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Environmental racism in the "leftmost city"

Nopal cactus and corn in the Beach Flats Community Garden. Photo: Save the BFG Coalition.
Michael Gasser, Santa Cruz Ecological Justice, Jul 18 2016 - 23:15

In Santa Cruz, California for the past year, a struggle has been brewing over the survival of a community garden. Although insignificant in the larger scheme of things, this small campaign has much to teach us about the way different forms of injustice converge, about the relationships among different forces within US cities in the 21st century, and about how to and how not to build a campaign to fight the environmental racism in our midst.

Santa Cruz, the Beach Boardwalk and the Seaside Company

Santa Cruz is a city of 62,000 on the northern California coast. Known for its University of California campus (unofficially and, to some extent, officially, the “alternative” UC campus, which advertises itself as “the original authority on questioning authority”); for its surfing history and culture; for its coastal and forest scenery; for its restored Spanish-era mission (a crucial waystation in the genocide of the local indigenous Californians); but probably, more than anything, for the Beach Boardwalk, one of the Pacific Coast’s oldest and most popular beach amusement parks. Tourists flock to Santa Cruz for lots of reasons, but mainly for the Boardwalk.

The Boardwalk is owned by the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, a 101-year-old local business that also owns a hotel, a motel, a bowling alley, several car dealerships, and a number of rental properties.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Photo: Seaside Company.

Beginning with the founding of the University of California Santa Cruz in 1965, Santa Cruz has had a reputation for progressive politics, so much so that it was the subject of a book by UCSC sociologist G. William Domhoff entitled The Leftmost City. Although the heady days of leftist city councils are now over, it is still safe to say that a significant proportion of Santa Cruzans value diversity, strict limitations on development, and, in particular, sustainability.

Beach Flats

Santa Cruz is a majority white town, characterized by an extreme shortage of affordable housing and rentals. In recent years there has been increasing encroachment by wealthy out-of-towners seeking second homes near the beach. Within the city's neighborhoods, one stands out demographically. Beach Flats, bordering the Boardwalk's enormous parking lots, is populated mainly by immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Its 1700 residents are relatively poor, many are undocumented, and the crowded Beach Flats housing affords little space for the yards that most Santa Cruzans take for granted. Not surprisingly, Beach Flats has a history of tense relations with the local police, and city support for the community has had its ups and downs, mostly downs, over the years. Beach Flats residents are a classic example of a "marginalized" population.

Because it adjoins the Boardwalk, Beach Flats has an intimate and complex relation with the amusement park. Several of the cheap motels that accommodate Boardwalk visitors are within Beach Flats, and during the busy summer months, the Boardwalk-related noise, traffic, and partying practically overwhelm the small neighborhood. The Seaside Company owns about half of the land within Beach Flats.

Overflow Boardwalk parking lot adjoining Beach Flats. Photo: Michael Gasser.

The Beach Flats Community Garden

Twenty-three years ago the Seaside Company agreed to lease the City of Santa Cruz a small chunk of land they owned within Beach Flats for a very small annual amount. This plot had been known for the junk left there, including paraphernalia from drug dealing and prostitution. Together with a dedicated group of Santa Cruzans, the City's Parks and Recreation Department converted the space into a community garden. Since then, the City has administered the garden, with most (though not all) gardeners registering annually. Until February of this year, the Beach Flats Community Garden (BFCG) occupied 26,000 square feet (.6 acres). The current 23 (give or take a few) gardeners are all members of Santa Cruz's immigrant community, most residents of Beach Flats. The garden is the only significant green space in Beach Flats. (This is not counting the unpaved overflow parking lot shown in the photo above or the patch of AstroTurf within the Boardwalk itself.)

The BFCG differs from other community gardens in the city in several ways. First, it is really more like a farm than a garden. Although gardening does provide much needed recreation, the garden is also an important source of food for the gardeners, their families, and some of their neighbors. There are no significant food outlets in Beach Flats, so the garden provides a degree of food security for the neighborhood. Second, the BFCG brings unique Mexican and Central American gardening traditions and plant varieties to the area. In Santa Cruz there is a great deal of interest in agroecology and other alternatives to conventional farming, not only among local farmers but also on the UCSC campus. University students regularly visit the BFCG to learn about the gardeners' practices, and the garden is a popular site for school field trips. The variety of plants in the garden has another expected consequence: a UCSC researcher studying gardens in the area discovered that the BFCG harbors the greatest diversity of animal life of any community garden in the county.

