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Berkeley Gardener Leaves Rich Legacy By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday February 04, 2005
Jakob Schiller
            The gates of the Peralta Community Garden hold a plaque in honor of its founder, Karl Linn.
Jakob Schiller The gates of the Peralta Community Garden hold a plaque in honor of its founder, Karl Linn.

Karl Linn didn’t just build some of Berkeley’s most resplendent gardens, his friends say. He built communities. 

Linn died at his North Berkeley home early Thursday morning after battling cancer of the bone marrow. He was 81. 

“He was a tremendously warm and loving man who always connected with the people around him,” said Leonard Duhl, a UC Berkeley professor and friend for nearly five decades. 

Linn was a psychologist and landscape architect by training, but he made his biggest mark by transforming forgotten swaths of urban blight into lush green space welcome to all. 

When he arrived in Berkeley 18 years ago as a retiree, the city had just two community gardens. 

“Karl developed a network of people who saw community gardens not just as a place to grow food, but as a way to bring neighbors together,” said John Steere a longtime friend. It was a philosophy, Steere said, that was rooted in his childhood. 

Linn spent his the first 11 years in the German town of Dessow, where his family owned an orchard full of apple and cherry trees. 

“I established a deep ecological connection with whatever natural elements and creatures were around me,” Linn told The Sierra Club magazine in a 2001 piece.  

His idyllic youth ended abruptly with the rise of Hitler. Soon he was ostracized by classmates and targeted by ruffians. “I could hear the Nazi’s goose-step as they walked down the cobblestone street towards the farm, checking the house and threatening us,” he recounted in the 2003 documentary film, “A Lot In Common,” about the creation of Peralta Community Garden. 

In 1934, Linn and his parents fled to Palestine, where they lived on a kibbutz. After graduating from the university, Linn helped start a new kibbutz where members grew orchards on dessert terrain. 

“It was during this time that I began to see the importance of creating places for privacy and contemplation, but also for community participation,” Linn told the Sierra Club. “Places where young and old could be in each other’s presence, but not in each other’s way.” 

But the widening divide between Arabs and Jews troubled Linn. At a time many of his cohorts were preparing for the coming war Israeli-Arab War, Linn, at age 23, left Palestine in 1946 to study psychology in Switzerland. 

After several years in Zurich, he immigrated to New York were he worked both as a child psychotherapist and as a landscape architect. 

Frustrated that most of his landscaping work came at the suburban homes of wealthy clients, Linn accepted a post teaching landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where instead of sending his students to their studios, he drafted them to work on community projects in blighted sections of Philadelphia. 

One such project—the renovation of a courtyard at a local African American cultural center—introduced Linn to Carl Anthony, at the time a 23-year-old high school dropout who would go on to Columbia University and become a lifelong friend.  

“I had gone to vocational school studying drafting and I was just becoming aware of the civil rights movement,” Anthony said. “Karl helped show me how my concerns about social justice could go together with my love for landscape design.” 

Together, the duo traversed the backyards of inner city Philadelphia seeking to build gardens and bonds among neighbors.  

“Some of the things he did were so beautiful they’d make you cry,” he said. Anthony recalled one project where he had neighbors smash their plates and pave the broken pieces into an alleyway behind a vacant lot. “It symbolized that you can take whatever you have and make something beautiful out of it.” 

Anthony said Linn’s efforts to build urban gardens in the inner city sometimes met resistance from locals skeptical of his plans and energized by the movement for black empowerment. 

“I kept pushing him to be more open about the holocaust and his history,” he said. “That was something he and I struggled over. He had to understand that he was working with people who were escaping from a rural background.”  

From Philadelphia, Linn taught in Washington, D.C., New York and New Jersey before retiring to Berkeley in 1987. 

Friends said they didn’t know why Linn chose Berkeley, other than its reputation as a progressive town open to new ideas. 

It didn’t take Linn long to get involved in the community. He helped gardeners design plots, worked with Parks For Peace, which built parks in war-torn cities and in 1989, he teamed with Anthony and Berkeley native David Brower to form Urban Habitat, an organization dedicated to educating minority students to become leaders for sustainable development. 

He also participated in dialog groups with Jews and Arabs about the violence in Israel and Palestine. Linn who was never comfortable with Zionism or any philosophy that divided peoples, opposed the Israeli occupation, his friend Nadine Ghammache said. 

His foray into spearheading Berkeley gardens began in 1992 when the city named a derelict garden at the corner of Hopkins Street and Peralta streets on city space in his name. 

“Since my name was sitting there, I did not want to be embarrassed by a garden that did not look very appealing, and I wanted to do something about it,” he said. 

While he was working on the Karl Linn Garden, Linn couldn’t help but notice two vacant plots just down the street, owned by BART. 

For eight months in 1996, he worked with BART officials to secure the land for what would become the Peralta and Northside gardens.  

“He wore the BART folks down,” said Councilmember Linda Maio. “Every piece he wrestled them to the ground until he got it.” 

Later, he would co-found Berkeley Ecohouse, and most recently he helped created an art education walk along the Ohlone Greenway. 

Those who worked with him remarked at his determination and gentle ways of persuasion.  

“Karl was a magician of motivating people,” Steere said. “It was hard to say no to him. He was irresistible.” 

“People always agreed to things for him because of his spirit and his belief in the project,” said Fran Segal, who worked on the Ohlone Greenway Art Exhibit. 

Greg VonMechelen, co-chair of the Berkeley Ecohouse remembered getting frequent 7 a.m. phone calls from Linn inquiring about his progress in the project. “I had to tell him that early morning calls weren’t part of my daily routine.” 

Linn’s dedication was best demonstrated in the field, VonMechelen said. “I remember one day he got overheated and we asked him to slow down. He replied that if he were a blender he’d have only two speeds: pulverize and liquefy.”  

His gardens always included art, a common area for people to face each other and talk as well as wide walkways and raised plots so wheelchair users could plant groves. 

In the documentary, Linn said of his work, “I concluded how important it is for me not to be a pessimist or an optimist, but a ‘possibilist’. To create possibilities of working with people creating life-supportive, life affirmative small projects that could be inspiring and enrich people’s lives.” 

His determination, was matched by his kindness, said Beebo Turman, who worked with Linn to form the Berkeley Community Gardening Cooperative, joining school and community gardens. “He is the only person I’ve met who when I was ready to leave would always escort me all the way to my car.” 

When Turman visited Linn last week, she found him hard at work in rumpled pajamas, preparing his papers for the Bancroft Library and figuring out ways to make sure the gardens would have funds for small repairs. 

That day, Linn, who rarely spoke about religion, confided in her that he wasn’t afraid of his impending death. “You know I’m very excited about the next phase of all this,” he said. 

For those he left behind, his legacy is their joy. 

“He really transformed this place,” said Carol Bennett-Simmons, a gardener at Peralta. “Now when you walk through the neighborhood you know so many more people.”  

Linn is survived by his wife Nicole, his son Mark, and his stepchildren Joel, Naomi and Dan. Memorial plans have not yet been arranged.