*A Spanish translation of this article will be posted soon.
Photos by Jasper Lyons
It’s 7:45 a.m., and Don Emilio’s sweat has already begun to bead on his brow. He wields a pink household broom, sweeping dirt into rows where young bean shoots are beginning to sprout. He continues to sow seeds, knowing that he might not get to see them blossom before his 21 years of hard work will be taken away.
Since 1994, Don Emilio Martinez Castañeda has woken up at dawn to harvest and tend to a garden in the Beach Flats community. After traveling to California from a small ranch in Durango, Mexico when he was 20, he worked downtown at Tampico Kitchen for over 40 years until the garden became his life. It’s his own way of celebrating and giving back to the community that his children and grandchildren grew up in. Now 73, Don Emilio and at least 20 other longtime gardeners learned their garden will close on Nov. 13.
“I do not want to lose it. We just tended the land, we’ve been working on it,” Don Emilio said during the interview in Spanish. “I don’t want them to take it away. I am happy. I spend my days here, I’ve been here since 3 a.m. today, for example. They can’t take it away, we work so hard on it.”
Santa Cruz Seaside Company, which has owned and rented the property to the city since the garden opened, will reclaim it for landscaping purposes. The gardeners, the majority of whom are immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico, will be forced to leave the garden and relocate elsewhere to begin from scratch yet again.
“The Seaside Company hasn’t come here, the county just sent us a letter, but [the Seaside Company] hasn’t been here,” Don Emilio said. “I want to stay here, we all want to stay here. Why would I want another garden? This one is beautiful. They have a lot of money, they should be building other things.”
Santa Cruz Seaside Company proposed that in return for the current plot, they will lend the Beach Flats community gardeners two much smaller plots to continue their gardening on. Yet, as the community is forced to retreat farther away from the Beach Boardwalk, they look to the city to provide support for the Beach Flats. All too often, they feel blind-sided and ultimately neglected — and the proposed temporary solutions aren’t helping.
“We plant seeds that come from our country, from our homes. We harvest corn, squash, chiles, tomatoes and share them with everyone,” said Beach Flats resident of 16 years and gardener José Lucas Escobar in Spanish. “Everything you see in a market, we plant here for families, for friends and for people who need it. We plant for everyone, not just ourselves.”
The Beach Flats community lies framed between the San Lorenzo River and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Encompassing only a few blocks, this small fragment of the city is historically associated with low-income residents and high crime rates.
In the heart of this community is a garden. Slightly less than half an acre, the garden has served both as a source of food for the community and fostered education through hands-on gardening and farming experience for children. Just last week, over 150 seventh-graders from Branciforte Middle School flocked visited the community garden to experience lessons related to class readings.
“Here we help a lot to teach people how to plant and harvest, how to get rid of weeds,” Don Emilio said. “We get a lot of students. We are very attached to this place, and that’s when we ask for help from people now that they want to take it away.”
Santa Cruz Seaside Company spokesperson Kris Reyes said the company plans to use the garden space for agricultural and landscaping needs of the Boardwalk and surrounding areas. The proposed new plots for the gardens are less ideal for the needs of the company.
“The primary reason [we cannot use the proposed land] is because the new land is in the interior of the neighborhood and it’s not appropriate for commercial use,” Reyes said. “Conversely, the existing land can be accessed from 3rd street and therefore significantly reduces any impacts of our use to the neighborhood.”
Beach Flats residents made it clear that they don’t want to move to another space, and won’t give up their garden. Gia Grant, co-founder of the community garden, said while it was generous for Seaside Company to allow the garden in its space, “there were burning cars and drug dealing and prostituting out of this space in the neighborhood” before. The garden became a way for Beach Flats residents to turn their community around.
“We can all agree the Boardwalk has a lot of space, and the residents don’t,” Grant said. “For this place in particular there are a lot of options for Seaside, and there are negotiations that can happen.”
But as the community reaches into the city for support, many residents reflect on past times the city has let them down.