Gardener Emilio Martínez Castañeda tends his garlic patch on Jan. 25, 2016. His plot is within the 40% of the garden that the Seaside Company took over at the beginning of February. Photo: Michael Gasser.

Because of the class-based and cultural gap that exists between more privileged Santa Cruzans and the residents of Beach Flats, it is possible to live in the city for years and know nothing of the BFCG, let alone visit it. But a small group of residents from other parts of town have always been involved, sometimes as gardeners, sometimes as researchers, sometimes as advocates for the gardeners.

In spite of its isolation, the BFCG clearly represents many of the values that most Santa Cruzans would rank highly: cultural diversity, sustainability, environmental justice, and the availability of healthy food. One garden supporter argues that the garden should be seen as comparable to the Santa Cruz Mission in terms of historical and cultural significance, though for very different reasons. There are obviously interesting connections between the mission and the garden, worthy of a whole other essay.

The gardeners are a diverse group. The older generation are Mexican immigrants; some have lived for decades in Beach Flats. The younger generation are mainly from Central America. Because they share the space and because they have come together even more as a result of the crisis described below, these two groups have achieved a degree of unity of purpose that is unusual within the larger Beach Flats community.

The Crisis

In the spring of 2015, the Parks and Recreation Department sent letters to the registered gardeners, explaining that the land would be turned over to the Seaside Company when the current lease expired in November 2015. By summer a small coalition had formed to preserve the garden, and the City returned with an alternate plan, presented at a public meeting in the Beach Flats community center at the end of September. This plan would create a permanent, but significantly smaller, garden in a different location. At the meeting the center was packed with gardeners, Beach Flats residents, and supporters from other neighborhoods. The City's plan was roundly (and often angrily) rejected. Everyone in the room, except the uncomfortable City officials sitting in front, agreed that the garden should stay put in its current form.

March from the Beach Flats Community Garden to City Hall, Oct. 27, 2015. Photo: Calyse Tobias, City on a Hill Press.

The City Council put the future of the BFCG on the agenda for its October 27 meeting, and nearly 250 people marched from the garden to City Hall that evening to support the garden. At the beginning of the meeting, a spokesman for the Seaside Company spoke briefly, presenting a new plan, by which the Company would take possession of 40% of the garden and renew the lease for three more years on the remaining 60%. He said there was no question of a permanent garden on any of the space since the land was not for sale. After speaking, the representative left the meeting, so he missed the public comment from around 20 gardeners and supporters, all arguing (often eloquently and from a wide array of perspectives) in favor of preserving the whole garden.

Following a complicated series of City Council and Planning Commission resolutions and statements, designed to make it appear that the City was in favor of preserving the garden, it became clear that the Council had been on board with Seaside's 60/40 plan from the start. In early January the gardeners were sent letters, asking whether they wished to continue gardening within the reduced garden. Those with space in the 40% destined for the Company were told to vacate that area. Deadlines for both the return of the letters and the vacating of the 40% passed without a response. Informally the City's representatives repeatedly threatened that failure to comply with the City's and the Company's directives could result in the loss of the entire property to the community.

The Seaside Company's and the City's plan to break up the BFCG

Throughout this process, the City was surprisingly ineffective at communicating with the gardeners, relying on either bad translation by its own staff or translations by volunteers from the Save the Garden coalition. The Parks and Recreation Department announced ultimatums in letters, seemingly unaware that some of the gardeners cannot read. It has been rare that anyone from the City bothered to show up and actually talk to the gardeners. It's as though the gardeners don't exist.

The Save the Garden Coalition

The threat to the BFCG has touched a nerve in Santa Cruz. One veteran activist, and a mayor of Santa Cruz during the city's more radical days, described it as a "classic" struggle because of the intersectionality. Here we have institutional racism combined with a whole range of environmental issues, including food security, sustainability, and the availability of green space.

After the September meeting with City Council members, which was widely publicized, the coalition that had formed in the summer attracted a number of new people, including myself. The Save the Garden Coalition holds regular Saturday afternoon meetings in the garden (or in the nearby community center in case of rain). Because most of the gardeners are monolingual Spanish speakers, the meetings are bilingual.

Active members of the Coalition include both gardeners and activists from around Santa Cruz. Among the gardeners most active in the Coalition is Emilio Martínez Castañeda, who has lived in Beach Flats for 46 years and is one of the founders of the garden. Don Emilio spends most of his days in the garden, often arriving before dawn, and has become the unofficial spokesman for the gardeners. Other active Coalition members include some of the Salvadoran gardeners.

It is natural that those who are trying to weaken the Coalition would seek to create divisions between the gardeners and the other members and with the gardeners. So there have been insinuations that it is "outside agitators" inciting the gardeners to oppose the City's and Seaside's plans. It is true that the gardeners and non-gardeners play somewhat different roles within the working of the Coalition. As non-citizens, some undocumented, the gardeners are excluded from participation in the formal politics of the city and may even put themselves at risk by resisting what is mandated by the city. Thus it is understood and accepted within the Coalition that it is up to the non-gardeners to make sense of what the City's plans are, to strategize about how to deal with them, and to make contact with them. Similarly, it is always the non-gardeners who lead the Coalition meetings. At the same time, there is also agreement that it should be up to the gardeners, who obviously have the most to lose and the most to gain, to decide what the general position of the Coalition should be on the deals made between the City and the Company, as they have emerged and been redefined over the months. Thus all of the meetings include pauses in the agenda to make sure the gardeners' views are being heard.

Weekly meeting of the Save the Garden Coalition in early October. Photo: Michael Gasser.

The first major challenge facing the Coalition was over whether to accept the City's and the Company's 60/40 plan or to insist on keeping the entire garden. The 40% of the garden that the Company wanted immediately, important to them because it fronts one of the main streets connecting the Boardwalk to the rest of town, included the plots of several of the most active gardeners, five fruit trees and at least 50 nopal cacti. The 60% that was to be redivided among the gardeners included a large community meeting space and a shed, so in fact the Company planned to take at least half of the cultivated portion of the garden.

Although it took many meetings to reach this point, the discussion within the Coalition eventually centered around how to retain 100% of the garden rather than accept the City's plan. The main reason this position won out is that it was the position of all but one of the gardeners who have been involved in the meetings. Significantly, those whose plots were within the 60% that was not to be lost also supported fighting to retain the whole garden, even given the threats from the City that failure to collaborate with them on the 60/40 plan could result in the loss of everything. What we have learned during this process is that many of the gardeners come with experiences in their countries of origin and as immigrants in the United States that make them at least as sophisticated politically as the English speakers in the Coalition, in particular around issues of community. It is safe to say that the rest of the Coalition has often under-estimated this sophistication. In any case, if radicalization has gone on, it is the "outside agitators" who have changed, not the gardeners.

In what must be seen as the most significant event since the crisis began, some of the active gardeners wrote a letter to the Parks and Recreation Department saying they would like to continuing gardening but would not sign the Department's letter that would force them to agree to give up part of the space. This letter was signed by 17 of the gardeners and would certainly have been signed by more if Coalition members had been able to contact them.

Gardeners Emilio Martínez Castañeda and Angelina Morales present their protest letter to the Department of Parks and Recreation, Jan. 25, 2016. Photo: Marc Franklin.

The other main area of discussion within the Coalition has been strategy in dealing with (or confronting) the two other sides in the struggle, the City (City Council, Department of Parks and Recreation, Planning Commission, City Manager) and the Seaside Company. As the crisis progressed, these other two sides looked more and more like one side. Of course a lot of lip service has been paid to what a wonderful resource the garden has been, but the City Council, with the exception of one member, is clearly scared to death of the Company. The Coalition has several times suggested eminent domain as a way for the City proceed with the garden property, and City Council members, again with the exception of the garden's lone ally, have responded at public meetings that it is now too late for that (without explaining why it wasn't pursued before). In a closed meeting with five Coalition members in October, the mayor came closer to the truth: eminent domain, he said, would be seen by the Company as a "declaration of war" and is hence apparently unacceptable.

The complicity of the City has confused the Coalition. If you live in what amounts to a company town, whom should your fight (or conversation) be directed at, the City government or the Company or both? The prevailing position has been that since it is the City doing the Company's dirty work and they are supposed to be representing us anyway, we should be dealing with them. Nearly all attempts to communicate with the Company have been rebuffed anyway. However, in the background there has always been discussion of the Company's reliance on its reputation within Santa Cruz and its possible vulnerability to a boycott campaign. A whole range of options has been considered and is still on the table.

The City flexes its muscles

In the first months of 2016, the City appeared to concede on some points while actually working as closely as ever with the Company, in a sometimes confusing manner.

In late January in a closed session the City Council voted to stand firm, negotiating the terms of a lease with the Company for 60% of the garden, which would be allotted to the single gardener who had returned the City's form and to other interested residents, with no preference given to the rest of the gardeners, who chose not to collaborate ("cooperate") with the City in their implementation of the Company's wishes. The City manager threatened legal action against the gardeners who remained on the other 40% of the land, including those who had signed the letter to the Department of Parks and Recreation mentioned above.

