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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Rather than balk at the idealism of Beck's goals, her supporters brainstormed about how to make it happen. April Luckett, a local deputy in charge of a new "crime-free multihousing" program in the area, suggested that some of the green areas in these housing units might be used for gardening. Sergeant Neideffer suggested that students at the Deputy Sheriff's Activities Leagues, which he directs, could get involved in leadership training at the gardens.

Neideffer has a personal stake in revitalizing the neighborhood he grew up in. But he also believes the gardens will offer job opportunities to keep people off the street, and offer an outlet for the area's high population of parolees. He said that eventually he'd like to see Santa Rita jail offering the same kind of program as San Quentin's Insight Garden Program, which trains the incarcerated to manage garden plots. If parolees come back to the Eden Areas with the right training, he said, their re-entry will be easier with infrastructure like community gardens already in place.

The sergeant helped secure $15,000 in grant money to employ ten community members to maintain what is currently six garden sites, all being leased to the network for $1 per year. Neideffer and the Deputy Sheriff's Activities League were able to leverage this funding through one of Obama's Recovery Act programs called AC Hire, which will match 80 percent of the salaries and employment costs for the new hires because they are all unemployed parents, which is a requirement of the program.

Grant money also is being used to train forty local volunteers with the help of an Oakland-based edible garden company called All Edibles to install eight neighborhood gardens next year. Some of the Koshland Fellowship money is providing salaries for two full-time employees, a project manager and farm manager, to oversee all of the network's projects.

Beck says the store and other potential associated businesses are probably five to ten years down the road from now. But the group is poised to move forward quickly. The question now is whether the land will still be available for cultivation.


Many of the properties that the network mapped as potential farmland were also marked for potential medium- to high-density residential development in the county's latest housing plans. The state requires counties to update such housing plans every five years, and in the draft adopted on March 30, the majority of all the unincorporated Alameda County properties designated for this type of development are located in Cherryland and Ashland.

Ideally, more housing would make it easier and more affordable for residents in these areas to own houses. But the truth is that they are both rife with absentee landlords. Alameda County's most recent health statistics indicate that Cherryland has the lowest percent of owner-occupied households in the county next to Ashland, at just 32.5 percent. Plus, the amount of green space in Cherryland is less than 20 percent of the county's standard.

Beck and other supporters fought hard to see the housing element revised to make room for more green space and infrastructure — like grocery stores, parks, and community recreational facilities — and less housing density. She and other community members argued that Cherryland and Ashland have shouldered an unfairly large cut of the county's development needs for years, and that the area simply doesn't have the infrastructure to support any more. Beck says what the community needs is better health, not more housing.

With backing from the Cherryland Neighborhood Association, Beck called a meeting with county planning commission to discuss the possibility of putting a temporary hold on development in Cherryland to buy time for the community to discuss how that land might best be used to improve livability. In response, the commission drafted an emergency moratorium and added it to the agenda for the following planning commission meeting.

But shortly after the county posted the meeting agenda, an anonymous flyer appeared on the doors of area residents. "YOUR PROPERTY RIGHTS MAY BE AT RISK," read the headline. Then lower down: "The 'Gardeners of Eden,' a small group in Cherryland, has been mapping your property to be used for farming and community gardens. They want to take Cherryland back to a farming community. You need to make your voice heard at the community meetings before it is too late. Stop the 'Gardeners of Eden' from making your property their farm."

Beck still doesn't know who posted the flyer, and said she was mostly disappointed it was so ill-informed despite multiple meetings about the group's plans for the area. Nonetheless, the Cherryland Neighborhood Association decided to pull the moratorium before it was even brought to a vote. Over the long-term, Beck still wants the county to take a more active interest in setting aside green space for urban gardening projects, or at least to include those kinds of projects in residential planning processes.

Of course, Beck is struggling with local government mainly because she made a choice to work with it instead of against it. In West Oakland, Ahmadi admits that the People's Grocery only recently began adhering to the rigmarole of the permitting process. He and his peers often used to avoid red tape by ignoring city regulations altogether. However, without the right kind of research, taking that route comes with its own set of risks.

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