Social documentarian Michelle E. Aguilar was in the middle of an MFA program at UCSC and looking for a new subject for a film when she was approached by Monika Egerer, a grad student in the school’s environmental studies department. It was 2015, and Egerer was conducting research in the Beach Flats Community Garden, also known as El Jardín de la Comunidad de la Playa. The 20-year-old communal green space, she told Aguilar, was in jeopardy.
The concept drew Aguilar in, the filmmaker remembers, because the story was happening right in that moment. Also, the garden, which is owned by the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, fascinated her.
“There are a lot of community gardens in Santa Cruz, but this one is so incredibly unique,” she says. “The way that they grow, and their farming techniques and traditions, the heirloom seeds they’ve brought from El Salvador and Guatemala and Mexico—what they’re growing there is not like anything I’ve seen anywhere north of the border.”
The Seaside Company, which owns and operates the Beach Boardwalk, signaled in 2015 that it planned to take back the land and use it for its own landscaping purposes. Between July 2015 and April 2016, Aguilar captured more than 300 hours of footage as the story unfolded—documenting coalition meetings, City Council meetings, fundraisers, marches, and the seasonal rhythms of the garden itself.
The hardest part, she says, was staying behind the camera.
“While I was filming, I just wanted to help,” she says. “I knew I was capturing footage to create this documentary that would eventually help down the road, but at the time everything felt so dire. I was capturing all this footage that was so emotional, showing how important the space was, but I really wanted to be able to do something at that time.”
Once she saw the community rallying around the gardeners, Aguilar says she felt better about her documentarian role and more confident that her work could help in the long run.
Through an outpouring of community support, protest and negotiations, the garden was partially saved from the Seaside Company’s bulldozers with a three-year lease, which that Seaside and the city agreed to extend last year. Aguilar’s short documentary No Place To Grow premiered Thursday, Sept. 19 at the Museum of Art and History, with about 75 people crowding into a small room to attend the event.
After the film, audience members talked about protecting the garden for the long-term, with some suggesting aggressive tactics, like pressuring City Council to use eminent domain to force a sale of the property. Others wanted to start a fund for the purchase of that or another property. Some asked supporters to sign a petition supporting the garden.
Aguilar said she hopes the film will keep the conversation going in the Beach Flats and beyond. “Other communities are dealing with similar issues of gentrification and land rights and green space and food sovereignty,” she said. “This isn’t unique to just the Beach Flats.”
The Beach Flats Community Garden agreement will be up for another renewal at the end of the year 2021.
Seaside Company spokesperson Kris Reyes tells GT via email that his employer is “open and willing to extending the existing lease.”
For more than 20 years now, the Beach Flats Community Garden has been a haven for residents of the predominantly low-income neighborhood that sits in the Boardwalk’s shadow.
In 1994, a few residents of the Beach Flats neighborhood began growing food in a vacant lot that until then had sprouted only graffiti, trash and burnt-out cars.
The Santa Cruz Department of Parks and Recreation rented the half-acre property on behalf of the gardeners, signing a year-to-year lease for the cost of the property tax with the Seaside Company. The intention was originally to find a permanent home for the garden, but land in the Beach Flats is scarce, and the garden stayed put.
Over the next two decades, El Jardín de la Comunidad de la Playa grew into a sanctuary of tranquility in a sea of concrete, traffic and rollercoaster screams. The gardeners planted corn, beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, chayote, marigolds, cactus, fruit trees and more, helping to feed a community that often struggles to afford basic necessities.
“The community really relied on the space for nutrition and organic food,” said Aguilar. “There’s really no other green space in the Beach Flats community. It’s a half-acre garden surrounded by concrete. One of the subjects of the film called it an island.”
The film offers a glimpse into the effort to save the garden, focusing mainly on Emilio Martinez Casteñeda, who worked in the garden nearly every day for 20 years.
In interviews and at tense City Council meetings, the documentary shows the grief of the gardeners pondering what the loss of the space would mean for the Beach Flats community.
At one meeting captured in the film, supporter Chris Cuadrado says, “In fighting for this, we’re not just fighting for this specific garden, we’re fighting to preserve an infrastructure of resources that are for the Latino community here in Santa Cruz.”
As it wraps up, the film documents a bittersweet agreement to continue the lease on 60% of the land, and the contentious work of tearing out and reorganizing garden plots. The film ends—on a cautiously optimistic note—with Casteñeda planting a new crop of corn.
Aguilar is fundraising to pay off the film’s post-production costs. She plans on submitting it to festivals and releasing it for educational distribution to universities, libraries and the internet.
City Manager Martín Bernal says that the struggle over the garden is only one component in the broader aim of improving livability for Santa Cruz’s working people.
In 2018, when the lease came up for renewal again, Bernal went down to the garden to help translate and to answer questions. He says that most of the people he met were more concerned about the cost of housing than the actual garden.
“They were mostly interested in getting assistance or had concerns about their housing situation,” he says. “That was at the top of their list of issues and concerns. The garden was a part of that, obviously, but I think for them, what good is a garden if they’re not going to be able to continue to live there?”
Last year, some councilmembers wanted city staff to focus on doing whatever they could to preserve the garden, while others supported a more holistic approach to address affordable housing and the community’s wider needs. Bernal says that, for example, the city could stipulate that new developments in that area include community garden space.
The current lease on the Beach Flats Community Garden ends on Dec. 31, 2021. But Reyes, the Seaside Company spokesperson, says in an email that the current agreement has worked out well. At this point, there is “nothing to negotiate,” he says.
“The existing garden is a beautiful community space,” he writes. “We are proud to have played a role in contributing to this space for over 20 years. And we want to do our part so the garden can continue to thrive.”
For more information on the garden, visit beachflatsgarden.org. The Beach Flats Garden Harvest Festival will be Sunday, Oct. 6 from 12-5pm.