On February 3, workers from the Parks and Recreation Department showed up in the garden, along with two rangers, and installed a plastic fence separating the 40% from the 60%. As he watched his garlic and nopales fenced off, Don Emilio was distraught. "So many years, so much work," he said. "Is there any hope left?"

Coalition members ask for explanations from a Parks & Rec staff member as a fence is put up within the BFCG. Photo: Michael Gasser.

On February 9, supporters organized another march from the garden to City Hall, this time to demand that the City negotiate to buy the garden as planned, that no part of the garden be damaged during this period, and that none of the gardeners be punished for refusing to vacate their portion of the garden. At least as large as October's march, this one attracted far more UCSC students, which had the effect of radicalizing the chants when the marchers reached City Hall.

The march was ignored by the conservative local newspaper and appeared to have little immediate effect on the City. Finally, on Feb. 15, the majority of the gardeners negotiated an agreement with the City. Threatened by lawsuits, they felt they had no option but to agree to vacate the 40% that the Company was demanding. In return the City agreed to grant the current gardeners priority for plots in the reconfigured remaining 60% and to hold off damaging the fruit trees and cacti in the 40% until the fall.

Then, without any warning and in violation of the agreement, Parks and Recreation bulldozers showed up on the property on March 24 (during the UCSC Spring Break when most students were out of town) and began knocking down the trees and cacti on the 40%. By the time outraged gardeners and supporters had assembled and gotten Parks and Recreations officials to appear, many plants had been destroyed. The City apologized for this "mistake" and agreed to compensate the gardeners for the lost plants, but few believed in their version of what had happened.

The April 26 City Council meeting took place six months after the City's resolution in support of making the whole garden permanent, at which time a report was to be made on progress negotiating with the Seaside Company to purchase the garden. The Coalition succeeded in getting the garden on the meeting agenda and chose this day for another march to City Hall to show that garden supporters had not forgotten what had been promised. In fact as far as anyone knew, no such negotiations had taken place; the Company and the City had not even signed the new lease for the property.

150 people marched from the garden to City Hall that evening and again speaker after speaker made the case for the preservation of the whole garden, including the use of eminent domain if necessary. Instead the City Council used to the occasion to announce that a lease with the Company had finally been signed, but one that included an escape clause for Seaside: if they were not granted the use permit they needed for the reclaimed 40% of the property, they could back out of the lease (presumably leaving the gardeners with no rights to the remaining 60%). The idea of eminent domain was rejected by all but the garden's ally on the Council (one other Council member compared it to the theft of her bicycle). To top it off, it became clear that most Council members now saw the 60% remaining to the gardeners as the property that they would strive to preserve, rather than the original 26,000 square feet. If anyone had had any illusions that the Council really cared about the garden, the gardeners, and the larger Beach Flats community, those illusions were quashed that evening.

With this sort of result already predicted, the Coalition and their student supporters had already planned a further march for May Day, the following Sunday. This one would start at City Hall, stop by a local grocery store to deliver a letter in support of the Driscoll's Berry boycott, pass by the Boardwalk, and end at the Garden. Explicitly tying the garden struggle to the fight for the rights of farmworkers that is behind the Driscoll's boycott, the event was billed as a March for Food Justice. About 80 people participated, taking the garden struggle to the Boardwalk for the first time. (Previous actions there had consisted of a few people leafleting.) The students delivered a letter to the Seaside Company, letting them know that the relationship that exists between the University and the Boardwalk (a relationship that results in significant profits for the Seaside Company, especially during special campus-related events) would be jeopardized if the Company did not agree to sell the garden property to the City.

Two sides of the fence separating the original BFCG, July 2016. Photo: Michael Gasser

Two months later, a 9-foot wooden fence separates the two sections of what used to be the Beach Flats Community Garden, and neither the City nor the Company show any signs of budging. On July 7, the city's Planning Commission met to consider Seaside's application for a permit "to establish a private garden/landscaping area" on the newly cleared 10,000 sq. ft. of the original garden. Because of Seaside's sneaky lease termination clause, approval was already more or less guaranteed, but Coalition members showed up anyway to challenge the need for such an area in the neighborhood and to attempt to set some conditions on the permit, for example, limits on the use of vehicles on the property. Folllowing a pattern that was by now familiar, the Commission members each proclaimed their sympathy with all of the points made by the community before proceeding to ignore them and vote unanimously in favor of the permit.

