With vandalism and a shrinking garden, Beach Flats residents feel neglected
A parade of community members donning green T-shirts inscribed with “Save the Garden”/”Guarde el Jardín” crowded a community room for a meeting to discuss the fate of the Beach Flats Community Garden. Available chairs accommodated about half of the community members present, while the rest lined the walls. What the city anticipated to be a one-hour meeting carried on for more than three hours.
The meeting was the first of its kind to discuss the new face of the garden after the gardeners were issued notice in March that this season would be their last. The Santa Cruz Seaside Company—which owns the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the land on which the garden has been for 20 years—has announced that it will be reclaiming the land for its own “agricultural and landscaping purposes” next month.
Members of the Beach Flats community, which is predominantly Latino and low-income, say they have felt disrespected in general lately, and that goes beyond the garden or the Seaside Company. Two months ago, for instance, the city admitted it hadn’t done proper outreach before whitewashing a community mural in Beach Flats Park on Raymond Street, and issued an apology. Since then, two separate murals, also in the park, were hit by vandalism.
To keep the community garden growing, city officials began work on a short-term solution, which they revealed to 70-plus community members at the Sept. 28 meeting. The city’s proposal is about a quarter of the size of the current half-acre garden and occupies two plots of the current garden and part of the adjacent Poet’s Park.
Disappointed by the new plan, community members, speaking passionately about the garden’s importance, urged city officials to work in any way possible to keep it intact.
“Let’s remember why we started it,” says Marciano Cruz, who lived in the Beach Flats when the garden was begun 20 years ago. “We created a garden because [that lot] was full of graffiti, trash, prostituting, drug dealing. They used to burn cars there. We cleaned it up.”
He added that Beach Flats residents feel the brunt of the Boardwalk’s tourism and that the garden provides a sanctuary from that impact. “Everything in the Beach Flats is for everyone else, for everyone from the outside,” he says. “But the garden is for all of us.”
Many community members pointed out that the Seaside Company owns other parcels of land and urged city officials to work with them to find another piece of land to build a garden. Boardwalk spokesperson Kris Reyes tells GT that the Seaside Company chose the two parcels it did for the next community garden because they are on either side of Poet’s Park—creating the best opportunity for one shared gardening area. “These parcels all line up, and are in a straight line,” Reyes says. “The idea is that all three parcels can be paired to make a contiguous space.”
Organizers presented a petition with more than 2,100 signatures, calling on the city and the Seaside Company to work together to save the garden.
Mayor Don Lane was sympathetic to the residents and said that he’s already “had several talks with the Seaside Company, saying ‘we don’t think it’s a good idea,’” but he says the company has given him a “clear no.”
Instead, city officials opted to put forward their interim plan. At the meeting, Lane, along with Councilmember Micah Posner, urged people to put a resolution forward that would support the city’s creation of a permanent Beach Flats Garden on city land, which would give the council an opportunity to weigh in on the issue as a whole.
Additionally, Councilmember Richelle Noroyan pledged support at the meeting, as did Councilmember Cynthia Chase, who was able to arrange a future meeting between the Seaside Company, city officials and a delegation of community members. This will be the first time the Seaside Company has spoken with gardeners.
The impending shutdown of the garden comes amid the loss of community cornerstones in Beach Flats. In June, the city painted over a Beach Flats mural that depicts scenes of local Latino activism and daily life. In 2013, the city flagged the mural as deteriorating and in need of repair. They hired Live Oak artist Mariah Roberts, who engaged in a restoration process with about 100 residents.
But some community members, as well as the mural’s original artist Victor Cervantes, were shocked when it was painted over. Since then, the city has offered an apology, expressing their “deepest regrets” about the artwork, and has settled with Cervantes for $30,000. The mural is still a blank white slate, and the community is now engaged in a process to repaint it.
More recently, on the weekend of Sept. 12, community members awoke to discover two Beach Flats murals and several signs had been vandalized. The vandals painted over the murals and signs with red and black paint. Beach Flats community members are decrying the vandalism as an act of intolerance and racism. There is no suspect yet, but police are investigating the act, saying in a statement that vandalism “will not be tolerated in our community.”
Lane and other city officials held a separate community meeting last month to discuss the vandalism. The city issued a permit to community members to repaint the signs and murals. On Sept. 18-20, community members, kids and the original artist, Cervantes, repainted the damaged murals and signs.
In the meeting about the garden, Lane pledged support to the Beach Flats Community and referred to the vandalism as “a lightbulb going off that we haven’t been paying enough attention.”
TAKING STALK Emilio Martinez Castenera, who has gardened in the Beach Flats since 1992, cuts what’s left of one last corn harvest. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER