Proyecto Jardin Evicted from Community Garden at White Memorial; Protest Planned for Saturday

Dancers participate in a celebration of culture and healing at Proyecto Jardin. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Dancers participate in a celebration of culture and healing at Proyecto Jardin. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

This Sunday, January 31st, the eviction of the community gardening collective known as Proyecto Jardin from the garden space behind White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights will mark a significant change for the neighborhood. In a community that has felt very much at the mercy of externally-driven change in recent years, many residents are determined not to let this shift go unchallenged.

They acknowledge that the land does indeed belong to White Memorial. The 1/3-acre lot was first transformed into a garden in 1999 at the behest of Dr. Robert Krochmol, a resident at White Memorial at the time. And they understand that the hospital does technically have the right to determine how its land will be used and hire whom they wish to administer operations there.

But they also believe that the community has some claim to it because the garden has functioned as a communally-structured community space for most of the last 17 years and because it was local volunteers, advocates, artists, educators, and students that worked to turn the former eyesore into a lush, green oasis of health, culture, creativity, and healing. The special symbolism that the garden holds as a safe and nurturing haven in the community’s collective imagination is tightly linked to all those folks that worked so hard to forge bonds between people and place over all those years. It can’t be easily replicated by moving the garden to a new site.

Under the leadership of Daisy Tonantzin in the early 2000s, the garden offered residents the opportunity to tap into traditional forms of healing tied to their heritage. In 2005, Tonantzin formalized her efforts to preserve traditional methods with the launch of Caracol Marketplace — a monthly gathering of artisans featuring food, handmade jewelry, healing herbs and products, art, dance, and music. Caracol Marketplace has since moved to Tropico de Nopal Art Space and Gallery, but its presence in the early days helped reinforce the sense that the garden space represented so much more than just a nice spot to grow vegetables.

Under the more recent administration of Irene Peña, activities at the garden have continued to be guided by the four pillars of community health — good food, physical activity, traditional healing arts, and community building — and adhered to a communal approach (families have plots in communal beds, help take care of each others’ plots, and share in the larger harvest). And it has served as a site for community celebrations, spiritual rituals and reconnections, youth engagement and mentoring, and the sharing of knowledge among the generations.

Pauletta Pierce paints children's faces for Dia de los Muertos. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Pauletta Pierce paints children’s faces for Dia de los Muertos. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

But keeping the garden afloat hasn’t always been easy, Peña has acknowledged.

Organizing a communal space and operating in true democratic fashion can be a bit like herding cats — something which any cat owner will tell you is neither a picnic nor something that gets easier over time. And when you don’t have a lot in the way of formal structure, fixed staff, or funding, it can be tough to maintain both the day-to-day operations of a labor-intensive garden space and the community-building efforts needed to keep the gardeners and the larger community engaged. All of which becomes even more complicated when you factor in the natural turnover that happens as children grow up, people struggle to balance work and family obligations, interns and college students head out into the world, and budding activists, energized by what they learn at the garden, take up other causes.

As a result, the garden has gone through several fallow periods over the years. And each time that it has, it seems, its future has been called into question.

In 2008, for example, the hospital considered paving the garden over and putting bungalows on the site, according to Peña. In more recent years, the conversation has shifted to how activities at the garden could be better integrated with hospital operations (the two were largely independent of each other for most of the garden’s existence) and how participation could be increased. At one point, Peña said, the hospital had even asked her to turn in daily and, later, weekly sign-in sheets, complaining that not enough people were using the garden during the week.

Peña tried to help the hospital understand that, in a lower-income immigrant community, people worked long and sometimes unpredictable hours, and generally had family obligations during the week.

But this summer, as Peña and administrators debated potential changes to Proyecto Jardin’s lease, the hospital seemed to be convinced there was more that could be done to keep the space active.

In my conversation regarding the eviction of Peña and Proyecto Jardin volunteers with Cesar Armendariz, Vice President of Business Development at White Memorial, it was clear that some of the hospital’s most pressing concerns were still making the garden more active, accessible to more people, and more consistently productive.

