at Tania’s turn toward physical labor and eco-activism. “For them it’s like, ‘We came to the U.S. and now you’re farming and gardening?’” said Tania. “[They] came here to get away from that. For them it was like a step backward.”

She started watching political documentaries like Crude, about Chevron’s involvement in Ecuador. She cut her hair short. “I actually had an epiphany,” said Tania. “I really wanted to help out in my community.”

Despite her parents’ unhappiness about elements of her chosen career, Tania actually sees community garden work as the very definition of social mobility.

After volunteering for Urban Tilth for two months, she was hired as an apprentice. She’s moved up two pay scales since then, to project coordinator of Berryfarm, a plot of berry bushes on the Richmond Greenway.

The mood on Saturday was not unfamiliar in Richmond: talk of “ceasing the violence” and “bettering the neighborhood” flew as resident activists mingled and handed out flyers. The young men of Richmond were conspicuously absent—perhaps because other entry-level, green jobs are taking applicants.

Mayor McLaughlin talks frequently about steering the changing job market away from dependence on Chevron and stimulating the internal economy by drawing residents out and beautifying public spaces. Critics of the mayor—and she has vocal critics—say she emphasizes green jobs to the detriment of an unskilled labor force in need of accessible entry-level paychecks.

At the helm of the city’s efforts to train and employ its own is RichmondBUILD, a resident vocational program geared to a growing market of solar panel installation, energy efficient construction, and carpentry. Many graduates of BUILD are young, low-income men of color, and Mayor McLaughlin boasts that Solar Richmond—a company that connects BUILD’s newly trained workers with employers—effectively pairs environmental tech firms and inner city populations, closing what’s been coined as “the green gap.”

RichmondBUILD/Solar Richmond has received national attention as a cutting edge training program for locals, in a city with an unemployment rate almost twice the national average.

Despite its reputation as a danger zone, Richmond residents talk incessantly of “community.” A consensus of sorts formed at the event: a community garden is a microcosm of why they want the city as a whole to get prettier. The new public space could give young people a place to gather, and maybe start something even better.

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