part 5: “new food options”

The Last Flower Children Guard San Francisco’s Most Secret Garden


+ go back to part 4

Perhaps the closest anyone came to a deal for the greenhouse is an effort organized by Isabel Wade, David Gabriner and Juan Carlos Cancino to bring back the nursery as a farm for growing edible food.

Wade, former director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, had been one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of urban agriculture in the United States. City farming is vogue now, when “slow food” packs restaurant openings, young professionals grow vegetables on their rooftops and sustainability has become a keyword for economists as much as environmentalists. San Francisco’s Public Library even chose Novella Carpenter’s Farm City for its 2010 summer reading club. But Wade began her doctoral dissertation on the potential for cities to produce intensive amounts of food in the mid-1970s, founded California’s Urban Forestry Program in 1977, then started Urban Resource Systems, her self-sufficiency non-profit, in 1981.

“It was obvious if you look at the demographics, we’re all going to be living in cities in the future,” Wade said. “If you did not get city dwellers involved in their environment you aren’t going to make an impact.”

In the 1980s Wade studied urban growing practices in the Third World, where cities are sometimes net food producers, not consumers, because many people are so poor they can’t go shopping. “We have to move from the gardening mode to real food production,” Wade said. “When times get tough people can go to their backyard.”

When she returned to San Francisco, though, Wade found it hard to mobilize people around the concept. Wade founded the Neighborhood Parks Council in 1996, she said, because getting money for parks was an issue that could move people politically and, after all, “parks are an essential part of the urban environment.”

Meanwhile Gabriner, now a Berkeley firefighter, was a film student at San Francisco State when he stumbled upon the derelict Portola nurseries while riding his bicycle. More of the neighborhood’s greenhouses were still around back then, though all had long since gone inactive. Gabriner compiled historical records and ended up shooting a small documentary on the subject for his final thesis.

Unfortunately, Gabriner said, his professor kept the only copy of that tape, moved to a position at a school elsewhere and the two have never been in contact since.

Years later Gabriner had gotten involved with green living and noticed University Mound Nursery had become the last remaining greenhouse site. “I thought — not that there’s anything wrong with housing — but it is an interesting site as an urban ag site. It’s clearly a large space by urban standards,” Gabriner said. “No one comes across a whole block anymore.”

Gabriner enlisted his friend Juan Carlos Cancino, then a Stanford law student. Cancino looked at how the former San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners had enrolled at-risk kids in programs that gave them structured activities, taught them horticulture and showed them how to eat healthy. Started in 1995, SLUG had provided jobs and job-training, not to mention actual food supplied by dozens of community gardens.

SLUG dissolved in a corruption scandal, but Gabriner saw its edibles program as a model for very intensive community food production.

“Even in a very dense city like San Francisco you can be producing food,” Gabriner said.

Gabriner and Cancino reached out to Wade’s Urban Resource Systems and, energized by this chance for a demonstration site for her city farming ideas, Wade marshaled her experience as a liaison in support of the project.

“It became a conversation about how to turn this into a reality,” Gabriner said.

The group approached Mary Garibaldi, Steve’s widow, with their proposal. Mary seemed to be a roadblock, at least if University Mound Nursery was going to be the target location. But Gabriner and Cancino created a plan to rebuild the nursery as an homage to the neighborhood.

“We were creating a discussion about the past, present and future of greenhouses,” Wade said. “And where they fit in the urban environment.”

After several months and meetings, according to Wade, the groups seemed to be getting closer. Gabriner launched a web site ( Then Mary Garibaldi died. The Garibaldi family tightened. Talks broke down.

And that was that.

Except that the District 10 supervisor seat changes hands this year, and a segment of the campaign dialog has shaped itself around what candidate Steve Moss called “launching pads for environmentally sustainable growth.” Several contenders said they had been keeping track of the greenhouse revitalization scheme, and word of Isabel Wade’s involvement seemed to circulate alertness among a handful of other neighborhood observers.

Tony Kelly, president of the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association, has emphasized job creation in the district during his supervisor campaign, and said he sees the shuttered nursery like any other empty storefront or vacant industrial building.

“For all this talk about the green economy, [urban agriculture projects] are the greenest jobs there are,” Kelly said. “You don’t need a college education, you don’t need much training. If you want to get jobs fast, that’s one of the quickest ways to do that.”

Self-described “biodiesel activist” Eric Smith, another candidate, agreed that local jobs were a priority, but for the University Mound Nursery site he prefers an idea he got from Global Exchange director Kevin Danaher’s plan for a facility elsewhere that would make compostable containers and recycle plastic bags. “Whatever goes there has to be able to pay for itself and then some,” Smith said.

“A lot of politics starts out of the way we tell stories about ourselves, the way we talk about our communities. Part of the narrative of District 10 is that it has problems,” said Moss, who publishes the Potrero View. “That may be true but the real story of this neighborhood is the history of how productive it was in making the city vital, and contributing to the city’s livelihood. All these derelict sites that used to play a role in the community really have a positive side in that they are opportunities that these places could be turned into a solution for the community’s problems.”

(Other District 10 candidates either declined to comment on the Portola greenhouse or did not return telephone calls. Greg Holloway, campaign manager for realtor Diane Wesley Smith, said in a voicemail: “We do believe in the aesthetic beauty being maintained in District 10 and that all property owners should in fact do that.”)

[Update: Malia Cohen won the District 10 supervisor’s election in November 2010, with about 12 percent of the popular vote on a ranked-choice ballot. She became vice-chair of the Land Use and Economic Development Committee.]

There are 51 community gardens in San Francisco according to the SF Garden Resource Organization. Nine of them are in District 10, including Double Rock Garden near Alice Griffith Public Housing, formerly a province of SLUG and one of the largest farming plots in the city.

Even so, a 2008 Chronicle article cited a Southeast Food Access Group study that found 94 percent of Bayview residents said they would support “new food options” in the area and more than half preferred pesticide-free food from local farms. The same article pointed out there are only two grocery stores on the heavily-trafficked Third Street corridor, while the study confirmed that District 10 loses millions of local dollars annually from residents shopping for food in other neighborhoods.

“Not everybody has a garden, and even if they do they may not have the time and the inclination,” said Ruth Wallace, a Portola resident who runs a backyard garden tour in the neighborhood. “So fresh fruit locally grown and vegetables would be a good thing.”

Wallace said she eats out of her own garden year-round. She listed lettuce, radishes, potatoes, carrots and beets as crops Portola’s climate can support at any time. And in the spring and summer, she said: peas, tomatoes, artichokes, mustard, garlic, lemons, strawberries and raspberries.

“Because we’re on an eastern facing slope and because we’re below the fog line we can grow pretty much anything,” Wallace said.

“If you grow Belgian endives or some small crops,” Global Exchange’s Kevin Danaher said, “you could actually make money.”

Chris Burley, co-director of Hayes Valley Farm, a volunteer community growing project on the site of the former Highway 101 on-off ramp at Fell and Laguna, said there was plenty chance a full-time produce nursery could indeed create jobs.

“It depends on one million factors, such as crop, farming technique, etc., etc.,” Burley said. “What the urban ag movement needs is a large greenhouse to produce starts at a cheap price. Especially vegetable starts that are cultivars that do well in San Francisco’s 17 microclimates.”

continue to part 6 +

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