“The garden is important to [the hospital],” Armendariz said yesterday, citing concerns about the high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in the community. An innovative redesign of some of the space, he continued, could result in a much greater harvest. Coupled with cooking classes and other related health activities, the bigger harvest could lead to better health outcomes for many more people.

“That’s the vision” for the garden, he said in summary. “To grow it…[and] to make sure it is producing all year round.”

To make this happen, the hospital will be turning over garden operations to two as-yet unnamed local organizations in the next few months. There are no plans to displace the approximately 40 families currently gardening there, Armendariz reassured me. [The hospital recently requested, in writing, the contact information of participating families so that they could connect with them and facilitate that transition, but has yet to receive it, Armendariz says.]

Until they had formalized agreements with the two new garden administrators, however, Armendariz said, he would not be able to speak to the specifics of how that transition would be handled. But he wanted residents to know that the chosen organizations were both well-known and trusted in the community.

The announcement of the chosen organizations, he said, would be sure to make a “big splash.”

The protest planned for this Saturday at the garden suggests that neither Peña nor the various local groups that support her and her work feel very reassured about the future of the site. Rumors that the garden was going to be taken over by the hospital’s marketing department or that the new tenants would be asked to adhere tightly to policies shaped by Seventh Day Adventist practices did not help matters [Armendariz says both are untrue; gardeners would only be asked to rest or garden quietly on the Sabbath, and refrain from overnight celebrations or rituals involving the use of open fires.]

Canek while Cuco Esperansa burns the messages for the dead. Sahra Sulaiman/ Streetsblog L.A.
Canek Peña-Vargas sings while Cuco Esperansa burns messages to be sent to those that have passed on. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

More than a dispute between an institution and a grassroots organization, however, the impasse between White Memorial and Proyecto Jardin seems to underscore just how dissimilarly different communities approach questions of health.

Read through any recent report on public health that purports to offer a snapshot of a lower-income community of color and you will see discussions of the social determinants of health and epigenetics, as well as a list of socio-economic factors, all of which are presumed to impact health outcomes in one way or another. Many reports even speak of how health outcomes in immigrant communities tend to worsen the more that those residents assimilate into American culture, society, and behaviors.

Yet the solutions those same health entities tend to offer for problems like obesity — a condition that, in lower-income communities, often results from trauma, stress, depression, and/or a lack of stability in addition to limited access to healthy food — are often surprisingly one-dimensional in scope. Access to healthy food, cooking lessons, access to a garden, access to green space, and knowledge about nutrition are generally seen as the cornerstones to fighting the problem.

Which, of course, they are.

But, it is also true that none of those things will do much good if there is no exploration of why someone is eating poorly or engaging in unhealthy behaviors in the first place. [See my previous discussion of the fast food ban and obesity in South L.A. here]

For the community of activists, artists, and advocates that have either toiled away at Proyecto Jardin at some point, lent support to its activities, or been active in building community around the more complex and intersectional approach to health Peña has used over the years, the hospital’s promise of greater harvests leaves them unconvinced that administrators truly understand residents or their health needs. And what they have claimed to be a lack of effort on the part of the hospital to speak with the community about the future of the garden only seems to confirm that.

“It is a rather overwhelming imbalance of power,” concludes Peña.

Peña and her volunteers must vacate the premises this Sunday. If you’re interested in learning more about some of local residents’ concerns or visiting the garden before it changes hands, you can drop by 1718 Bridge St. in Boyle Heights between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday, January 30. Find more details here.

  • Joe Linton

    I have good memories of that garden. I helped build the broken concrete spiral gardens there, and have dropped by now and then for many years and enjoyed the space.

  • James Rojas

    Wow I meet with DR. Rob when they opened the garden on apply for a grant with OXY.

  • AndreL

    This is America. This is 2016. A hospital should not be sponsoring or acquiescing to these absurd practices in the name of “faith healing”. For sake, there are modern medicine and medical sciences, it is one of the biggest things in the country.

    No problems with gardening or other compatible activities but a hospital should not, ever be in the business of validate medieval practices regarding medicine.

