Beach Flats Community Garden

Sustainabilities: Eco-oriented | Justice-oriented | Vernacular


The Beach Flats Community Garden is a .6-acre garden in Santa Cruz, cultivated by gardeners from the surrounding neighborhood for over 23 years, which is currently at risk of being lost to development. This organic garden is primarily cultivated by first-generation immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, who have brought agroecological knowledge and practices, rare seed varieties, and a generosity in the form of free food distribution to their community. The landowner, the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, has decided to end the garden’s lease with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, and over the last six months, residents have formed a broad community coalition to advocate for the garden’s survival, asking “Will this community, which is known for its commitment to alternative, sustainable agriculture accept the disappearance of this garden?”

The garden is located in the Beach Flats neighborhood at the foot of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, the town’s largest tourist attraction and one its primary employers. In the summer visitors flock to the rides, games, and events at the Boardwalk, bringing laughter and screams, and traffic jams and overcrowding to neighborhood streets. Almost hidden at the center of Beach Flats, the garden is a green oasis of calm with corn that reaches two stories high, and hard to find culinary herbs such as epazote and ruda. The garden was started in a time when the Beach Flats community, a predominantly Latin@ neighborhood neglected by both landlords and the city, organized to create community change through murals, community programming, and the garden.¹ The site of the garden was formerly used as a dumping ground, unsafe for neighborhood kids, and a place that attracted activities the community wanted to deter. Working together, younger Beach Flats residents, Santa Cruz gardening activists, and several older neighborhood men from campesino backgrounds cleared the land and began to cultivate.

For the gardeners and their friends and family, the garden holds many meanings. For some it is a place for raising culturally relevant crops and continuing the ways of life that they grew up with; for others it is a place of sanctuary and peace; and for the community it is a place to gather and share with others. During a tour of the garden this fall, Don Emilio, a garden elder, described how Beach Flats residents were the targets of threats and raids from la migra (Immigration Enforcement) during the 1980s until the city council passed a resolution declaring Santa Cruz a sanctuary city in 1985. He views the garden as a place of peace after many years of suffering. Gardeners and many visitors repeat this sentiment—that the garden is a place to gather and feel good and at peace among friends. Other gardeners describe the importance of being able to continue the ways of life they grew up with in farming communities. Angelina, a gardener from El Salvador, highlighted how she wants her two young daughters to learn the way people from her culture grow and cook food. And for Lucas, who has been gardening in Beach Flats for 16 years, the garden is a place of generosity in a community where food security is a problem. At a meeting with the City concerning the fate of the garden, he stated: “We are not just 17 gardeners, we don’t just benefit from the food ourselves, it’s for the whole community, for anyone who needs it.”

In March 2015, the gardeners received a letter from the Department of Parks and Recreation stating in obscure language that the Seaside Company would be ending the current lease for the garden in November 2015 and that there would be changes that would be described at a later date. Agroecology researchers from the UC Santa Cruz were the first non-gardeners to see the letter and informed former gardeners and advocates of the coming changes. For these researchers, the garden was a site of ecological data collection. UCSC Professor and Director of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), Stacy Philpott has identified the garden as an important site for arthropod diversity conservation and has participated in research showing that gardens such as Beach Flats can provide shelter for spiders that perform important pest control functions in the city. In addition, she and her co-researchers found over 60 different bee species and 17 ladybug species in the sites they studied, including the Beach Flats Garden.² Researchers think the presence and protection of bee diversity in gardens may be significant given the important function bees play in plant pollination and the recent concerns over potentially devastating impacts of colony collapse disorder on local agriculture. Several of the researchers, while primarily engaged in understanding the biological dimensions of the garden, have noted the importance of the cultural character of the space and the uniqueness of this garden as compared to other study sites.

The Coalition to Save the Beach Flats Garden formed and began organizing in mid-summer 2015. As part of a multi-racial and cross-class organization, Coalition members have varying motivations as to why this garden must be sustained. Some are concerned that the Seaside Company has too much power as a landlord of many properties in Beach Flats and as a major political player in the city. Others see the garden as an important space of cultural expression and agency in a neighborhood marginalized by the discourse of Santa Cruz as progressive oasis. Many connect food production at the garden not just to meeting immediate food needs in the community but to international movements for food sovereignty, highlighting these farmers’ knowledges and the garden as examples of the kind of agricultural alternatives needed to counter contemporary industrial food systems.

Growing epazote in the Beach Flats Community Garden.

Growing epazote in the Beach Flats Community Garden.

Community members from across Santa Cruz have worked to reach out to city officials, organize educational events, collect over 4,000 petition signatures, and mobilize marches and opportunities to speak out for the garden. As a result of their activities, there has been significant local media coverage, as well as movement on the landlord’s original offer to relocate 95% of the garden to a smaller plot. The Seaside Company is offering to lease 60% of the current garden for three years. The company would like to use the remaining 40% for their own agricultural needs in order to be able to better landscape and green the entrance to the Boardwalk. Advocates would still like to see the entire garden protected in perpetuity. As a result of community advocacy, the City Council approved a proposal in October 2015 to try to buy the current garden property, but the short-term future of the garden is uncertain. In a closed session City Council meeting on January 12, 2016, it was reiterated that the City and Seaside Company want the gardeners off 40% of the garden, which is its oldest and most productive area. In response, the Coalition is fundraising to attempt to purchase the garden for the City in its entirety.

While the garden’s future is uncertain, this struggle has forced the Santa Cruz community and the City of Santa Cruz to face the question of whether this garden is a space that should be sustained. The owner is interested in using the land to grow plants to landscape the town’s largest businesses; the gardeners and community activists are interested in the ecological, cultural, and social justice contributions of this garden. Each articulate different visions of sustainability as it relates to the question of private property rights. The City of Santa Cruz, through the City Council and the Department of Parks and Recreation, while expressing support for the garden have also made clear the rights of the owner must be upheld and respected.

[Michelle Glowa is a member of the Coalition to Save the Beach Flats Coalition described here.]

Michelle K. Glowa

See also:
Projects:No Place to Grow—a documentary film project about the struggle for the Beach Flats Garden, by Michelle Aguilar.

1. Michelle, Glowa, Leslie Lopez, and Kathy Chaput, “Elotes and Eviction: Snapshot Perspectives from Youth on the Beach Flats Community Garden.” Blind Field Journal, December 8, 2015.
2. Michelle D. Otoshi, Peter Bichier, Stacy M. Philpott, “Local and Landscape Correlates of Spider Activity Density and Richness in Urban Gardens.” Environmental Entomology, 44, no. 4, 2015.

Published February 8, 2016. Photos by Chelsea Wills