Occupying Gardens: Occupy L.A. Continues

On a warm Los Angeles Thursday, an eclectic group of individuals gather on the western steps of City Hall. They've been meeting here for several months, united by their wish to make their city a better, more beautiful place.The Occupy L.A. movement may be out of the news, but that doesn't mean the Occupiers have given up.

"Hi Crystal!" "Hey Sean!" They take turns greeting one another until all have gathered. Most have buckets filled with water. One carries a Tide jug. Though alike in sentiment, nothing outwardly indicates these people -- a former lawyer and Spanish teacher, a minister, two young twenty-somethings, a retiree -- would befriend one another under usual circumstances. But any differences melt away once the group gets down to business.

"I've got some tomato plants in my car," offers a petite dark-haired woman. This is Michele Milner, former lawyer and Spanish teacher, who is responsible for gathering this particular group. "Also, we have three mandarin trees that need a home."

"We started in the fall when Occupy had the whole encampment," she explains to me. "Then the raid happened and everything came down, but we kept meeting here on the steps of City Hall." Eventually, after a strategy session in January, the group decided on the direction their new goal. "We agreed that building community is really important, and one of the ways to build community is through gardening."

Gardening? Do these would-be policy-changers really believe that planting produce around City Hall and grimy parts of downtown can really bring about change?

"Building community can happen through building gardens," she explains. "Also, we wanted to address the hunger issue. Over a million people are hungry in Los Angeles."

The group began their gardening mission by filling the planters in front of City Hall with succulents. This is a form of what they call "guerilla gardening," or planting vegetation without permission. If anyone noticed, no one said a thing.

After that success, the group visited Skid Row -- the neediest area of the city, with over 15,000 residents certifiably below poverty level -- to see what kind of food assistance was needed there. There, Milner's group met Mary Ersig, co-founder of the non-profit transitional housing facility The Jonah Project. Home to about 75 impoverished people at a time, The Jonah Project offers those in need a place to sleep, shower and hopefully regain some stability, all for $125 a month.

"We fill a niche that really isn't here," Ersig says. "In the Skid Row area, if you don't have a mental illness or an addiction, there's nothing for you. Some people on a fixed income can't afford to live anywhere else, so they come here and have some money left over for food or whatever else. They get a place to stay, get stable, and then they can go out and get a job or enroll in school."

On the day the Occupy gardeners first arrived, however, there were no impoverished to be found.

"It was really sad," Milner remembers. "We arrived at The Jonah Project and everyone was moving out, carrying their belongings in plastic bags."

They were getting evicted.

"We had seventy-five people living here, plus ten staff members, and they all had to leave," says Ersig. "We have thirty-thousand square feet, all this room, with no people. We passed the health inspection and the building and safety inspections, and there was one piece of paper we didn't have, and that was enough to evict everyone."

Though the Occupy gardeners' mission is to beautify the area and provide sources of food for the hungry, Milner says that their mission quickly adapted to include helping The Jonah Project welcome their residents back. Call them the caped crusaders of the Occupy LA movement.

"We go somewhere and think, 'Oh, we're just going to plant some plants,'" Milner says. "But everywhere we go, there's a situation. There's a story just like The Jonah Project. People need help."

The Occupy gardeners quickly launched into action, contacting the mayor's office, who contacted The Department of Building and Safety. In just a few days, things began to move at a faster pace, and on this particular Thursday, Ersig has good news.

"We got an email yesterday from Building and Safety," Ersig tells the gardeners, "saying that one of the people in the office is working on a temporary Certificate of Occupancy. Once we get that, we can have people start moving back on in."

The group cheers. Once the good news is shared, it's time to check on the gardeners' seedlings. In several planters, tomato plants are shooting out of the soil, and the dainty tops of what will become basil are shyly making their presence known. After tending to the seedlings, the group climbs up two flights of stairs to the roof of The Jonah Project, where a lone planter of tomatoes is covered with gardening netting.

"The pigeons got to those," says Sean Lamberz, one of the founding members of the group. "But the netting seems to be holding for now."

Indeed, the tomatoes look quite good. But one can't help but wonder -- on a giant rooftop like this, why is there only one planter of edible food growing? Couldn't there be an entire rooftop garden whose spoils go to feeding the hungry? The solution is a little more complex than buying planters and soil.

