San Francisco's urban farmers fight for green space and community


San Francisco's District 11 Supervisor John Avalos

KPFA Evening News, 06.15.2013

KPFA spoke to San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos about the demise of Hayes Valley Farm and his efforts to help residents of District 11 create an urban farm in District 11's Crocker Amazon Park. Occupiers who attempted to save Hayes Valley Farm renamed it Gezi Gardens, invoking the battle for green space in Istanbul, Turkey.


KPFA Evening News Anchor Cameron Jones: The occupation of Gezi Gardens, the urban farm formerly known as Hayes Valley Farm, began on June ​​1st, after the expiration of a deal with the City of San Francisco that allowed the farm to operate until condo development began. On Thursday morning at 1 am, police raided, bulldozed, and cordoned off Gezi Gardens, and arrested some of the occupiers. KPFA's Ann Garrison spoke to San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos about his efforts to help San Franciscans, whom he represents in District 11, on the City's south side, to create an urban farm like the one that Hayes Valley just lost.  
KPFA/Ann Garrison: John Avalos, first, would you like to say anything about the bulldozing and police raid at Gezi Gardens this week? 
John Avalos: I know there's a lot of people who are really upset, seeing such a great thing being taken away and are protesting. And we have a history of that in San Francisco and when we see such a great community benefit being taken away, people get upset and they wanta do civil disobedience, and I support people's free expression.
KPFA: Could you tell us about your work to help residents of the Crocker Amazon neighborhood in your district create an urban farm? 
John Avalos: It's actually residents of the Excelsior and Crocker Amazon neighborhood. It's at Crocker Amazon Park.
Well, let's see, over the years I've come to see that that park is under the Public Utility Commission jurisdiction, and Rec and Park jurisdiction. And there's all this space in the park that is not really well utilized. And then when I was making the rounds in 2011 in San Francisco, when I was running for mayor, I ran across a lot of people who were really excited about urban ag, and I got a tour of the Hayes Valley Farm, and I saw what wonderful ways they were building community. They were actually bringing back a lot of techniques from around the world to grow things, and I thought 'Well, why don't we have something like this in the southern part of San Francisco?' And I started working with community members and organizations to see what we could do in the neighborhood, to see if we could get Public Utility Commission funding for an urban ag farm or garden. And the Public Utility Commission was actually supportive.  
KPFA: OK. Now, a year after you were running for Mayor, and initiated this project, or initiated the conversations with people in your community, the Board unanimously passed the Urban Agriculture Ordinance.
John Avalos: Uh-huh.
KPFA: This is about five pages long, and if you look at this, it actually looks like the City of San Francisco is ready to be very supportive of urban agriculture.
John Avalos: Yeah, we have paved the way administratively to have an urban ag program, but when the rubber hits the road, and you have different interests that come together to decide what's gonna happen on public land, all those interests start to swirl around into controversy, and you don't quite get things you wanted.  
So the Rec and Park Department was actually very interested in being the coordinator for the urban ag program, but when it comes to having a farm at the Crocker Amazon Park, they are trying to tell us it should be in a different place, it shouldn't be where we actually originally had thought about it, because that site is used about thirty hours a year by one community group and it would just be too difficult to move them to another site within the Rec and Park system. 
And also. . .  the Rec and Park Department. . . a lot of people feel that they're looking at this urban ag program as some way that they can make money and we want to make sure that that doesn't really happen. 
KPFA: You said one thing that resonated with South Central Farm, which inspired the national urban agriculture movement. There were a great number of plants there. It's even been the subject of a doctoral dissertation - people having a different relationship to various kinds of plant life, and particularly, people from Latin America, who had plant forms at South Central Farm that they knew how to use, that industrial agriculture would have considered weeds. 
John Avalos: Yeah, well, industrial agriculture is about mass production, about creating monocultures, about creating money, and limiting the productivity of plants, or harvesting as much as possible, but not necessarily harvesting the life that's lived in it. And, what you saw at the farm in Hayes Valley was really an attempt to bring back plants growing together - what you see, like in Mexico, people grow corn, but the corn is also interwoven with beans and other plants as well. It's not just one crop that's being harvested. It's multiple crops that are harvested in the same plot of land. Often the seeds are just right next to each other in the land. That's what we can offer in terms of bringing back what we have known for centuries about how to grow things that's been taken away by corporate monoculture. 
KPFA: What do you think is the best way for people to try to work with the City? 
John Avalos: Well, I can only speak about Crocker Park. 
John Avalos: We are doing outreach to neighbors around the park. I've written a letter to neighbors surrounding the park, and that letter is being door knocked by youth . . . Chinese youth and Latino youth from PODER, and I think the Chinese Progressive Association. And they're doing outreach and they wanta make sure that they have input from the neighbors, the neighbors feel like their voice is heard in all this, and they understand what's happening at the park. It's not just happening in a vacuum. It's being done with them, not to them. And I think that's the kind of trust that's important when we're looking at new projects in the City. 
Perhaps you won't have full agreement from neighbors and residents about what we should do with their land. I don't think that's ever possible, but there should be ways that people can shape it and provide their input. And so, we use our community based partners and that's why we have elected officials to do the outreach and make sure that people are informed of what's going on.  
KPFA: What would you and the others working on this most like to see if you could overcome the resistance of Rec and Park and unite the community behind this idea?
John Avalos: Well, what's really exciting about what we're doing in Crocker Park is that we're creating a whole new constituency around the park, and if it's done well, with a lot of community input, we know we're gonna have many more people in the park who will be using the park for recreation, for farming, for sharing an experience with different generations, all at the same time. 
And our schools are going to be involved with this park as well. So we're going to have an education component that's really gonna share what the land can provide for people in terms of nutrition and experience that is much more human than what we often have as experience in the city. 
KPFA: And that was San Francisco's District 11 Supervisor John Avalos. For Pacifica, KPFA Radio, I'm Ann Garrison.

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