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City Heights Community Garden Now Derelict

Aired 6/1/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

One year ago, the city of San Diego forced a dozen Cambodian refugees in City Heights off city-owned land they had used to grow vegetables for 26 years.

We've been hearing quite a bit in the news lately about community gardens. The national focus on ending obesity has resulted in millions of dollars being invested in projects like community gardens. The city of San Diego is expected to vote later this month on a new approach to make it easier to open plots for growing produce locally. But our guest this hour, Adrian Florido of VoiceofSandiego. org has followed a story that runs counter to this trend, a garden in City Heights that was cultivated for more than 20 years by an immigrant community, and which was recently shut down..

Guest: Adrian Florido, communities reporter, Voiceofsandiego.org

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh, we've been hearing quite a bit in the news lately about community gardens. The national focus on ending obesity has resulted in million of dollars being invested in projects like community gardens. The city of San Diego is expected to vote later this month on a new approach to make it easier to open gardens to grow produce locally, but our guest this hour, Adrian Florida of VoiceofSanDiego.org, has followed a story that runs counter to this trend. A garden in southeast San Diego that was cultivated for more than 20 years by an immigrant community was republic shut down. So Adrian, thanks for coming in.

FLORIDA: Sure, thanks for having me.

ST. JOHN: So tell us about this story that you covered last year. It was a group of Cambodian farmers right? Who were farming for years on this plot.

FLORIDA: It's a tucked away little piece of property, not little, actually, it was I think close to two acres, sort of tucked into a cul de sac in a residential neighborhood in souther eastern San Diego. Really kind of hidden from view. I only kind of stumbled across it because I was working on a different story about Choyas creek which runs right adjacent to it. And I saw it, oh, what is this? This looks interesting. But in the summer of last year, a group of Cambodian farmers who had been cultivating the land for almost three decades were evicted because the land was owned by the City of San Diego. And it was under lease into a nonprofit organization that had some facilities on a piece of property next door. They technically held the lease on this piece of property as well. But they never developed it. And so last year, their least came up for renewal, the city kind of went out to sort of survey what had happened on that property since they kind of last surveyed it for this lease, and said, well, yeah, we'll renew your lease but we want this vacant piece of property back. You never used it. So that prompted the nonprofit to tell these farmers, well, you've gotta go. They realized they have been cultivating it for almost three decades. But kind of their time was up. In the meantime, this Cambodian community had gone in and really kind of grown dependent on this piece of property.

CAVANAUGH: Huh.

FLORIDA: It was unclear how they -- and it's still unclear how they originally got set up on this piece of property.

CAVANAUGH: After 30 years.

FLORIDA: After 30 years. They had just been there. And the management of this nonprofit has sort of turned over several times. These Cambodian farmers are not -- they're not highly educated people. They're people who fled sort of Cambodia in the late 70s. Arrived here with few connections, very kind of few points of orientation, and needed something to do. So somehow they got set up on this property.

CAVANAUGH: So when you showed up last year, they had just been evicted? How did they react on that?

FLORIDA: Yeah, well, I showed up and sometime some of these farmers justice a few months after they'd been evicted. So it had been long enough for the farm to start of fall into disrepair. But a lot of the crops that they had been harvesting there -- sorry, farming there, were just coming to harvest. So still -- they were pretty traumatized by this. Because it had literally become one of the main sustaining factors in several of these refugees' lives. They spent almost all their day there.

ST. JOHN: What's happened to the piece of land now?

FLORIDA: Well, it's been about 10 months since they were evicted and it really looked -- it looks pretty terrible. We were just out there a couple of weeks ago. Our photographer, Sam Hutchin took some sort of telling photographs about -- showing the fence that this community had erected sort of being folded in, all the crops have died, they're dry, people have started using it as a dumping ground, there's a big pile of mattresses sort of hanging out on the farm last week.

ST. JOHN: Did you find out whether the city has any plans for this piece of land.

