'Community Not Condos' - PDX activists speak out to defend Sacramento garden
account of protests in Portland today to defend the Ron Mandella Community Garden in Sacramento.
The Ron Mandella Community Garden in Sacramento, the city's oldest community garden, is being threatened by commercial "development". With the help of city and state money -- $4.5 million altogether -- a partnership of private companies intend to bulldoze the park and build high-priced condominiums. The destruction of small, human-scaled, beautiful places in U.S. cities for profit is nothing new of course; entire neighborhoods have have been wiped out for hospital expansion, churches, and government complexes, from coast-to-coast, but such policies began to fall into disfavor about twenty years ago as people rose up to protect their history, their businesses, and their homes. Gentrification -- "fixing up" old neighborhoods rather than levelling them -- has certainly also taken its toll on poor people and people of color, but it too has been resisted by popular movements, and local governments have in many cases been forced to pay attention to those who *live* in places, not just those who want to make money from them.
But the battles to save our cities for ourselves is still definitely pitched, and the case of the Ron Mandella Community Garden in Sacramento is a hot one. Community activists there have been fighting the destruction of their garden for two years. On Friday, August 16, the group of developers who want to bulldoze it are set to sign an Exclusive Negotiating Agreemen(ENA) that would put the process underway. Two of the companies are located in Portland and today a group of local activists met to to protest outside (and inside) their offices, to urge them not to sign the ENA.
The Sacramento community activists working to save the garden have a specific alternate plan they would like to see come to fruition. An organization called the Sacramento Mutual Housing Association (SMHA) is willing to take over the land and build a different sort of project. The garden takes up one half of a city block, and the other half is a parking lot.
<DIGRESSION> The garden used to cover the entire block -- the parking lot is the result of a previous defeat. How many cars can you fit on a half block surface level parking lot? I don't know but here's two more questions: How many people can you feed off of the same amount of land? How much oxygen is produced by plants filling that space? And what of the "intangible" qualities of a garden over a parking lot -- the beauty of it, the vibrant feeling of being around growing things, the connections made with neighbors, the smell of flowers at night, of leaves in the sun, of soil just watered? These things are not profitable in a quantifiable sense, but does that mean they have no value? The answer, under the capitalist consumerist model, is "no, they don't". The answer, under the stifling pall of rationalism, is "no, they don't". The answer, under a worldview that has expelled spirit from creation and now defines it with cold measurement by barrels, board feet, and ROI, is "no, they don't". Is that the world *you* want? It's not the world *I* want. But it's the world we're stuck with as long as we play the game, and almost all of us do. Everytime we buy a product that had to be flown here, sit in a movie theater air conditioned cold enough to hang meat, or buy something plastic, we are contributing directly to the system that places resources over habitat, machines over people, and parking lots over gardens.</DIGRESSION>
The SMHA would develop just the parking lot half of the block for *affordable* housing, not high-priced condos, and would preserve the Ron Mandella garden as is. The SMHA would also not need as much city and state money as the private developers' proposal. From the viewpoint of spending tax money, then, it would be foolish not to pursue SMHA's offer. I don't know Sacramento politics, but if that city is like just about every other one in the U.S., the private developers have more of a vote than the voters when it comes to policy.
The city and developers have offered the community a "replacement" for the Ron Mandella garden but residents have rejected it as unacceptable. The developers' plan calls for two gardens that together equal the same size as the old one. However, one plot is on a piece of toxic property -- testing has shown it to contain lead, arsenic, and DDT -- and the other plot would be included with the condos. The condo lot would be designed by a landscape architect and would not offer the same access currently afforded by the Ron Mandella garden. The "replacement" in other words, is no replacement at all -- just an offer being made to cover up a theft from the community. Fortunately, the community ain't buyin' it.
The first company was H. Williams in the tony NW. Activists beat on drums, danced, and chanted "Gardens, Not Greed!" After a half hour or so of this joyful noise, they went into the lobby and demanded to speak with Mr. Williams, who was kind enough to come out and have a conversation with us. Evan from Sacramento explained that H. Williams should not sign the EMA on the next day. Williams said that the garden should remain "somewhere around there" and claimed that "it's not hard to move a community garden. I've moved them before." (Ahh, so he's a serial garden killer....) An activist piped up asking him whether 30 year old fruit trees could be moved. (The answer: not really, no.)
