Cultivating a Neighborhood Garden as a Community Organizing Hub

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Cultivating a Neighborhood Garden as a Community Organizing Hub
Photo by Hep Svadja
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Chickens are clucking, ducks quacking, and a group of kids are kicking a ball around on the schoolyard across the street. It’s almost easy to forget that Bottom’s Up Community Garden is in the middle of a major metropolitan area, nestled on a street corner in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland, California.

In San Francisco Bay Area’s patchwork of both affluent and disadvantaged neighborhoods, West Oakland is the latter. Jason Byrnes, one of the garden’s founders, says that in terms of food availability, the Lower Bottoms is a desert. There’s no grocery store. Even the 99 Cents Only store, which did have some produce, is no longer there. Seneca Scott, an organizer for the garden, explains that in West Oakland, “theft is rampant. You’ll see car windows that have been busted out, you’ll see tape over people’s windows.”

It’s not just food and community that the garden provides — it’s a haven. “I like to think we’ve added a lot to this neighborhood,” says Scott. “People tell us all the time that they feel safer.”

Jason Byrnes (center) and Seneca Scott (right), with volunteer Grace Spangler (left). Photo by Hep Svadja

Plants with Purpose

Byrnes founded Bottom’s Up three years ago. He started with a few abandoned plant beds, now overflowing with produce on the roughly 3,500-square-foot plot. He also runs a few other community lots, with goats, chickens, and ducks (the animals will eat anything people don’t want to), and a beehive. They sell weekly batches of produce to a few local restaurants — The Cook and Her Farmer, Swan’s Market, Desco, and Flora — all in Oakland.

Photo by Jason Byrnes

He says he had to do it. “I don’t really have a choice. If I’m not growing something I won’t feel right about myself.” Byrnes grew up gardening, but often felt like the “community” of community gardens was absent. “There were a lot of isolated beds — it was like the opposite of a community garden.” He would give his neighbors extra produce from his personal garden while living in Santa Rosa. “After a year or two, all the neighbors had small gardens and we all knew each other by name. I realized it could be a lot more than just a garden,” he says. “Every farm becomes a community farm if you’re in a strong community.”

Scott, on the other hand, used to be the East Bay director for the SEIU 1021, a labor union. He doesn’t have an agricultural background. He just likes to cook and wanted to get involved. “One of our philosophies” says Scott, “is to plant yourself and grow your roots.” It’s about consistently dedicating your time, about weathering yourself against the storm. That won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

Cultivating Culture

Scott and Byrnes have few rules for the garden, if any. There’s no org chart; it’s not hierarchical. But they do have different levels of involvement — they’re the main organizers, they have about half a dozen regular volunteers, and 317 members on their Facebook page. Plus the neighborhood benefits from their work directly and indirectly.

Photo by Hep Svadja

“If you grew something, we will protect your investments and make sure you get something for your work, but it’s not yours. This is ours. No one has any excuse that their ‘ownership’ of this place supersedes the community,” Scott explains.

What you do at the garden is for the common good. Sometimes they conduct workshops, or volunteers will, if they have knowledge to share. It doesn’t have to be about gardening. That’s the totally inclusive, “sky’s the limit” model that Byrnes and Scott are following — anyone can come and get involved and initiate anything they want: yoga workshops, poetry readings, you name it.

Photo by Sarah Seamstress

For a brief stint, there was a café operating out of the garden that opened every single day at 7am. Scott pinpoints this as the tipping point that got the entire neighborhood involved. “People started coming as customers, we started throwing parties, and it became a community hub,” he says.

It got so popular, you can now search for the Bottom’s Up Café as a geotag, even though it doesn’t officially exist anymore — the city gave a warning due to lack of permits. After that came Oakhella, a recurring DIY hip-hop music festival put on right there between the planter beds. They’ve thrown six so far since the beginning of 2016.

