Gardening Eden 

Susan Beck says urban gardens can improve people's health, create green space, provide jobs, dampen crime, and revitalize Cherryland. That's a lot to ask of a few plots of land.

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Beck sees gardens everywhere. For her, envisioning gardens also means envisioning her neighborhood's first produce market and, ultimately, a better Cherryland overall — one with more jobs, better public health, and reduced crime rates. Beck's utopian vision relies on the county looking to a new model of economic growth — one that relies less on housing and more on urban gardens.

Beck had only just crossed the street from her house when she stopped in front of a small plot of oxalis flanking a shabby-looking row of one-story studios. Pointing out the similarly weed-laden plots beside each doorstep, she said, "All of this could be growing food for them."

Walking behind the studios to a partially cemented space in the backyard that could have easily fit six cars, she continued: "At current density levels, they could build more units in the back. They could build a two-story box back here and fit in a whole bunch more people. But we'd like to see this be food for the folks who live here. And maybe even for a little community market."

Thanks in part to books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, the so-called food-justice movement had already exploded well before the Obamas broke ground on the White House vegetable garden. The East Bay is at the forefront of the movement, as home to author Michael Pollan and chef Alice Waters, who tout the importance of healthy eating; and Van Jones and Bryant Terry, who are helping show the nation that environmentalism and food consciousness aren't just the domain of upper-class white folks. In her book Farm City, author Novella Carpenter demonstrated that even the cementscape of West Oakland isn't such a bad place for a farm.

Some food-justice advocates have been working to localize food production for years. Take Brahm Ahmadi; roughly eight years ago, he and a cohort of young activists had a vision of opening the first large-scale grocery store in West Oakland. The produce-centered grocery would be a healthy beacon among the plentiful liquor stores that had helped the neighborhood earn its designation as a "food desert" in some circles. The shelves would be stocked with local produce from urban gardens and other nearby farms. Community members would be able to find employment at the store, which would boost the local economy and up the price of real estate for the area. It was a beautiful vision with big potential impacts and a seemingly simple on-the-ground strategy.

But six months later, after doing some homework, Ahmadi was forced to rethink his approach. The grocery business, it turned out, is high risk, low margin, and extremely complicated.

Like Ahmadi, Beck hopes to help provide a healthier diet to Cherryland and Ashland residents. And, like Ahmadi and his colleagues discovered eight years ago, Beck has discovered that there are plenty of challenges to overcome.

When Beck first entered the food-justice movement, she had just bought a house in Cherryland and moved there from Oakland with her family. But her dream of living in a quaint neighborhood full of green space was quickly squelched when she noticed the parcels around her home being transformed into high-density housing developments. Beck says she couldn't sit by and watch as green space began disappearing around her home, parcel by parcel.

After starting what she called the "Laurel Avenue Preservation Project," Beck managed to successfully fight a few development projects while simultaneously becoming a regular gadfly at county planning commission meetings. Since that time, she says, the project has broadened to cover all of Cherryland and Ashland.

During this time, she became active in the Cherryland neighborhood association, and she and association president Ruth Baratta began leading a group of community members interested in transforming the western Eden Areas into the East Bay's next garden district. They called themselves the "Gardeners of Eden."

In 2008, Beck became one of nine Koshland Fellowship recipients from the Cherryland/Ashland areas, all chosen by the San Francisco Foundation for their civic leadership. The stipend they received from the fellowship, a total of $300,000 to be distributed evenly over the following five years for neighborhood improvement projects in Cherryland and Ashland, meant that she had the seed money to realize the Gardeners' vision of growing food for the community. Armed with the new funding and support from the other Koshland fellows, Beck reached out to community leaders like Sergeant Neideffer and to urban gardening experts in Oakland to make the most of the funding.

In January, Beck used some of her grant money to begin mapping out available parcels of land, both public and private, that might be leased or donated for gardening. Eventually, she envisioned hiring a small group of community members to initiate and maintain farms located on parcels either donated or leased by willing supporters. The network would start by selling the produce in the form of home-delivered boxes and, eventually, as the vision goes, sell from a storefront. Long-term, she hopes the abundance of produce grown in Cherryland gardens will become a way to address the unemployment problem. With so much food, she imagines, Cherryland could even become a job-training hub.

"Not only job training: like, we're going to teach you how to hammer a nail," she said. "But giving people opportunities to be trained in jobs in areas they would love to be involved in. People can get involved in gardening, or go into the community garden cafe and become a chef, or a restaurant manager. Our little community here would be a training ground and then the businesses would be a natural outgrowth of the training."

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