A rooftop garden in an area of L.A. contains a multitude of strategic problems. Roofs in Los Angeles are not built like those in the East, which are designed to take the weight of hundreds or even thousands of pounds of snow. Here, watering plants makes them heavy enough to buckle the roof and send the crops crashing to the floors below. That's not to say that the roofs couldn't be reinforced to hold the weight, it's just that it costs money to do so. "The roof needs fixing," Ersig says. "We desperately need people to invest."

What about missions and shelters? One is tempted to wonder how children's schools have food drives twice a year, yet just miles away in Skid Row, 75 percent of the residents are hungry.

"Skid Row is a food desert," says Pete White, co-founder of the LA Community Action Network (LA Can), an organization that has assisted impoverished residents of downtown since 1999. "It's ironic, because we are three-quarters of a mile away from the produce hub of the West Coast, and yet we don't have fresh fruit and vegetable opportunities for residents of this area."

Debbie Burton, resident of downtown and member of LA Can, has personally experienced needing extra help to put meals on the table.

"When I first came to the community in 2001," she says, "I lived in a very small, one-room residential hotel with a small refrigerator with not much storage space. I needed fresh fruits and vegetables because I suffer from high blood pressure, and a lot of the canned goods you buy, most of them have salt. I can't tolerate salt." In the missions, Burton says, it was no better. "Most of us are people of color. Once you do the research and see how many members of these communities are suffering from high blood pressure or diabetes, you realize the food that the missions and shelters provide has high salt content, and as a result we are eating ourselves to death."

White agrees. "The truth is that residents of downtown are forced to eat Cup O' Noodles, because that's what their economics dictate," he says. "So we said, 'Okay, what's a small contribution we can make for our members in downtown with healthy foods?' And our members said, 'Let's start a garden.' So for the last five seasons, we've had a rooftop garden."

Unfortunately, LA Can ran into the same problem as The Jonah Project -- the roof is not big or strong enough to hold enough plants. "We'd like to start selling food as an economic opportunity for our gardeners and as a way to provide affordable fresh fruits and vegetables to the residents in the area," White says. "But we just don't have the adequate space."

Upon hearing of LA Can's rooftop garden project, the Occupy gardeners arranged for a meeting between the two groups. In their initial get-together, Milner playfully suggested more guerilla gardening. Milner's group isn't the first to think of such a thing--a similar movement received press in San Francisco last year when a group called Guerilla Grafters began to secretly graft fruit-producing branches onto decorative pear and plum trees. But LA Can already has their own experience with guerilla gardening, and it didn't turn out as hoped.

Last summer, some members replaced empty planters along sidewalks with various herb, sunflower and corn seeds. All was well for a time, with residents freely breaking off herbs or cutting flowers to brighten up their living space. But it was not to last. Police officers soon arrived on the scene and destroyed the plants. According to L.A. Council Member Jan Perry's office, officials were concerned the planters could serve as a place for the homeless to conceal drugs. "There were these beautiful, tall sunflower plants," White remembers. "And then, one day, gone."

Then again, one could argue that a few fallen sunflower plants are the least of Skid Row's problems. Can gardening truly save this impoverished community?

"People look at the Occupy movement and ask, 'Well, what do you want?' And it's not that simple," sys member Crystal Kelly. "The solution takes creativity and imagination. One of the reasons why I don't think we embrace each other in this society as members of a community is that our resources are hoarded, completely hoarded. We have plenty to go around, but in capitalism we produce based on profit and not need." Though the Occupy gardeners have plenty of ideas, long-term solutions are hard to come by with so much red tape.

For now, though, the gardeners will keep meeting on the City Hall steps on Thursdays at noon. They will walk the streets in some of the least desirable parts of Los Angeles, planting produce and lending a hand to those who need their help.

"There's a lot of empowerment when someone who has nothing, who is basically living on the street, can have a small piece of land," Milner says. "To be able to grow food is powerful."

As for the Occupy gardeners' larger mission, Milner is optimistic that it will continue to grow and evolve, much like the plants they've deposited around the city. "There's a poem that I love to keep referring to by Antonio Machado. He says, 'There is no road -- the road is made by walking.' So we're walking, and we're seeing as we go what the road is."

For more information on the Occupy gardeners, contact Michele Milner at michele@hudnut.net.

For more information about The Jonah Project, visit JonahProject.com/.

For more information about LA Can, visit Cangress.org/.

[Photos by Amy Tierney.]


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