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Photograph by Will Mosher
Till Soon: Gardeners and community activists gathered last Thursday at a meeting to discuss the fate of the Beach Flats Community Garden. Another meeting is set for Thursday, April 3.

Seeds of Change

Committed volunteers (no flakes, please) could save the Beach Flats Community Garden 

By Will Mosher

Last week a notice telling Spanish-speaking gardeners that they had until Monday, March 31, to hand in their keys to the 2-acre Beach Flats Community Garden sent shockwaves through the neighborhood. But after a March 27 meeting, it appears that all is not lost. If enough volunteers come forward this week with firm commitments to help staff the community center, the old garden could be saved from becoming a field of weeds. 

The Thursday evening meeting drew a number of gardeners, who are very disappointed with the city's decision to relocate their plots to a much smaller garden in Poets Park, as well as neighborhood activists who questioned the city's move.

Reyna Ruiz, who works for the Beach Flats Community Center and oversees the community garden, explained to attendees in Spanish and in English why the 2-acre garden was being moved to a quarter-acre plot. For one thing, she said, the new location is owned by the city, whereas the old garden sits on land owned by the Santa Cruz Seaside Co.—a situation that at least theoretically leaves the garden vulnerable to eviction. (The company reportedly has no plans to develop the site.)

Second, and more critically, Ruiz explained that the staff at the Beach Flats Community Center is overstretched running other programs, such as after-school tutoring, the preschool co-op and the family literacy program. She explained that there just isn't enough time, money and energy to operate both the old garden and the new one.

"It's a twofold answer," she said, adding that the plan has been in the works since 2006. "It was a process of two years of trying to figure out what people wanted. It was not an easy decision. It was not an easy choice, and it was a consensus decision."

In fact the garden has felt the pinch of shortened staff capacity for a long time. Ruiz only works 30 hours a week, and neither of the two other part-time employees has time to supervise the park, work out contracts or let new gardeners in.

Ruiz said that the garden needed solid, uninterrupted and bilingual help from the outside in order to keep functioning. She said that if someone came forward with a plan and a real, long-term commitment, then she would present the city with it.

"I'm not opposed to collaborative work where people decide that they invest their time," she said to the group of gathered gardeners and assorted outsiders. "We have really good partners that we work with. I'm just wanting to know, what is the level of commitment of people to organize in this neighborhood and to stay long-term? Because well-intentioned people come in and say, 'We want to organize in this community,' and finals come, and they leave. And so you don't have to sell me on the value of community gardening. I understand it. What's your commitment for the long term? Is it sustainable?"

Carol Scurich, chief of the Parks and Recreation Department, said if people wanted to create a committee that would come up with a plan for the garden, she would bring it to the city and the Seaside Co. When one attendee observed that it seemed Ruiz and others were trying to micromanage the garden and asked why they didn't just let the gardeners organize themselves, Scurich replied that the only reason the Seaside Company was allowing the city to run the garden in the first place is because the garden was organized.

"For us, to make it work, we need a plan and we need somebody to organize and be responsible," she said. "We need that."

A second meeting is scheduled for Thursday, April 3 at 5pm at the Beach Flats Community Garden to discuss the garden's fate. In the meantime, the gardeners, who supplement their diets and incomes with produce grown on the plots, remain in limbo.

One of them, Oscar Chavez, shares a plot with his uncle. He pointed to an empty lot just over the fence where weeds had grown to waist height and explained in Spanglish that the garden was going to become like that lot as soon as it rained if there weren't people to pull the weeds. Later, at the meeting, he repeated what he'd said and added that he didn't want to leave the garden unless there was a good reason for him and the other gardeners to go—a sentiment that seems to be shared by many. 

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