You can't step through the gates of the University Village's community garden without having the word "oasis" pop into your head. A few steps inside you seem miles away from the bustling, funky apartment buildings occupied by UC Berkeley's married students. A patch of ground on one side of the path is crowded with tomato plants, promising a bumper crop later in the summer. Just ahead is a raised bed full of tiny lettuces and herbs, while farther along another gardener has planted flowers that are bursting into full bloom as spring turns to summer. Thick blackberry bushes line some of the pathways, swallowtail and monarch butterflies flit about, and a huge old acacia tree plays host to dozens of chirping birds.
Come back in a few years, however, and you're likely to encounter a very different scene: the university wants to replace the gardens with a series of soccer and baseball fields to be used by youngsters from the surrounding communities. Why? Because, planners say, this is the only way to fund replacement of much of the Village's worn-out housing, and construction of additional units for students.
"Basically, the garden is the losing factor in a political battle," says Bart Alexander, who volunteers as the garden's manager while raising his own crop of lettuce, tomatoes, beets, and more. The university is planning a complicated land swap: in order to finance the new housing, UC Berkeley plans to lease land it owns along San Pablo Avenue for commercial development--which means that two Little League fields on that land will close. Also, two other playing fields will be bulldozed to make way for additional housing. But in 1997, after considerable lobbying by parents, the university promised parents that there would be "no net loss" of space for soccer and baseball. At the end of the day, the only way to replace the four athletic fields lost in the land swap is to string them out just to the west of University Village--the land now occupied by the community garden.UC principal planner Jackie Bernier says that the university had little choice but to use the garden space for playing fields. It wants to replace some 420 units of housing that date back to World War II, and either renovate or replace an additional 500 that were built in the 1960s. The plans have been fiercely debated by student residents, who fear that rents will rise dramatically (see "The Angry Village," April 28, 2000) as a result of the new construction. Bernier points out that since Prop. 13 passed, all university housing must be self-supporting. As a result, UC will need to raise money. The land along San Pablo is potentially valuable, but only if it includes the playing fields--otherwise it is only wide enough to accommodate a small strip of commercial activity. "That's not worth doing," says Bernier. The playing fields extend much farther back from the road, meaning a much larger--and more financially rewarding--development could be built.Bernier says that UC is trying to accommodate the gardeners, but she admits that any replacement garden will be smaller than the current space. UC had floated the idea of building small plots next to each apartment, so residents could have their own private growing spaces. More recently, it suggested that only some units would have small private gardens, and there could be a slightly larger communal facility--or perhaps several--for Village residents.
Neither proposal is adequate, Inga Bialkowski and Margaret Hurlbert say as they lead me on a tour. The community garden is more than just the sum of its parts, they tell me: it's a unique setting, reflecting a unique collection of folks from vastly different cultures and backgrounds.
Hurlbert points out that the garden's current location is part of its charm: it's tucked away at the very western edge of the Village. Just to its west are the railroad tracks, and beyond that the industrial flatlands that line the Interstate 80/580 corridor. It's also adjacent to Codornices Creek and one of its offshoots, so while the area is hardly pristine, it's home for a number of animals. Hurlbert frequently encounters a pair of resident red-shouldered hawks as well as Pacific Chorus frogs, ring-necked and garter snakes, and dozens of other species. She's also seen egrets, kingfishers, and mallards in the nearby waterways. Much of the garden itself has been left in a more or less natural state, covered in blackberry bushes or overgrown with grass and bushes. A smaller, more centrally located garden wouldn't function as the same sort of buffer zone for the wildlife, she says.
Usually accompanied by her bouncy two-year-old daughter, Bialkowski tends her corner of the garden while her husband pursues a graduate degree in Russian studies. The couple hauled six wheelbarrowsful of weeds and other debris away last spring, and brought in gravel to construct pathways between their small flower beds, which are filled with an array of blooms, including gladioli, lilies, California poppies, "some kind of African daisies," and nasturtiums. She also tends a couple of rosebushes growing against the chain-link fence that marks the community garden's perimeter, and she set up an outdoor table and chairs where she and her family can relax.
Bialkowski especially likes the fact that the garden is a great place for kids. As we talk, her daughter plays with a collection of toys that are lying around, or she wanders off along the path, looking at the flowers and butterflies. Her mother notes that the garden is fenced in, so the kids are relatively safe, and at the same time they can explore nature while their parents tend the gardens. Most of the kids living in the Village are under six, she says. "They wouldn't play soccer at this age. They like to explore."
In addition to exchanging tips about watering and weeding, the gardeners get a chance to experience each other's cultures through a most basic medium--food. Alexander remembers an encounter he had with an elderly Chinese man who was helping tend his grandson's vegetables. The man spoke no English, and Alexander knew no Chinese, but they managed to connect anyway. "He handed me some of his greens and I had them for dinner," he says. In exchange, Alexander gave him a bunch of freshly picked beets, something the fellow had never tried before. He says that since he started managing the garden earlier this year, he's met people from Korea, Ireland, Zimbabwe, China, and Southeast Asia. Without the garden, they probably would have crossed paths in the Village many times without ever having the opportunity to get acquainted. "That's what makes it important for people," he says. "It's a real mix here, but we all love gardening." He says that about 75 families pay the fifteen-dollar-per-year fee for a twelve-by-twelve-foot garden plot.
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