The garden was nearly closed in 2009 due to budget cuts, and just last year the City of Santa Cruz authorized whitewashing a Beach Flats community mural without informing Beach Flats residents or Victor Cervantes, the local muralist. After extensive meetings and legal action, the city issued a public apology for painting over the mural and wrote a $30,000 check to Cervantes in August.
Mayor Don Lane admitted during a community meeting that these events have shown the city isn’t paying enough attention to the Beach Flats.
“There is a lack of ongoing commitment to this community,” Lane said. “We do need to refocus our efforts in this neighborhood.”
Over 100 community members, Lane, several City Council members and representatives from the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department gathered on Sept. 28 in the Nueva Vista Community Center to discuss the future of the Beach Flats garden and propose a solution. Santa Cruz Seaside Company representatives didn’t attend.
“Several of us have told the Seaside Company in different meetings that we don’t want to do this, we don’t think that this is a good idea,” Lane said in the meeting. “Because we heard that they are saying no, we thought it was important to make a commitment to put something into its place, even if it is smaller.”
Marigolds and baskets of vibrant, freshly harvested vegetables from the garden were offered the City Council members and representatives, in hopes that they would help the Beach Flats protect its garden. Residents were soon disappointed, when only a few minutes later the City Council proposed Seaside Company’s solution — two much smaller interim gardens to replace the community garden.
“Finding a permanent garden site may take more time than we have before the next gardening season,” said director of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Dannettee Shoemaker. “In the short term, it is not an ideal situation but the Seaside Company has agreed to lease us two plots, and with those two plots we feel that we can accommodate the gardeners.”
Santa Cruz Seaside Company owns the Boardwalk, Cocoanut Grove, Boardwalk Bowl, Sea and Sand Inn and numerous other restaurants and residential areas both throughout the Boardwalk area and nationally.
“Over the course of the ensuing two decades our needs have changed and today we can no longer continue to make the original land available,” said Santa Cruz Seaside Company spokesperson Kris Reyes. “However, our belief in the value of a community garden has never wavered and that is why we are making new land available so the community garden may continue.”
Since Seaside Company announced its plans to take over the garden, Beach Flats community members have pushed for the Santa Cruz City Council to exercise eminent domain, or seize the property from the Seaside Company for public use, and pay the fair market value.
“[Eminent domain] is not going to be a good idea,” Mayor Lane said. “If we do that, we are committing a blank check of how much we would be paying. We would have to pay. We don’t know how much it would cost right now.”
Council members said enacting eminent domain would take months, if not years. If the city decides to use eminent domain, the relationship between the Seaside Company and the city will likely be spoiled, Lane said. He said the chance to get a smaller, temporary space would also be lost.
As the meeting continued, tensions were high between council members and the neighborhood residents. The city-appointed translator’s translations were called into question by audience members, insisting that vital information was left out. The translator apologized, explaining he was only shortening for time’s sake.
Lane said the city will continue to fight in the interest of the garden, but warned about starting a war, because “both sides usually fight, and everyone loses.”
“Wishful thinking is not going to get what you want,” he said during the meeting. “Just because you wish the city could do eminent domain in a month doesn’t mean that’s going to happen. Just because you wish that the city would play hardball doesn’t mean that it’s true.”
City Council members, several gardeners and Seaside Company representatives will meet on Oct. 12 to discuss the future of the garden. Various city representatives said the issue will also be brought up at the Oct. 26 City Council meeting.
“We are meeting privately with gardeners and residents next week,” said Santa Cruz Seaside Company spokesperson Reyes. “We felt it was important to share our perspective on this issue, discuss their concerns and reiterate our support for the continuation of the community garden as reflected by our offer of new land for the reconstituted garden.“
As of Oct. 7, the petition to keep the Beach Flats community garden in place has over 2,000 signatures, both online and in paper. The community will come together to repaint the whitewashed mural on Oct. 10-11.
“It’s in your power to not take advantage of this little community. It’s been taken advantage of for a long time,” Marciano Cruz, garden co-founder and previous community resident, said in the meeting. “The garden was created for a new generation of children to learn, to educate our children into the land where we came from. I beg you to please consider this community. Let’s try. Let’s try to keep the garden where it is.”