“I think what’s great about this place is that it acts as a magnifier for anyone’s talent,” says Byrnes. “We couldn’t have started the café in a random abandoned lot. Oakhella wouldn’t have worked.” Not without the energy and vision that came from the group of people involved at Bottom’s Up. Scott remarks how special it is that everyone benefits from everyone else, that everyone adds value. “But we also hold each other accountable,” he says, “It’s not for the faint of heart. Don’t disrespect anyone, but we don’t always have to agree.”

And dissent can be good — productive, even. Byrnes and Scott are highly opinionated, and they’re thinking far beyond their plot of land. Scott says Bottom’s Up is very old school, but also futuristic in their philosophies. He mentions The Jetsons and The Flinstones: taking technology that’s valuable to us, and looking at what’s sustainable. He explains that the technological landscape is changing the way we work, and the way we view work. “Technology’s gonna move. It doesn’t have a soul or any empathy. We’re responsible for that. So if the path we’re headed is that people don’t work anymore because there’s no work to do … What do you do? You spend more time on your community. On your art. On your personal expression. We do that all day.” He says “the goal isn’t profit so much as showing people how localized agricultural systems work.” Right, agricultural systems. It must mean more to Scott than just growing plants, because they’re accomplishing so much more than that.

Organizing Organically

Sitting in the garden on a quiet Wednesday afternoon, under the baking sun on this tiny plot of land, it’s hard to imagine 500 people squeezed in here around a ramshackle stage for Oakhella on April 30th. (The Oakhella tag on Instagram proves it, though.) There was virtually no damage to the plant beds, a nod to the communal respect that governs this space.

Oakhella on April 30, 2017. Photo by Eddie M

“As an organizer, we help enhance what a community garden can be by bringing a music festival,” says Scott. “It really pushes the boundaries of what people consider as a community garden.”

Scott says he’s just sort of learned along the way — how to grow plants, how to build a table, how to organize. The organizing came from simply getting involved, and from observing other failed and successful attempts at social programs. He mentions “The Village,” a grassroots homeless camp at Grove Shafter Park that greatly benefited the homeless population — until the city of Oakland cited violations and tore it down at the beginning of the year. The city then backed its own homeless camp, which promptly burned down May 1. It’s a stark indication that sometimes what communities need aren’t administrative measures, but organizers from their own ranks.

Oakland, of course, has a long history of political and administrative clashes with community organizers. The Black Panthers and their Free Breakfast Program were highly influential in establishing West Oakland’s history of urban agriculture. “As long as [the government] controls a commodity,” says Scott, “they control the people. Anything that you can get to take control over your commodity is worthwhile. When the Black Panthers formed, this neighborhood was in the exact same place it’s in now.”

Photo by Zenaida Sengo

So what do Scott and Byrnes want next, exactly? “Getting organized will help, and involving more people, but what we really want people to do,” says Scott, “is go start your own garden.” “So we can come to your Oakhella,” chimes in Byrnes. “We’ll help you out,” says Scott, “but you gotta take the ownership. First of all, what is your ‘Why’? What are you doing, and why? Next,” he says, “you need to take a skills inventory. [Jason and I] can take a dozen people and figure out what everybody’s best at. When I first came here, you know how I contributed? I cleaned up. I brought water. I sweep up. Just get together and figure out what you’re good at and drop the ego.” He mentions, “we both have big egos. We’ve had some big fights here, cause we care about it.”

Byrnes and Scott are plenty aware of injustice, from the smashed windshield in their neighborhood all the way to the global consolidation of wealth. It’s all connected. The world is a scary place, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen next. “Until then,” Scott says, “this is what you do. Have parties. Invest in your neighbors. Celebrate. Live life. Grow some veggies.”

After all, everybody’s gotta eat.

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Sophia is the managing editor of the Make: blog. When she’s not greasing editorial gears, she likes to run, ride, climb, and lift things, and make lo-tech goods like zines, desserts, and altered clothing. @sophiuhcamille

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