A human being without imagination is dead," says Chuma Obiudu firmly. Obiudu -- called "Dr. Chuma" by almost everyone -- is his own best example. Standing in a garden enclosed by steel spikes on a gorgeous December morning, he has convinced a group of visitors that a muddy patch backed by a two-story brick wall is actually a stage upon which the citizens of Richmond, in all their amazing diversity, will soon prepare meals of fresh vegetables. The word "vegetable" sounds like ambrosia from his lips; hearing it, children perk up as if he were promising they'd momentarily be harvesting Gummi Bears. Short, lean, and intense, forty-eight-year-old Obiudu is a master of vision-spinning, and in just eighteen months he has woven an intricate, if unlikely, skein of promise, with the Richmond Community Garden at its center.
The crowd presses close, hanging on Obiudu's lilting Nigerian accent as he takes them on a tour of the garden, set for its grand opening early in mid-April. A ten-foot-long shallow depression, now filled halfway with opaque brown water, will be a pond, he explains, where children will learn how to farm catfish and tilapia. A few fruit trees will teach the value of healthful food. A small arbor will be planted with rampant annual vines, forming, he explains as he waves his arms, a wilderness in the city: "All children need to know they can find wilderness anywhere," he insists. "It is vital in an urban setting that children can find wilderness."
Without the benefit of Obiudu's imaginings, the Richmond Community Garden seems not only the antithesis of wilderness but a picture of blight. Surrounded by faceless brick buildings, kitty-corner from a weirdly Cape Cod-styled police substation, the fenced-off plot on the corner of Macdonald Avenue and Harbour Boulevard manages to look simultaneously vacant and sinister, like a prison yard gone to seed.
Despite the fact that it is dwarfed by such projects as a new transit village just up the street -- 230 townhouses, a six-story parking garage with retail on the bottom, and a 30,000-square-foot performing arts center -- or the city's Main Street USA initiative, with its mission to glorify and protect the historical downtown, this unprepossessing piece of ground has become the psychic center of Richmond's redevelopment plans. It's the energy around the garden that is driving the Richmond of the present into a very different future.
"At first glance, you could dismiss the community garden," says ecological artist Allen Green, who has overseen such gardens statewide. "It can't grow enough food to matter; you could say it's an insignificant trifle. But it's in spaces like these that the experiment for another world will begin."
Under the spell of its director, Dr. Chuma Obiudu, the garden combines performance, wellness, art, and the wonder of growing things in a peculiar alchemy that leaves everyone -- from bureaucrats to school kids to storeowners -- breathless. At a recent Main Street USA meeting, peopled with representatives from the arts community, HUD, the city's Redevelopment Agency, and business owners, the garden came up again and again -- even though Obiudu, who had locked himself out of his car, was absent for almost the entire meeting.
This was not how it used to be -- and not who Dr. Chuma used to be, either. Born and educated in Nigeria, Obiudu went to Greece to earn a BS degree in urban horticulture, then came to the US for advanced training. He picked up a master's degree at Cornell in environmental horticulture, a PhD at Oklahoma State in agricultural education, and just for kicks (or practicality), an MBA from Tulsa University.
It was not long ago when, one fall day, Obiudu rolled into Oakland, attracted by Jerry Brown's campaign promises to engage the citizenry in the city's planning process. "He wanted proposals from the public," he remembers. This request fit perfectly with Obiudu's bottom-up philosophy of development; he believes that meaningful growth can only happen with the full participation of all the stakeholders -- in this case, citizens, planners, builders, architects, and neighborhood groups.
Under the aegis of the consulting firm he had set up in Oakland, Sustainable Management Consulting, Obiudu submitted a proposal for a study on how to make Lake Merritt more inviting. The idea was to provide residents with a living green space rather than what he calls "a large body of water staring blankly into concrete pavements and stressed by heavy motor traffic." The proposal suggested turning Lakeshore into a one-way road and building a sound wall to separate traffic from the lakefront. Obiudu's written English tends to the formal and old-fashioned; one can imagine the reaction of someone on the mayor's staff reading sentences like these: "The dual carriageway around the Lake just immediate to it makes it inaccessible to relaxation and solitude. The continuous movement of heavy traffic around the Lake is very distracting, both to humankind and other animal life within the environment ... It offers a thin benefit as against its massive capital investment and maintenance which does not translate to an equitable leisure space and solitude."
Weeks later, having heard no response, Obiudu ran into Brown at a party and spouted his idea on the fly. Brown said he was interested and suggested Obiudu resend his proposal. When he did, he was told the proposal was good, but the money that could have funded the study had already been advanced to the Parks and Recreation Department. "I tried to meet with [Parks and Rec director] Harry Edwards, but he has no time. Then I was invited to come to proposal meetings where I was told if a consultant was hired, [he/she] probably would be from a big contractor who would do the work. Doing things in Oakland," Obiudu sums up, "you have to climb a mountain."
Richmond provided opportunity rather than obstacles -- though it seems an unlikely birthplace for "another world" like the one Allen Green envisions. The Newark of the Bay Area, Richmond is a blue-collar factory town, defined by Chevron's oil refinery. During World War II, the population mushroomed by a hundred thousand people as four Kaiser shipyards operated three shifts. The bustling downtown of the war years decayed quickly in the postwar era. For nearly half a century, Richmond has seemed the only boat too heavy to lift during the Bay Area's economic swells.
Yet the city proved perfect for Obiudu's bottom-up philosophy -- Richmond has a legacy of community and neighborhood action, much of it involving green issues like creek restoration, clean air, and community health. Further, the city's power structure is remarkably easy to break into -- anyone who shows up at committees can participate, no matter where they live. "My sense is that people are very welcoming here," says Allen Green. "There's no bickering, no one-upsmanship. It's the same way with the arts commission. They have the same open, generous spirit."
Obiudu isn't the only idealist to discover Richmond's civic charms. During the past couple years, Richmond has collected a band of ex-Oakland visionaries and community service pros, refugees from Brown's brand of top-down power politics. Says Obiudu simply, "You must find a place where they listen to your prayers."
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