Reader Report: Planting Community

By JoAnn Conrad and the BCC Urban Anthropology Class
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 09:46:00 AM
Urban Anthropology class members work on a streetscape project.
Urban Anthropology class members work on a streetscape project.

All winter, every Saturday morning, our Urban Anthropology class at BCC has studied the historical and cultural development of the social space we inhabit—Urban Space. We’ve studied the ways in which we are shaped by the nature of place: the political, economic, social, environmental, cultural aspects of urban life. The City of Berkeley itself was one of the main focuses of the course. 

One of the most striking impressions that began to form during the course was that modern cities, and Berkeley is among them, are functionally zoned, age and occupation segregated, and very lacking in public space and community endeavors. The class began to examine the processes by which individuals attempt to “take back” some of the community, to reestablish and reassert both an individual and community presence in the institutionalized and regulated space of the city. 

We spent a morning talking with vendors and shoppers at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, we talked to Community Gardeners, and then, we decided upon a plan to take back a bit of the community, and, in fact give back to the community. We were going to take over an abandoned section of parking strip or median and “guerrilla garden.” 

Saturday, May 3. We’re all meeting at Peet’s on Fourth Street. We’ve got plants, bags of soil amendment, water, tools but no plot! For weeks we’ve been trying to find a spot that is available from the city, and we’ve come up empty. Surely there are spots that need care! A class member mentions she walks her dog along West, and that it looks like it could use help. So, we take off. 

First stop, a weed-ridden median. A previous weed abatement program has topped it with a thin concrete layer. Not good enough to deter the weeds, but plenty hard enough to deter would-be gardeners. 

Finally, we find the perfect spot. A crosswalk intersection on Hearst and West. Four small quarter rounds that are barren and forsaken. 



Perfect! Immediately I sense hesitation from some of the class: “Oh, this is a lot. Maybe we can just do one?” We begin to dig. It is compacted decomposed granite. It is deadly hard, and we’re picking and shoveling for hours just to remove a few inches of the miserable topsoil. 

Neighbors begin to come out. “What are you doing?” “Do you have permission?” We begin to tell them about our project, and a miracle begins to unfold. We not only establish a spot of random beauty, but we prompt a spontaneous outburst of community. Neighbors adjacent to the crosswalk come out and talk to us, bring us tools, water and cookies, and offer their homes and bathrooms to use. 

Soon, the plantings are filling out: Yuccas, jade, California natives look as if they’ve been there for some time, and the street is transformed. The neighbors are pleased, we’ve all made new friends and feel the satisfaction of hard work and enjoy seeing the results of that labor. 



But there is more to this story than gardening. Each of us took away a renewed sense of community, and possibility. Various class members shared their thoughts later: 

• “The research I did about Berkeley has shown me that neighbors can come together and organize around a certain idea and work towards implementing those ideas.” 

• “This whole project has encouraged me to become more active in the community.” 

• “The idea of making a change can seem like a daunting task, so going out and doing it on a Saturday afternoon is really empowering.” 

We’ve begun to rethink what it means to live and engage in an urban area, to take responsibility for mitigating community exposure to toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards, and to think more of giving back to and reengaging with the community. This is a community college class that is living up to its name!