    I read the demands posted on that facebook group, things there appear so agonizingly complex and complicated. The issue is simple, the hospital owns the plot, and it let some people operate it as a communal space for several years. Now, it has had problems with consistency in the operation of the space. It is going to bring an otherwise respected non-profit group to run the space, it is going to let people that were gardening keep doing that. So it seems a reasonable and engaged decision, it is not like they are throwing everyone out to and building a McDonalds!

    It is very difficult to have empathy for causes posted here when they ignore some basic and simple things like the nature of “at-will’ zero-cost temporary cession of space for communal groups is lost from perspective. People are calling for mediation, but any mainstream mediator would zip it up in 10 minutes, the law is extremely clear in issues like this.

  • sahra

    Adventist beliefs are not actually in conflict with a lot of the approaches the community has taken to health (with regard to returning to a more natural diet and focusing on spiritual as well as physical well-being). The group is not asking for permission to practice witchcraft. What they are trying to communicate is that wellness is about more than just access to fresh food. Obesity in communities like Boyle Heights is driven by a number of factors, most of which have to do with mental health and well-being. Treating the symptom is not enough, nor is it sustainable…especially in a community where there is such distrust of modern medical institutions. The hospital might have done better to work with Pena to build stronger bridges between the hospital and the community, but that seems not to have been how things were handled.

  • Slexie

    It’s more of the “we’re here, deal with it” attitude of many immigrants. I doubt the gardeners would be willing to work with the hospital at all. Let’s call this what it is: A group of people started a garden on land that wasn’t theirs and now the lease is up. I don’t see why this is even a problem. If the overall goal was to improve health and have a garden, maybe they should have tried to buy the land from the hospital, because there’s no way they’re going to agree on the same types of treatments for ailments. They can’t. Overall health and nutrition yes. But are we supposed to believe that these lower income people are stupid? Because knowledge is free and they can put a garden anywhere.

  • sahra

    Clearly you know nothing about how or why the garden was begun, so let’s just call this what it is: an opportunity for you to dish up some racism. Awesome. We hadn’t had any in the comments yet this year that I had seen. So, congrats on being our first a**hole of the new year.

  • Slexie

    I’m not a racist and only an idiot would squat on private land and then make a stink when they’re asked to leave. You actually expect a hospital’ to support whatever alternative medicine they are practicing? It’s too much of a liability issue, duh. And if it’s such a loved place, why was it allowed to go fallow over the years? Did the people using the garden just starve to death? Nope. They most likely went to any food store and bought food. You don’t need a garden to teach people how to eat properly. You’re not giving those people enough credit.

    Lovely response, BTW. The Eastsider must be so proud of the way you treat it’s readers. Very professional. I’m sure the neighborhood is happy to have you representing them. Classy.

  • sahra

    *its
    *StreetsblogLA

  • Slexie

    I’m sure you’d be just as pleasant the Eastsider too!

  • Slexie

    I’m sure you’d be just as pleasant at The Eastsider. And there is an apostrophe in “it’s”, as in “it is”. So professional.

  • sahra

    “the way you treat ‘it is’ readers”…
    *its
    Grammar is your friend.

  • Slexie

    Oh you were correcting me? Oh I had no idea. I thought it was a mistake on your part. Does your editor care that you curse at ITS readers? Because IT’S really unprofessional. Did you learn that when you decided to become a writer? C’mon don’t be shy. Tell me what class or teacher or mentor told you that it was ok to speak to your readers like that.

  • sahra

    I was not under the impression you were a reader… you have accused me on two different occasions of writing for The Eastsider, which I never have. And I answer the questions you ask about the history of the garden in the article. Similarly, in stories about Central Ave., you were happy to ignore information provided in the article to put forth your own opinions about me and the community. All of which is within your right, reader or not. But I was clear that “the ‘we’re here, deal with it’ attitude of many immigrants” statement marked you as someone who traded in stereotypes rather than thoughtful dialogue, and so, yes, I am perfectly within my rights to call that out. We don’t trade in racism, stereotypes, or any of that sort of ugliness here. That’s best saved for the LA Times or Yahoo comments sections. If you have genuine questions or concerns, I am happy to answer them to the best of my ability. But I feel no such obligation to dedicate time to ugliness of the kind spouted above. Best regards, sahra

  • Slexie

    Thoughtful dialogue? Is that what you call your responses to me? And my comment wasn’t directed at you to begin with. It was directed at the garden in the article. YOU decided to make it personal to you, and my comment has nothing to do with you. Nothing. If you can’t handle someone having an opinion you don’t like, then maybe you should make the comments private. Because you come off as a spoiled brat who got her widdle feewings hurt.