With many of the students gone for summer break and people out of town on vacation, Coalition meetings have now become infrequent. But the core group of active gardeners and their supporters has not given up. This break has given them time to focus on the long term, with plans to involve the Beach Flats community more in the Garden and to influence the City Council elections happening in November.

What has been achieved?

The Coalition has come a long way. A marginalized and vulnerable group of Spanish-speaking gardeners, hardly in a position to lead the fight for their right to continue gardening, joined forces with a diverse group of allies, including well-meaning people who somehow assumed that City officials and Company owners just needed to know the truth about the garden to be won over. Out of this has emerged an organization with impressive achievements, despite the setbacks of the winter and spring.

First, there has been enormous progress in getting the word out. Through press releases, letters to the editor, opeds, leaflets, a petition signed by almost 4000 people, and public events, the threat to this wonderful local resource has attracted a lot of local attention. If the letters to the editor in the conservative local newspaper are any indication, the garden is winning the war of public opinion. (Not surprisingly the paper's own editorial on the issue took the Company's side.)

Second, a stated goal of many Coalition members has been to empower the gardeners. The gardeners' increased participation in meetings and their willingness to challenge the City directly show that here again progress has been made. The City's assumption that threats and bullying would cause the gardeners to accede to their demands proved naive, and the relationship between Beach Flats residents and local government may end up forever changed.

Third, the fight to save the garden has bridged two of the fundamental gaps that are part of political and social life in Santa Cruz, the one separating the majority white English-speaking community from the minority Spanish-speaking community, and the one separating the UCSC community from the city. These gaps are not peculiar to Santa Cruz of course. In fact there is an earlier history of student mobilization on behalf of town issues. But in recent years, there has been little town interest in the campus issues of tuition hikes, student debt, and divestment and little campus interest in the town issues of homelessness, militarized police, and desalination. The garden fight has changed that. In the past few months, UCSC students have held meetings on campus to consider how they can contribute to the campaign, organized a well-attended event in Beach Flats, gathered hundreds of student signatures on a letter demanding action from the City, and presented a letter to the Seaside Company demanding that they agree to sell the Garden property.

Fourth, as demographic and cultural gaps have been bridged, so too have connections been made between supposedly disparate issues. People joined the fight for different reasons, the gardeners because of the threat to a source of food, as well as recreation, others because of their commitment to green space, to food sovereignty, to racial justice, to fighting climate change, to challenging corporate power over local affairs. As noted above, this is a classic case of intersectionality. There is a bottom line behind all of these issues, and it was inadvertently laid bare by the commissioners during the July 7 meeting to rubber-stamp Seaside's use permit. For the umpteenth time, we heard a City official say that, yes, it was wonderful what the Beach Flats gardeners had created over the years, and yes, it would be wonderful if they could continue to grow food there in their time-honored way. But, after all, the land belonged to the Seaside Company. In other words, private property trumps everything. Private property! The fight to preserve the Beach Flats Community Garden is a fight that ultimately challenges, in a modest, local way,  the very foundation of US economic life.

At the same Planning Commission meeting, a commissioner blurted out what must be seen as a second underlying theme of this campaign and many others like it. After she had heard Coalition members relate the threat to the survival of the Garden to issues of food justice around the world, one commissioner said that, yes, she understood why this mattered so much, but "you can't expect us to solve the world's problems". There are two ways to respond to this statement, one by challenging it, the other by agreeing with it. First, if the world's problems aren't solved locally, in places like Santa Cruz, where will they be solved? Second, if "us" means the current crop of City officials, then, yes, it's clear that we can't expect these people to solve the really challenging problems. Their job is to cross Ts and dot Is, to maintain the status quo. Solving the real problems will require a whole new set of people, or, better yet, a whole new system.


The threat to the BFCG has galvanized people, reawakening the passions of some of the survivors of the older, more progressive Santa Cruz and drawing in young people and immigrants. Whatever happens in the coming months and years, the Coalition, in one form or another, seems destined to survive, at the very least fighting to prevent the complete destruction of the garden. Coalition activists are involved in the attempts to field a slate of candidates for the City Council elections in November who would stand up to the Seaside Company, invoking eminent domain in the creation of a permanent Beach Flats Community Garden, and would usher in a new era in the relationship between the City's government and the marginalized people who live on the edge of an immense amusement park.

So the garden is a symbol of where this city is headed. Will private property continue to trump everything else? Or will those values that Santa Cruz thinks it stands for actually matter in the end?

Save the Garden! ¡Salvemos el Jardín!