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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Down-to-Earth: Lilyann Brannon heads a group called the United New Conservationists. She founded the West Garden on Saratoga Avenue 26 years ago.

Peat's Sake

Like dozens of community gardens that have been plowed under for asphalt and strip malls, San Jose's lovingly tended West Garden now faces a future as a parking lot

By Traci Hukill

LILYANN BRANNON STROLLS down the center walkway of the community garden she founded 26 years ago, dressed head-to-toe in teal-colored rain gear, her green rubber boots squelching in the wet grass. A few of the rectangular plots bear the harvest of midwinter--some silvery cabbages, a big spray of Swiss chard. But in most of the parcels, weeds scramble over the wooden-plank borders and a smattering of peppers and berries clings to wilted plants. The West Garden on San Tomas Aquino Road, a half block from Saratoga Avenue, is in an unusual state of neglect, even for January.

"Most of the people are disheartened and think the garden's finished," explains Brannon, who heads United New Conservationists, the educational nonprofit group that runs the garden. "No one's signed up this year. We're all hanging 'twixt heaven and earth."

Across the parking lot from the garden hunkers San Jose's West Valley Branch Library, a low, dark structure with a steeply pitched roof. Libraries make unlikely villains, but it is this building's expansion and the attendant need for more parking that have jeopardized the future of what Brannon and others have come to call the West Garden.

This battle between these West Valley community gardeners and local librarians may rank among the most cordial debates imaginable. The levelheaded contenders advance their arguments based on communal and democratic ideals. They're polite and respectful. They're bookworms and soil-tillers, for crying out loud, bound by kinship for centuries. They survived the Dark Ages by huddling together under monastic protection. So they're behaving themselves. But in this matter, make no mistake, both will hold their ground.

SINCE 1974, THE EMERALD trapezoid of land wedged between the library and Fire Station No. 14 on San Tomas Aquino Road has served as an organic community garden open to anyone willing to pay the $50 annual fee. The gardeners say that, thanks to decades of organic composting, it's home to the best soil around. They argue that, as one of the last vestiges of San Jose's agrarian past (it used to be an apricot orchard), it has historical value to boot.

But the librarians on the other side of the parking lot have been waiting to expand the West Valley Branch Library for 15 years. They're tired of watching people sit on footstools between bookshelves or on the floor while they read because the few chairs are taken. Since the library was built in 1964, the population it was designed to serve has exploded. Today the small facility labors to serve 76,000 residents, many of whom speak and read Chinese, Vietnamese or Russian.

So, when outgoing Mayor Susan Hammer steered $7.9 million toward the West Valley library cause last winter, elated librarians began plotting an expansion that soon morphed into a relocation. Fueled by need, plans to build a large new library on the West Garden site flew through the approval process.

Lilyann Brannon loves libraries. It's the form this one will take--20,000 square feet, single-storied and accompanied by a fresh expanse of parking lot--that she opposes. Brannon would like the city to consider expanding the existing library by building up, not out, adding mezzanines and a basement.

But Brannon and the other West Gardeners' suggestions never got past the public information meetings at the library last spring. Brannon says her meeting with Councilwoman Linda LeZotte brought no results. LeZotte and everyone else said the same thing: It would cost too much to build and staff a two-story building. The new library would go through as planned.

And so, in a community suffering from sprawl and reviled for having paved every scrap of fertile soil, the solution to the problem as proposed by the City Council is to serve up more of the same: pave the agricultural land and dismiss the alternatives as impractical.

ASSISTANT CITY LIBRARIAN Paul Underwood is overseeing the West Valley Branch expansion, and a happier librarian there never was. The library has been at the top of the city's list of unmet needs for 15 years. The fact that it's now getting funding, coupled with an approved master plan to upgrade the city's branch libraries, tells Underwood the tide is turning.

It's high time. The job of the library has changed, he says. Libraries double as community centers now and need large rooms for public meetings. They serve diverse populations of people who want to read books in their native tongues. And besides books and periodicals, libraries must now offer videos, CDs and computers--especially computers.

"We're concerned about the 'digital divide,' " Underwood says. "I think there should be computers in libraries in a certain quantity to help people have access to the Internet for free." His plan for the West Valley Branch Library is to add 25 computers for a total of 36.