Williams then said that his company was not who the activists should be speaking to and that they should address the City of Sacramento instead. I guess this means that the City of Sacramento is forcing H. Williams to take their money and that he has no option other than to accept it. Strange. I thought it was a free country...
After a little while of somewhat tense, but surprisingly frank conversation (I was surprise H. Williams discussed anything at all), the front desk secretary loudly called the police on the telephone and said there were "30-40 trespassers" in the lobby. Heh heh, I wish! More like 20 (including like 5 media people!!) Everybody marched back out and Officers Jacobellis and Ells arrived on the scene. They went in and talked to H. Williams and then came back out, told everyone that they'd be risking arrest for trespass if they went back in, and that they should not block the doors or sidewalk or sit on the building's ledges. He also said that they shouldn't touch anyone who comes in and out of the building. I don't know if he also warned H. Williams employees not to touch people. One woman pushed and shoved several activists in her anger. She really ought to be more careful, as that's assault. These upper middle class professional people don't know much about laws. And they don't have to, since they're usually immune from them. But it was nice of the activists not to press charges on her. You can bet the cops would've hauled people off if it had been the other way around.
Everyone chanted some more, gave a rousing a cheer of "We'll be back," and headed to the next developer's office: Rembold. The Rembold offices are on the fourth floor so there was no point in chanting on the sidewalk. Instead, we all went straight up. Rembold, too, might sign the EMA on Friday the 16th in Sacramento. We crowded into the lobby of the office and Evan spoke with the receptionist, who told us that Wayne Rembold, the person we wanted to talk to, was not there, but that we were free to wait in the hallway. After a few minutes in the hallway, someone went down to a payphone and called the office asking for him, posing as a client asking about a meeting the next day. She was able to find out that Wayne was indeed in the office. So everybody piled back into the lobby. This time a woman named Kira (prolly misspelled) talked to us. She was a master in the art of smooth-corporate-empathy-speak: "I hear what you're saying," "I understand your feelings," "I appreciate that you're sharing", etc. The kind of thing that makes it sound like someone is listening and wants to talk to you when all they're really trying to do is get you to go away. She doesn't have any say in the decision, so she was just practicing her communication-workshop skills on us. The activists, who are definitely not tethered to the world that she is, weren't fallin' for it, and there were a few titters and giggles at her approach. I don't blame them. It was clearly fake. Better to just say, "get the fuck out" -- at least you're being sincere.
She did offer to set up an appointment with Wayne for Evan, but even that was disengenous -- he would have to come alone. The power and symbolism of coming with a group is important in these situations. If Wayne is anything like his slickster sidekick, there'd be no point to being in a room alone with him trying to talk about community and real value. People in his line of business aren't interested. And why should they be? They're getting ricoff of ignoring those things, and that seems to be what's important to them. It's really very sad, actually, and I do feel some compassion for them. The happiness of having money is superficial, quick to fade, and like many drugs is completely addictive. You always need a little more.
Anyway, the cops eventually came to this office, too (Officers Jacobellis, Hardin, and Mae Nabb), but stood back at first because Kira was talking to us. Then they piped in with a line about there being a spray painted message on the wall outside and that's when Kira said that everybody should go. Evan was allowed to stay and get her contact information. I asked the officers to see the spray paint. There was none. There was a written message "Save the Garden", scrawled with a black pen on the wall, but that's a bit different than spray paint. The two phrases "There's something spraypainted on the wall" and "There's something written on the wall" certainly have different emotional effects on people. "Spray paint" brings up a harsher message, and, for many white people, probably brings up images of people of color. Cute, Officer Jacobellis. Really cute. He knew exactly what he was doing. I told Kira it was not spray paint, but by then the damage was done.
After that everybody left the building, as we would be trespassing if we stayed. Officer Jacobellis spoke with some of the activists about the tactic of grafitti and said that he felt it was not effective because it would make people angry. Don't lynch me for this, my fellow activists, but I agree in this case. The point of the visit was to have a conversation, and the grafitti -- once its presence was known -- made that impossible. I will say, though, that there's a time and place for every non-violent tactic, and that I'm not writing off (excuse the pun !!) the effectiveness this method for other actions or instances. But that's an offline subject...
The cops explained the bit about not blocking the entrance or sidewalk again and then left. Tomorrow, the 16th, the EMA will be signed or not. If it is signed, these developers know that they will have to deal with community members again. They were both given clear notice that this battle to save a garden will not end except in victory for the garden.
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