The Emeryville Community Garden at 59th and Doyle has been an oasis in the center of our town for decades. The popularity of the project has created a waiting list for a plot that often stretches beyond three years. Recently though, the garden has been the target of vandals including theft of produce, defacing signage and cutting of locks.
Garden co-coordinator and volunteer Sam Foushee thinks the perpetrators are misguided and wants to reinforce the mission of the gardens to the public. “We still want to make the garden as available as possible to visitors without violating the lease and facing liability issues.”
The Emeryville Community Organic Garden was founded in 1992 on the site of a former railroad spur through the efforts of a community group lead by then-resident Elaine Drukman. Foushee took over leadership when Drukman’s health began failing around 1997. “The City has been extremely supportive to us over the years,” he noted over coffee. “It’s been a big source of pride for neighbors and the city.”
The garden was built entirely by volunteers and funding for the construction came from the City and some local donors. The City of Emeryville owns and subleases the land to a nonprofit created to run it. The nonprofit has a Board of Directors and runs on an annual budget of about $1200 which pays for water, supplies and maintenance.
Foushee, who served in the Navy, moved from North Carolina to California in 1966. His background is in education with an emphasis on teaching at the Kindergarten level. When he retired in 2000, he sought other ways to fill his time including pursuing his passion for urban gardening. “Until I got involved in the garden, I didn’t know anybody in Emeryville other than my neighbors at Watergate. Now I know people from all over the city and have really gotten involved.”
The community garden’s success enabled the city to expand the program to include Big Daddy’s Complete Rejuvenating Community Garden in 2002 and the Temescal Creek Community Organic Garden (TEMCOG) in 2014. It is likely the program will expand further to include a plot at the Sherwin-Williams open space that was recently approved.
You must be a resident of the 94608 zip code to be eligible for a plot. Annual dues are $40 per member. Plot holders are required to attend ‘work days’ at least quarterly and must communicate absences if they’re unavailable. Warnings are issued to those that neglect their beds or violate other terms. A vote is taken by the Board to revoke membership if negligence is persistent and corrective action is not taken.
In response to the scarcity of plots, the board created a new non-gardening category of membership called “Friend of the Garden” so that there would be more vetted people in the garden to welcome visitors more of the time.
Every month the garden donates to ECAP (Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program). “We have a dedicated bed that some members maintain to grow greens just for ECAP, and we try to reach out to the community as much as we can.”
An incident with an aggressive dog bite, vandalism, theft of materials and produce, and negligence by dog walkers has in the past led to the garden being locked for short periods while unattended.
“The 2005 lease agreement with the City actually requires that we keep the garden locked unless members are present. We have basically neglected that provision of the agreement all these years because it felt very important to us to make the garden as available to visitors as possible. We only locked the garden over those years when the theft or vandalism got so bad that we couldn’t take it.”
In August of last year, a See Click Fix report was submitted decrying the garden for being locked and exclusive. Shortly after, three locks were cut from the gate and tool shed in an apparently vindictive act. Early this year, the sign outlining the garden’s policies was vandalized.
The scarcity of plots and enforcement of rules has apparently created some resentment by neighbors who feel excluded. Visitors who were used to coming at their leisure suddenly felt shut out. “I get why the garden is locked and in no way do I condone this vandalism,” noted a neighbor who identified herself as Stacy. “It exudes an air of exclusivity” explaining what she feels is a common perception by many of her neighbors. Stacy noted she had a pleasant experience tending to a plot at Big Daddy’s.
Big Daddy’s has had its own challenges as we documented in last September’s “Emeryville’s Forgotten Neighborhood” story. Coordinator Vicki Jo Sowell noted there have always been problems with theft and breaches, but lately she’s had a harder time maintaining members because of the rapid deterioration of the quality of life of her gardeners. She recounts frequent incidents of public nudity, human defecation and run-ins with mentally ill from the nearby encampments. “The trash and filth on the streets makes it depressing just to walk to the garden.” Foushee was not aware of any issues at TEMCOG.
Recently Foushee realized that there is no alternative than to begin enforcing the terms of the lease.”The City Attorney informed us that in order to continue doing what we had been doing – leaving the garden unlocked – we would have to renegotiate the lease and assume more liability ourselves if something happened to a visitor coming in when we were not there. Our garden Board of Directors decided we did not want to do that and made the decision in October to lock the garden permanently.”
In response to the scarcity of plots, the Board created a new non-gardening category of membership called “Friend of the Garden” so that there would be more vetted people in the garden to welcome visitors more of the time.
Foushee has had some dialogue with those critical of their policies over email. He says he has sought compromise with them and hopes that explaining why the policies are in place and encouraging participation and dialogue will discourage these incidents of vandalism. “I would suggest that we put this ill-will behind us and try to reach an understanding that is in the best interests of all of us. I invite you to consider the possibility of becoming a Friend of the Garden yourself, as it seems it would serve your interests and make a contribution to the garden and the community.”
Learn more about joining Emeryville’s three Community Gardens, their history and their policies on the City’s website.
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How can it be called a community garden when its exclusive to a small permanent membership?
Membership should rotate on a 2-3 year cycle. After their turn, plot holders go back to the end of the line and wait again like everyone else.
Congratulations Rob, this is one of your best columns ever.
Thanks Bob! My hope is that it initiates debate, awareness and ultimately some sort of compromise here.
interesting point. You could spend decades on the waiting list and still not get a plot. In a sense, this is taking tax payer funded land and turning it over for private use. It would be nice if there were fruits, berries, etc planted along and around the plots that were accessible to the public strolling through.
That’s exactly what it is: publicly subsidized private use of land.
The city should give the current membership a choice: be a truly community organzation by switch to rotating membership, or purchase the land from the city.
On average about a third of the members turn over every year. May be because of the work and time requirements – to maintain not only one’s own plot in good condition, but to contribute to the maintenance of the garden and surrounding plantings.
In any case, it’s not exactly a permanent exclusive membership. (But I would support more opportunities to maintain public edible plantings in the surrounding open spaces in Emeryville.)
I agree that more of the open lots should be planted with edible plants or fruit trees. I don’t know how that would be funded though.