As eager as Underwood is to triple the West Valley facility's size, he sympathizes with the West Garden. "I grew up on a farm in Michigan," he says. "I wish I could say, 'Here's some land. It's yours,' but that's really beyond the library's capability."

Underwood explains that the sticking point is not the cost of building a two-story library--the price difference is negligible--but the cost of hiring extra staff. He says a two-story building would require an extra "reference point," or desk where a librarian would be available to answer questions.

There's another problem: how to keep the library open during construction. The patrons want continuous service. That means the old library will need to stay open until the new one's finished, whereupon the old building will be torn down and its site paved for parking.

Tona Duncanson, aide to Councilwoman LeZotte, doesn't think the two-story library idea has much merit. She points to the number of people served by the library versus that served by the West Garden.

"Quite honestly, we see it as a trade-off," she says. "Which serves the greater good? A bigger library or a bigger garden?"

Duncanson also notes that back when the West Valley library expansion idea first arose in the late 1980s, then-Councilman Lou Ryden located another community garden space about a mile away from the West Garden, next to Anderson Village School. West Garden folks got first dibs on the new garden, called Green Thumb. After Green Thumb went in, a critical library bond failed to pass and the expansion was back-burnered. West Garden got a stay of execution. Locating a new garden space is the best the city can do, says Duncanson, and they'll try to do it again. But she says the West Garden knew this day was coming.

"We've always looked at that garden as a temporary occupant of the land until the library could be built," she says.

The people at West Garden, some of whom have been there for 15 years, don't want to move. They've dug, composted and worked up their soil into perfect organic Class 1A stuff (city-run community gardens are officially organic, although staff shortages make enforcement of anti-pesticide rules nearly impossible). They enjoy a thriving social community that throws annual summer parties. They are a diverse group that embraces Russian, Latino and Vietnamese members. And every year, the firefighters next door plant a big garden--three plots' worth--with corn, green beans and other vegetables.

Besides all this, people from West Garden don't much care for the soil at other sites, even Green Thumb.

Says Rose Kull, whose husband took a plot at Green Thumb when it opened in 1991, "You can't grow root crops there. I was always leery of eating anything out of that garden. There's something wrong with that soil."

The soil at Green Thumb has been tested, and it's fine. It just isn't West Garden soil, and that is something the gardeners can't accept.

CONSTRUCTION ON THE WEST Valley library, originally scheduled to start this spring, has been delayed a year. To West Garden tenants, that means there's still time to plant one last summer garden. Meanwhile, gardeners in other parts of the city are grappling with the "to plant or not to plant" question, even those who hold rank.

Councilman John Diquisto tends a roof garden atop the lofty reaches of City Hall. The retired firefighter and irascible critic of bureaucratic waste is trying to make up his mind whether to plant summer veggies in his altitudinous oasis. He already has pear, orange and cherry trees set to bloom up there, but City Hall is due for reroofing this year, and he'd hate to get stuck dismantling his garden mid-summer.

On the other hand, he grouses, "The city loves to talk and do nothing. I know how they procrastinate."

While Diquisto gauges the potential for swift action by his peers, the 100 gardeners at Nuestra Tierra, a city-run community garden, are playing their own guessing game. Their five-acre garden has been displaced by plans for a golf course, and Nuestra Tierra is scheduled to be relocated across Coyote Creek, near the fairgrounds. The time line is uncertain, but most of the gardeners have decided not to plant this year rather than sacrifice a crop to the insult of graders and sod.

"If you talk to the gardeners at Nuestra Tierra right now," says John Dotter, community gardens director, "their hearts are very heavy. When you work a piece of land, you become very attached to it. No amount of money can replace it."

To make matters worse, this is the second time Nuestra Tierra has been ousted from its home. The garden first sprouted as Mi Tierra in 1976 at Alma and 10th streets. It was the city's first community garden, begun by a powerful coalition that included San Jose State University students of environmental studies, the Council on Aging and the University of California Cooperative Extension. John Vasconcellos, already a nine-year veteran of the Assembly, attended the opening. As the garden matured, a rich culture grew up around it. When one beloved garden manager named Carlos Robles died, it was soil dug up from Mi Tierra that covered his casket in a local cemetery.