FLORIDA: It is interest the interesting thing. The reason that this community of farmers was evicted was, one, they hadn't ever had the legal right to be there. They didn't have the permits to be there. And two, in order to get those permits, it was gonna be very difficult for them because city regulations currently make it really hard to start community gardens in residential neighborhoods like this one. They -- they require a permit that costs at least five thousand dollars, requires a five thousand dollar deposit so that city staff can basically go out and do some of the processing for the permits and that sort of thing, which is just totally out of reach for these farmers who were literally living off of this land. They didn't have that money to kind of put into it.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. So there's no talk of developing this piece of property, or the questions could it ever become --

FLORIDA: Could it ever become -- yeah, and I was talking back when I originally reported this story to the director of the city's real estate division, who said there were no specific plans for the property, and that the city would be sort of happy to speak with the farmers about getting them back on there if the legal process had been followed and these farmers had the permit. At that point it was very difficult. And it still remains very difficult for them to get that because of this sort of bureaucratic red tape that is in the way.

ST. JOHN: And after 20, 30 years of farming, the land there must be pretty good.

FLORIDA: Yeah, one of the farmers who I'd spoken to, a 60 year-old woman, in the months after she was evicted from this farm, got -- was given a piece of -- a small piece of farming land in the community garden in City Heights that had refugee resettlement agency, the international refuge committee, established about two years ago, and she has been working that small piece of property and said that, well, she enjoyed going out there. Of the yields were meager in comparison to the lush bounty that she got, you know, after 30 years of cultivating this soil at this other piece of the property in southeastern San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, are the thing that's sort of interesting about this story apart from the sort of regret that a community has lost something that was such a central part of it is that it runs counter to this whole trend that we're seeing now of trying to encourage community gardens, right? We had people from the county on this program just recently talking about millions of dollars coming into the county to encourage more local growth of produce, getting back to the land, even in the inner city areas, and I gather the city is planning to try to make it easier to pope these kinds of plots.

FLORIDA: Right. There's been a group of -- sort of local food advocates, sort of joining forces with community sort of refugee, sort of people who are with refugees in the city have been pushing the City Council to change its rules to make it easier to do this. So the main impediment at this point in this one was this really costly permitting process. Next week, the City Council is going to be voting on -- is going to be considering changing the zoning requirements. So basically it would allow people to start a community garden just about anywhere in the city, on land zoned for commercial or residential use, they're currently totally banned on any piece of property that's owned for commercial use. And they're allowed in residential neighborhoods, but again, you need this costly permits so next week, the city's development services division has been working on changing the zoning rules and has written these new regulations. And next week, the City Council is going to be considering them.

ST. JOHN: Okay. 1-888-895-5727 is the number. Maybe you are involved in community gardens somewhere in San Diego. You've got a perspective on this. We'd like to hear from you. Is there any kind of controversy, Adrian, about this vote? It seems like it would be a pretty straight ahead vote. That the city council would say yes let's make it easier on commercial land. But maybe some people are opposed to that.

FLORIDA: Well, yeah. And there are reasons in place why community gardens aren't allowed on certain types of land. On commercial property, the idea behind commercial property is that you develop it to provide some kind of economic benefit to the community. And the city is able to collect tax revenue from a business that's developed on a piece of commercial property. If, allow people to start a community farm there, they are producing their own food, but the city isn't necessarily collecting tax revenue. So in residential neighborhoods, the purpose of this permitting process is to allow people who live in this neighborhood to have a say in what comes into their community. And there are a few dozen community planning groups all around the 73 who basically get together every month, I think, and make recommendations to the planning commission, the city, about whether to approve a project or not. So that's currently kind of what happens for community gardens in residential neighborhoods. These advocates have been going out and telling and pushing for these law changes have been reaching out to community planning groups and trying to convince them that this is actually a good thing for neighborhoods because there are going to be certain regulations in place that basically say, okay, if you start a community garden, you have to have a fence that's a certain number of feet high. You can only have certain number of set hours, you must have a proper drainage system so that you don't flood the industries out front.

