The Struggle for the Beach Flats Community Garden

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    By Jeremy Spitz

    “Mirando al Futuro” reads the carved rainbow sign above the entrance to the Beach Flats Community Garden. For 15 years this plot has helped residents look to the future, providing fruits, vegetables and a community space. That future, however, may be in jeopardy.

    A new sign below advises the gardeners to stop planting and turn in their keys by the end of the month.

    Since 2004, the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department, which manages the land, has been planning to move the operation to a round plot — less than a quarter of the size — in the adjacent Poet’s Park. But now that the plan is coming to fruition, some gardeners and community members have begun to express their discontent.

    Jesus Marques’ leathery face looked troubled beneath his tattered straw hat. Through a translator he expressed frustration with the management and sadness at the thought of the land going untended. He has been tending his plot in the garden for 10 years. He said that the cabbage, corn, cauliflower and cactus surrounding him went to the 11 gardeners and their families and were shared with the community during the annual harvest festival.

    When asked what he thought about the new garden in the recently created Poet’s Park, he simply shook his head and said, “No.”

    Initially, the gardeners believed that the land was being returned to its owner, the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, which also owns the Beach Boardwalk. This was not the case, according to Kris Reyes, the company’s director of community relations.

    “It was a surprise to us that the city was terminating their use of the land,” Reyes said.

    The Parks and Recreation Department began renting the lot from the Seaside Company in 1994. The department has a year-to-year rental agreement under which the city pays the property tax of $4,400 per year.

    Reyes said that the company did not have immediate plans for the lot and was willing to continue the current arrangement, but he stressed that the deal was always meant to be temporary.

    “We don’t have a new use on the drawing board, so we don’t have any problem with the garden continuing,” Reyes said. “[But] the intention has always been for the city to build its own space, which it now has.”

    Still, many gardeners wonder why they must stop planting and move to a smaller plot while their current garden will remain unused.

    Carol Scurich, Santa Cruz recreation superintendent, said the problem is one of resources, specifically staff time.

    “We have such a limited staff in the beach area,” Scurich said.

    The old garden and the new park are administered by the Beach Flats Community Center, which has only one full-time and two part-time employees. In addition to managing the garden and the park, the center runs parent support workshops, tutoring, and hosts community clean-ups and events.

    “We are at max capacity,” said Reyna Ruiz, community liaison, who runs the center and its programs and manages the garden. “You have to work within your means.”

    Scurich noted that the plan to move the garden had been in the works for four years and that the gardeners were aware that the change was coming.

    “We are very committed to gardening in the beach flats areas,” Scurich said. “But the plan has always been to move to Poet’s Park.”

    Ruiz noted that no new investments have been made in the garden in four years and no new contracts have been granted to prospective gardeners.

    “We’ve been scaling down,” Ruiz said.

    Still, Ruiz and Scurich are sensitive to the gardeners’ concerns and are currently working toward a compromise.

    A meeting to “save the garden” was held last Thursday where the invested parties discussed the possibility of maintaining both gardens.

    Scurich indicated that a sustainable program of community involvement was necessary to keep the garden running.

    “We need help and support from the gardeners and community members that can help manage it because we can’t manage both areas,” Scurich said.

    Ruiz, too, was open to the idea of keeping both gardens.

    “The gardeners don’t want to leave,” she said. “It would be heartbreaking to them to move out of this space.”

    However, Ruiz emphasized that the gardeners would have to present a coherent plan for self-management in order for her to consider it.

    “They need a platform for the long term and the short term,” Ruiz said. “If they come up with a solid plan, I’m all in support.”