Learning from an inner-city garden

  • Dumping compost at San Francisco's urban farm

    Heather Abel
  • Life in the garden

    Heather Abel
  • Watering plants

    Heather Abel
  • At the inner-city garden

    Heather Abel

Ever since I was six years old, I'd thought outdoor education required yellow buses. Yellow buses say "the world is wide and curious - let me take you there."

They invite kids to climb onto their vinyl seats, throwing one last glance at parents, math homework and the mall. Then they roll through suburbia, past farmland and up into dense forests. Two weeks later, kids sit quietly on the return drive. They've silently tracked a mule deer; they've vowed never to watch TV again.

But there were no yellow bus rides when I landed a job teaching outdoor education with SLUG, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners. No one invited these kids to a summer in the country. Instead, the job meant staying in San Francisco, excavating hypodermic needles, Barbie-doll heads, tires and leaky batteries from a four-acre lot bounded by public housing and a freeway on-ramp. There we planned to create the city's first urban farm.

In staff meetings, we imagined rows of potatoes and collard greens, an orchard, shade trees and compost piled higher than a VW bus. But how to pass that vision on to the 40 teenagers who lived in the adjacent housing projects? On that first sticky day of summer, they saw the lot filled with the same trash they had thrown from their windows most days of their lives. And slouching by the screaming freeway, they didn't hear a word I said.

But they listened to Terrell, my co-worker. With a booming voice he taught them the difference between a hoe and a mattock and showed them how to support groping pea seedlings with a tipi. Unlike other outdoor educators I'd worked with, Terrell wasn't trained on an Outward Bound ropes course. He didn't know much about child psychology or photosynthesis. He had grown up in the same public housing as the kids, until he was sent away to a group home. Later, Terrell learned landscaping. Now he was working to earn cash to fix his souped-up Cadillac.

I began to watch Terrell. Although he couldn't identify all the native plants we grew, Terrell got the kids' attention by showing them how to take their anger out on the weed-choked eucalyptus. And he held it by working the garden into the tangled roots - the daily events - of the community.

Sometimes this meant dealing with violence. When two boys in our program were shot, their grandmothers planted olive trees in the garden entranceway. The next week, when a community member died of AIDS, we added to the grove. Crack customers hovered hungrily by the fence but the kids told them no, chill out man, it's work. One night, the cops beat Rondell, the wise-ass, gangly flirt of my group, threw him and his friends into a white bus and took them to jail. We went to the judge.

Other times, this meant there were people trampling all over the garden. Parole officers, moms, stepfathers stopped by to find their kids and we handed them trowels. During 3 p.m. breaks we bought sticky homemade popsicles from kid sisters seeking quarters. Cousins visited to show off their new babies or motorcycles. When fights erupted in the project, everyone dropped their shovels and ran to watch, leaving hoses carving a river through the beds.

Sometimes this meant leaving our plot and helping Mama Sylvia. The silver-haired lady had demanded that SLUG build raised beds for the grandmothers of the community a few blocks away. The old women had spent most of their lives in the rural South, until the pull of shipyard and army jobs drew them to the city. They knew which herbs could cure a stomachache, which could soothe a teething baby. Thank you, they told me nicely, but we have our own ways to get rid of snails.

And every other Friday, we paid the teens.

It wasn't bribery, just simple arithmetic. Rondell explained this to me with a diagram in the dirt. His post for selling crack sat 100 yards from the garden. An hour of dealing brought him a hundred bucks, minus the time spent in juvenile hall, running from the cops, and hiding the dope and cash from his mom, who watched him from the bedroom window. The $5 an hour of gardening just about equaled out, especially since, unlike dealing, you could put it on your résumé.

These are essential computations. While other outdoor education programs stress creativity, we were teaching our students how to land a job. And the jobs we trained them for were as laborers on a landscaping crew, not docents in a nature center. Since each week depended on dwindling city funding, we used the kids as poster children when the press or city officials came by. We posed them near the flourishing sweet peas when the mayor visited, and we steered him clear of the black widows that guarded their egg sacs in every tire we hauled. We played to the cash.

That made me uncomfortable. So did the guns and the shards of glass in the soil and our hands without gloves. But what Terrell taught me was that urban outdoor education starts with what the yellow bus leaves behind - crowded streets with TVs blaring. Sometimes it's ugly. And it looks a lot like what my middle-class outdoor education training had told me was failure. Like the vacant lot, most of that summer's kids had been abandoned to pregnancy, poverty, and prison. We had to believe that a droopy-eyed teen and the vacant lot were as worthy of saving as a river, and that their chances of survival leaned on each other, like two sides of a ladder.

SLUG supplied the shovels and rakes, but the garden was the teacher that summer. It said, your home is wide and beautiful, and so are you. If you want to survive, it said, you'd better be able to keep a job. The supermarkets have all moved out of the ghetto, but we can grow and sell our own food, once we take the lead out of the soil. It said, your grandma grew up a rural sharecropper and knows what to plant. Watch her. And it said, you'd better survive, because somebody needs to weed the carrots out here. n

Heather Abel is an HCN staff reporter. SLUG continues to work on economic development and community gardening in San Francisco, Calif. For more information call 415/285-7584.

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