Privatizing the Parks? 

Facing budget cuts, Oakland's Office of Parks and Recreation enlists a private company to help with upkeep at Mosswood Park. Some residents are none too pleased.

When Mosswood Park opened its community garden about a year ago, residents hoped it would be a boon to the neighborhood, providing space to grow fresh fruits and vegetables and educational activities for local teens instead of the drug dealing that had become rampant in the area. About six of the fifteen garden boxes were reserved for teen gardening, and a teen center adjacent to the garden was renovated. However, months after the garden's inauguration, the teen garden boxes never materialized, and many of the plants had become overgrown or were dying.

But when Oakland's Office of Parks and Recreation allowed a for-profit local company called Kijiji Grows to set up an aquaponics system in the garden and start teaching classes to teens, residents were outraged. "We ... should demand a reasonable public process for gifting park land to non-profits (or for profits ...)," wrote one resident on a community e-mail list. "What the heck is going on here? As I understand it, a for-profit business has broken into to a hard-won community garden," said another. "It is a serious drag that it now takes constant vigilance to keep the City of Oakland from actively doing you dirt."

The company's co-owners, Keba Konte and Eric Mandu, say they hope their presence will contribute to the community. "We're not selling any technology, we're absolutely not selling produce," said Konte, who's also the owner of Guerilla Cafe in Berkeley. "As a company, what was in it for us was that we would be able to demonstrate what this technology does." The East Bay company sells aquaponics gardening systems, in which a pipe cycles water between a fish tank and a garden box, allowing the plants to be fertilized by the fish waste and the roots of the plants to filter fresh water back to the fish. In the past, Kijiji Grows has collaborated with the nonprofit Mo' Better Foods and this year's Malcolm X Jazz Festival, where they taught kids about aquaponics.

Konte had approached Oakland's Office of Parks and Recreation earlier this summer, suggesting that they collaborate. The cash-starved parks department saw it as a way to keep its garden clean and to provide programs at its teen center for free. Audree Jones-Taylor, director of Oakland Parks and Recreation, told a group of residents at a community meeting in mid-September that to fill the many needs of the parks "we are leveraging services left and right."

But some residents feel that Kijiji Grows is getting a free pass. Typically, aspiring gardeners have to submit an application and $25 fee to reserve a garden box, and other users of the park also have to pay rent, such as a Jazzercize class and the nonprofit elementary school Bridgemount Academy, which uses three rooms in the rec center to hold classes. However, the parks department admitted that it's not requiring Kijiji to pay rent, nor did they sign an official agreement with the company outlining the terms of their tenancy.

Residents also weren't told about Kijiji's tenancy. In fact, community gardeners only found out about the company's plans in late July, when they discovered changes in the setup of their area: Junk that was usually stored in the dilapidated teen center adjacent to the garden had been moved to the garden itself; a lock on one of the gates had been broken off; a hole was drilled in the wall of the teen center and an extension cord was threaded through, leading to a garden plot with running water and a fish tank attached. The company, meanwhile, says the lock was removed to make the garden more accessible. "Right now, there's about four people who have the combination to the gate and they come in and water their garden and they leave," Konte said. His main motivation, he said, was to make the community garden, "a lot more accessible than what it is."

That attitude seemed cavalier to some and heroic to others. In an e-mail, Seth Katz, a community member who cleaned up a section of the park to create a dog run a few years ago, was frustrated that, although he and others had wrestled with bureaucracy to improve certain sections of the park, "Kijiji Grows shows up and, they build something without permits, ... steal power and water, and wire illegally, and they are still there today." But elementary school teacher Casie Lopez saw Kijiji as the only means to filling the most essential responsibility of the park — keeping the local kids learning instead of turning to drugs and criminal activity. "I'm not gonna stop working until this center is solvent," she asserted at a recent community meeting. While the classes Kijiji Grows had intended to teach at Mosswood to teenagers have been on hold during the controversy, many community members expressed their gratitude to the aquaponics company for the pilot class they taught over the summer, and for the sheer beauty of their produce.

The tensions found in the Mosswood community aren't unique, but they reflect a greater issue: how city agencies are coping with severe budget cuts. According to Jones-Taylor, the the Office of Parks and Recreation's budget had been cut by $12 million from five years ago. Until mid-July, Oakland's community gardens were running smoothly under garden coordinator Josh Amaris. When he left in midsummer, the parks department took three months to hire his replacement, Harith Aleem. Many of the Mosswood community members said they felt the department found it more cost effective to eliminate that position indefinitly, had it not been for the rancor caused by the miscommunicaton in Mosswood's garden. The lack of leadership during those three months was felt in other community gardens in Oakland as well. Jean Robertson, volunteer coordinator of Golden Gate Community Garden in Oakland, complained of "eons of Bermuda grass" that used to get cleared away. With the absence of a garden coordinator, the gardens were slipping into disarray, especially as residents were dealing with their own financial challenges. At the September community meeting at Mosswood Park, Jones-Taylor told an upset group of gardeners that she clearly needed to fill the position faster than she thought.

For the parks department, bringing in private companies may be one of the ways to save local parks. So is this a slow privitization of the parks, as some community members contend, or a creative solution that lifts up local entrepreneurship? Jones-Taylor made the decision to keep Kijiji Grows in Mosswood, although she admitted that their presence would have to stay small since they stepped on so many toes initially. "I think their model is great," she said after the September community meeting. "This is not the best spot for it, but parks are blighted." As for the community of people who still oppose the presence of Kijiji Grows, Jones-Taylor was confident that the aquaponics group would impress people with their work in the community and with the beauty of their organic produce. "They'll see," she said.

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