ST. JOHN: But presumably some people who have been running community gardens a little bit under the radar might be a little bit concerned about new regulations, perhaps?

FLORIDA: I think I haven't heard so much about that. I mean, I think what I have heard is that there are a lot of people who have been running community gardens under the radar, and have been doing so for years, and are kind of quiet about it. Because they don't want the city to find out and they don't want anyone to complain and they would have to enforce the code. And I think for the most part what I've been hearing, and there may be other opinions out there, but what I've been hearing is that people are supporting this because they kind of want to be able to come out from under the shadows.

ST. JOHN: There are places where you just see corn growing in the median.

FLORIDA: Yeah, in medians and become yards. I was just in Linda Vista this morning, come there are entire backyards in that community which also has lots of refugees, where people are growing beans and corn and cactus, and all sorts of crops. Part of Linda Vista where I was this morning look like parts of southeast Asia, the banana trees in the backyard and all sorts of stuff.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think if this vote goes through next week, that we'll see a lot more produce growing in the middle of the city?

FLORIDA: I think there's a possibility. If it does go through, it'll apply to most parts of the city I think within 30 days along the coastal over lay zone in coastal communities it might take another year or so. Because there are additional kind of approvals that need to be made to sort of regulate run off and that sort of thing. But I have spoken to people who have said, gosh, I wish I could start a community garden here. I found this piece of property in my neighborhood. It's wonderful that my owner said I could do it, but it's gonna cost me this much money and I have to go through this permitting process and I just can't.

ST. JOHN: Right. So just to go back to the Cambodian refugees, is there a chance they might get that garden back again?

FLORIDA: There is. When I was speaking with the director from the city several months ago, he said the city was willing to talk with them. They'll start have to -- because the property is city owned, they'll still have to arrange an agreement with the city to use that property to rent it or have some other kind of agreement where they can occupy the land. And there are some active Cambodian -- they're advocates living in the City Heights community who have said they're going to take the lead as soon as the City Council passes this, to try to get these Cambodians back on the land.

ST. JOHN: And will the amount of money that it takes to get a permit be more reasonable under this new set of codes?

FLORIDA: That's the idea. I mean, I think they're still working out exactly what this new code is gonna look like in terms of the fees. In some places, are I think therapy considering just allowing you to do it for no fee, as long as you tell the city you're doing it and abide by certain regulations. But I think I was speaking today with someone over at the international rescue community who says they my consider, if they do have a fee, they're likely to consider a nominal fee of a couple hundred dollars or something like that. The City Council will probably be working that out on Tuesday when they consider this at City Hall.

CAVANAUGH: It's so interesting because when you hear about the amount of money coming down the pipeline from the federal government to try to promote things like community gardens. It would make sense of some of that money --

FLORIDA: To be able to come into San Diego right?

ST. JOHN: And to pay for some of the fees if there were any fees.

FLORIDA: To pay for fees, for some infrastructure, for soil, for educating people about what community gardens are. People in San Diego have been restricted from accessing that money because of these regulations that are in place currently.

ST. JOHN: And you have some photos on your on your -- the voiceofsandiego.org site now about this garden then and now, is that right?

FLORIDA: Yeah, we published some earlier this week.

ST. JOHN: And you're gonna keep an eye and see whether that particular garden and it sounds like there might be a whole nourishing of community gardens later this year. We've missed the spring planting season, but this city vote might be a kind of turning point for that kind of effort.

FLORIDA: I'm gonna keep an eye on that, and I'll continue updating, and I'm sure we'll be in touch with you guys too.

ST. JOHN: Okay great. Well, that's a nice piece of news. And we'll certainly hope for the best for the Cambodian farmers because that piece of soil probably took a long time to get to the state it's in now. And tell be wonderful if they could get it back. Thanks so much for coming in.

FLORIDA: Sure.

CAVANAUGH: That's Adrian Florida for voice of San Diego organize.

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