Editorial:The Locavore’s Dilemma: Finding Places to Plant

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday August 07, 2008 - 12:03:00 PM

On your left! Slow Food, coming up fast. A movement once associated with European elites will be convening in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend, bringing an advertised 50,000 devotees along to celebrate the virtues of thinking globally but eating locally.  

The centerpiece of the event will be a strip of little round planters billed as a “victory garden”—a nostagic evocation of The Greatest Generation’s attempt to have food self-sufficiency during World War II—plopped down right in the middle of the lollipop tree arcades that delimit San Francisco City Hall’s Beaux Arts promenade.  

I almost remember the victory garden in our urban St. Louis neighborhood, where we had both backyards and streetcars, an increasingly rare combination of amenities. I think it was in the vacant lot at the corner, which after the war was over became an exciting unstructured play space for neighborhood kids. 

My mother, now almost 93, remembers it better. They grew tomatoes and “something in the ground, maybe carrots.” She says “it really didn’t work very well,” though it was fun. 

Here’s Willow Rosenthal, who runs City Slicker Farms in Oakland, expounding on the victory garden dream on the Slow Food Nation Convention’s website, slowfoodnation.org:  

“So what are the possibilities in San Francisco? Because of our long growing season in the Bay Area, intensive urban agriculture can provide from one to three pounds of produce per square foot per year. Each person consumes approximately 300 pounds of fruits and vegetables per year. That means a space of 10’x10’ to 20’x20’ (100-300 square feet of growing space, not counting paths) would be needed to grow ALL of the fruits and vegetables for each person. 

“An average San Francisco backyard (25x40), if cultivated intensively could grow all of the fruits and vegetables for one person. A goal of growing 20-40 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in San Francisco could be achieved through a combination of backyard gardening, community gardening, school gardens and increasing urban agriculture on currently unused municipal land (if we assume each household has five members that means the backyard could grow 20 percent of the household food needs; since not all households will grow food, add to that other urban farming lands).” 

Just do the numbers: sounds lovely, doesn’t it? I’m ready for it myself. I don’t have a backyard as such, but I do have four tomato plants growing on a flat roof. 

But there’s a catch, a big one. The commendable push to get you to eat food grown near home, especially in your city backyard, is likely to run smack up against another equally Greenish cause, urban infill. For at least 10 years backyards and their proprietors have been the target of scorn by some of those who want to preserve farms in, for example, Brentwood.  

One of the endorsers of the upcoming Slow Show is Greenbelt Alliance, whose bread-and-butter for the last eight or 10 years has been endorsing—for a consideration, of course—the kind of development optimistically labelled Smart Growth. And the Smart-Growthers’ favorite derogatory epithet is N.I.M.B.Y.: Not In My—yes—Backyard.  

Greenbelt Alliance has a whole division devoted to endorsements, with an archive listing all of the building projects they’ve blessed since 2000. It’s sobering reading, for those who follow urban issues. The now infamous Oak-to-Ninth project in Oakland, target of various lawsuits by environmentalists and preservationists, is on there, for example. 

And then there’s the project listed from 2001 as “Patrick Kennedy’s Jubilee Courtyard Apartments” at 2700 San Pablo in Berkeley. For a brisk history of how that one got started, complete with an assortment of political fast footwork, check out Will Harper’s 2001 Eastbay Express story, www.eastbayexpress.com/news/the_kennedy_touch__one_case_study_in_berkeley_development/Content?oid=282364 . 

His tale ends with Kennedy deriding the concerns of neighbor Howie Muir: “As far as Kennedy is concerned, the only reason Muir objects to the four-story project is that it will block his view of the Marin Headlands. ‘It’s classic NIMBYism,’ he says.” 

With many twists and turns, the project was eventually approved, and Howie Muir moved up to the Sierras, disappointed in Berkeley. Kennedy’s approved entitlements for 2700 San Pablo were sold to new owners and a different and even uglier building—now condos instead of affordable rentals—was eventually built. 

Fast forward to 2008. Gale Garcia brought Planet readers up to date in a July letter: 

“Newspaper ads for the condos began in December 2007 with a catchy new project name: ‘Avenue West is just steps away from the shops and restaurants of Berkeley’s exciting Left Bank!’ When I attended an open house tour, only two units seemed to be complete.  

“In late February 2008, mechanics’ liens against the property began appearing at the Alameda County Recorder’s Office, eventually totaling 49 liens filed. The amount still owed to contractors is approximately $1,036,468.  

“The two completed units at 2700 San Pablo, 210 and 406, were advertised vigorously until early May, when advertising ceased. Number of condominium sales recorded: zero. Property transfer tax added to city coffers: zero.  

“On June 2 a Notice of Default was filed at the Recorder’s Office. The construction loan of approximately $9.5 million appears to be in arrears.  

“What will become of ‘Avenue West’—a featureless stucco box in financial trouble? It’s difficult to imagine someone buying and completing it—there’s no sign of a thriving rental market on San Pablo Avenue, and the market for new condos is dead.” 

In other words, the green-washed project turned brown, and then died. And another open space is gone. 

The problem is that it’s all too easy for all of us to march in different directions, all flying our personal green flags. Plausible-sounding plans to fill up every remaining open space in our already developed urban areas could mean that there will be nowhere left to put our victory gardens. The lovely Spiral Gardens plot on Martin Luther King, for example, is now a parking lot and will soon be a building site. 

A few years ago we attended an intimate benefit brunch to raise funds for the late Karl Linn, an urban gardener who, according to his memorial website, “spent the last 44 years of his life guiding the transformation of abandoned vacant lots and drab institutional settings into vibrant community spaces.” The hostess, a prominent local politician, saw no apparent irony in the fact that all the other invited guests except for us were developers (and generous campaign contributors, including the omnipresent Kennedy) who spent their lives transforming abandoned vacant lots and vibrant community spaces into drab condominium complexes.  

If the “locavore” idea is to get any major traction, its proponents will have to come to terms with the prospect that city back yards, front yards and vacant lots are becoming endangered species, just like family farms. If residents on streets like Berkeley Way which parallel arterials like University have their yards shaded out by megaplexes like the Trader Joe’s building, they won’t be able to grow many tomatoes. Preserving the last remaining green spaces in already dense places like San Francisco and Berkeley must become part of the “eat local” agenda. 


—Becky O’Malley