    Keep in mind, You were the one using profanity. I didn’t say anything racist, you just decided I did. If you’re the editor, then make the comment section private because we wouldn’t want comments that have NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU make you sooooooooo upset. Great journalism, quashing free speech. Still wondering where you learned it was ok to speak to your readers like that. You are the one being ugly, don’t lose sight of that.

    Oh by the way, you know someone else was killed on Rowena AFTER the road diet was put in? Did you know that? In the same spot that girl was killed that started the road diet. When it was dark, a guy was crossing the street and was struck by a car and killed. I thought the road diet was supposed to stop that kind of stuff, wasn’t it? So why was he hit? Because the problem isn’t speed, the problem is light. There’s not enough light in that section, so people will continue to leave that restaurant and cross the street there and get killed. Why are they crossing the street there in the dark? Because they have to get to their cars, because the restaurant doesn’t have enough…parking. But I’m sure you know all of that. Still pressing that road diet on Central?

  • Slexie

    “They acknowledge that the land does indeed belong to White Memorial. The 1/3-acre lot was first transformed into a garden in 1999 at the behest of Dr. Robert Krochmol, a resident at White Memorial at the time. And they understand that the hospital does technically have the right to determine how its land will be used and hire whom they wish to administer operations there.

    But they also believe that the community has some claim to it… ”

    Umm…by definition they don’t. They don’t own the land and they have no claim to it. Do you make this stuff up?

    An overwhelming imbalance of power? Pena has no power, she doesn’t own the land and I’m not sure they are being evicted so much as their lease is not being renewed. How ridiculous not to want open fires. It’s not like that’s a hazard or anything.

  • Slexie

    I just went to their fb page. They were given a 30 day notice, not an eviction notice so the title of this article is misleading. There is even a pic of a sign saying they haven’t had a formal eviction notice from the city. Since they are now squatting, now they most likely will be evicted.

  • Slexie

    Open fires in the middle of the city? Yea, it’s the hospitals’ fault for not working with Pena. There are fires there right now. It’s not safe.

  • sahra

    I enjoy very much that being called out for racism and negative stereotyping has inspired so much angst that you felt the need to remind us of your assumption that any and all Latinos associated with the garden must be immigrants and, more egregious still, immigrants with terrible attitudes. My dear Stephanie, there must be more productive ways to spend one’s time. So much angst is terrible for one’s health. I wish you a more peaceful weekend.

  • Slexie

    Could you quote me saying anything about Latinos? I don’t believe I singled anyone out. But I was right anyway, because they are refusing to leave. Was I wrong that they are not leaving? Nope.

    It’s really none of your business how I spend my time. And stop with the “wish” stuff, you have no regard about what happens to me. That just makes you kinda fake, since you flew off the handle before, doesn’t it?

    Are you going to change your headline? Because they were not evicted. So you didn’t tell the truth, did you? Why did you lie about that? What’s terrible for one’s health is lying and being dishonest. Are all of your headlines lies click bait? How sad that you have to lie to get attention. You don’t care about my weekend, that’s just more lies. Fail.

  • Slexie

    Oh BTW, did you change your headline or admit that you lied about the garden being evicted? Because that’s not true. You shouldn’t publish things that aren’t true, that’s not a good thing for an editor. It ruins credibility, I mean if you care about stuff like that.

  • Rigo Amavizca

    how irresponsible you are!!! Nobody was evicted. I have an expectation of accuracy in what is reported.- especially in my own neighborhood.

  • Slexie

    Whelp, it looks like they’re still there, so they never were evicted. Why do you lie like this? They were never evicted and now you look like a terrible reporter with an agenda. You are bad for this neighborhood and I have no idea why you are a writer at all.

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