In 1993, the City Council evicted Mi Tierra to make room for the San Jose Ice Center.

By that time, Lilyann Brannon and her United New Conservationists had lost three of the four gardens they'd started in the 1970s. One became a strip mall. Another, located on Franklin McKinley School District property near Lucretia and Story roads, was destroyed when the school district sold the land to developers. The third garden was on city land and was evicted presumably to make way for an on-ramp to Highway 85. Those gardeners were sent to the nearby city garden, La Colima.

Michelle Young, who serves on the steering committee for the city's community gardens, worries that the city is too willing to displace gardens in favor of other developments.

"The gardeners and garden managers are really starting to get a sense that these resources are in jeopardy," she says. "Basically, we have nothing but the good will of the planners that they'll make a place for the garden. It's very difficult for people to balance the priorities of development versus green space, especially when the gardens are seen as facilities that serve fewer people than other facilities might."

San Jose has 16 city-run community gardens, totaling 30 acres. Of these, three are on land that doesn't belong to the city and are under leases of five to 15 years. Of course, as gardeners at Nuestra Tierra well know, having the city as a landlord is no guarantee of permanence.

Demand for additional plots, always high, is increasing all the time. Most have waiting lists. The Green Thumb garden at Anderson has 33 people on its list, and plots don't open up very often. The city program doesn't promote itself precisely because there are no plots to give eager would-be gardeners.

The local gardening folk are realizing that, like the libraries, the community gardens are assuming a new social role. In the 1970s, when community gardens sprang up around town and across the country, the movement was about getting in touch with the earth and teaching city folks where food really comes from. Community gardens also provided people with a place to grow organic produce at a time when the dangers of pesticides were becoming common knowledge.

Now, the community gardens function as an important meeting place for people who might not otherwise have a chance to know their neighbors. And, increasingly, the gardens act as portals to mainstream culture for immigrant families. Just as Southeast Asian families saw them as a place to cultivate the produce of their homelands in the late 1970s, now Bosnians and Russians are flocking to the gardens, especially those on the West Side.

COMMUNITY GARDENS director Dotter believes gardens have the power to bring people together. Two years ago, with the help of Purdue University anthropologist Myrdene Anderson, he presented a paper about community gardens and immigrant populations to a symposium of garden managers.

Dotter and Anderson found that of the Bosnian refugees who worked community garden plots in San Jose, only about half had lived in rural areas in their homeland. Many of them used the gardens to grow food to help save grocery money, but even more of them said gardening was a way to meet people in their community, to network, to share resources and to learn American culture and language. And it was therapeutic. Last year, Catholic Charities got an $80,000 grant from Santa Clara County to help immigrants from the Balkans adjust to life in the States. Part of the program involves locating community gardens for them in the hopes that the soothing activity and the social ties that accompany it will ease their rough transition. As most gardeners will attest, nothing relieves stress like digging in the dirt for an hour or two.

There are individuals with influence who support the gardens. Diquisto wonders if the right of way beneath PG&E transformers can't be converted to garden spaces, because dwellings can't go there. The City Council has funded another community garden at the Tamien light rail station (a truly eco-friendly arrangement), and more gardens are being considered elsewhere.

But none of this helps Lilyann Brannon if council members ignore this opportunity to haul the reins up on a history of shortsighted land use and adopt a progressive stance. The West Garden's situation is emblematic of so many problems--of worthwhile services being pitted against each other, of placing dollar costs over intangible ones and of refusing to make a short-term sacrifice in order to make long-term gains. There's not much indication this will be the turning point, but Brannon hasn't abandoned hope. Irish by birth and temper and communitarian by persuasion, she frames her crusade in the noblest terms.

"Many of the gardeners say, 'Well, you can't fight City Hall.' And I say, 'Well, I think I'm still living in the United States of America,'" she says with asperity, "and last I heard, it was a government by the people, for the people.'"

An architect is working on a design for the West Valley library. If all goes as planned, construction will begin in July 2001.

For more information about San Jose's community garden program, call 408.277.2575. For information about the West Garden and the West Valley Branch Library, contact Councilwoman Linda LeZotte at 408.277.5438. To reach the United New Conservationists, call 408.241.5769.

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From the February 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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