For the past 15 years the non-profit Proyecto Jardin has been serving the community by creating an urban oasis in what was an empty lot on Bridge St. in Boyle Heights. Over the years, Proyecto Jardin has transformed this plot of land into a community garden blossoming with fruit, herbs, and vegetables, all grown by volunteer community members. After this long stewardship, Proyecto Jardin is being removed from overseeing the garden after the landowner, neighboring White Memorial Medical Center (WMMC), has denied them the option to renew their lease and has ordered them to vacate the garden by January 31.
WMMC had initially offered Proyecto Jardin the option to stay for a final 6 months in 1/3rd of the lot (the other 1/3rd to be used by WMMC’s advertising and marketing department to re-brand the garden, and 1/3rd to be used by 2 unnamed non-profits) as well as instruction how to observe its Sabbath Policy in the garden (WMMC is a Seventh-day Adventist organization).
Proyecto Jardin replied with a counter-offer of sole use for another 5 years without religious restrictions that it believed better served its diverse community of various faiths. Expecting further negotiation from that point, Irene Peña, Proyecto Hardin’s Executive Director, was surprised that the counter-offer was flatly rejected and WMMC gave Proyecto Jardin a 30 day notice to vacate the community garden it has built and called home for the past 15 years.
According to Peña, WMMC will allow the garden to remain, but will take away the community leadership which has been vital to making the community garden what it is today. She is now asking the community’s support and help in getting the word out and mount public pressure on WMMC to change their stance and come to a win-win solution for all parties. On Saturday, January 30, Proyecto Jardin will hold a community gathering from 9am to 3pm.
Peña stresses that Proyecto Jardin has operated the garden with consensus and community building principles in mind and believes this may not be fully understood or appreciated by WMMC. “I think there is a lack of understanding, of awareness about the work that we do,” said Peña. “We’ve tried to explain what a collective is and how communal use of land works, in our unsuccessful attempts and efforts to engage their support…we’ve explained that most of our members work two to three jobs and we don’t have full-time staff other than myself.”
“When you work in community with a lot of people, it takes a period of time to get to know each other and learn how to communicate and share each other’s gifts and talents,” said Peña. “There have been many problems that have been solved by the community here…I think that is not always viewed as an efficient way of running an operation.”
Irene admits there was a 6 month period in 2015 where the garden was left untouched, so much-needed repairs could be done to certain structures. Being a nonprofit volunteer-based operation, projects get started, face delays and get completed as more time and money is available. While this may not appear as efficient as some in the WMMC administration would like, Peña says there are WMMC physicians who valued the garden’s holistic approach and reached out to her about incorporating the garden in their well-being programs for their patients.
On the day we interviewed Peña, the community spirit in the garden was evident…from the tile mosaic walls, welcoming visitors with bright colors and inspirational messages to the many volunteers of all ages on a Saturday.
Emmanuel Nunez from Highland Park became involved a year ago with his interest in learning about herbs for medicinal use and coaxed his mother to join him on the weekends this year. Asked about what the community garden means to him, Nunez says, “It’s an important opportunity to reconnect with Earth and the plants and also for my mom, these type of opportunities are great to branch off…being involved in other communities, you learn about things and learn about other opportunities and you’re more flexible in terms of stress…and people want to help you. I like taking the opportunity to get her involved and get her off the TV.”
As part of a program with nearby Occidental College, there were students diligently working in the garden as part of their MLK Day of Service. Many had worked at other community gardens and felt an instant connection. “It’s stunning…It kind of emanates joy,” said Lauren Breynaert, “You feel at home.”
One older man, Jose Cruz, found out about the garden from a YMCA Wellness Center and travels from his home in East LA to Boyle Heights to be a part of this garden for a year now. “The garden is for the community and it’s for everyone that participates here,” said Cruz. Cruz considers this move by WMMC to be a loss to the community which has worked together to keep the plot alive. “All this time will be gone to waste,” said Cruz.
Irene says that while WMMC promises the garden will remain and people will be allowed to access it, it’s the community trust and spirit that are being broken. “Their rationale, their thinking is that they’re not displacing people, they’re telling our members ‘You don’t have to go, just Proyecto Jardin’,” said Peña, “so it’s created this cognitive dissonance. ‘What do you mean we don’t have to go, just Proyecto Jardin? We are Proyecto Jardin!…I am Proyecto Jardin!’”
It’s taken 15 years for a community to painstakingly transform what was once a blighted lot often used for illegal activity into a community space where people grow healthy, organic food in the middle of lower-income Boyle Heights that is often seen as a food desert. Proyecto Jardin has been home to farmers, artists, and anyone willing to spare their time to volunteer into making this a sustainable community effort. To remove Proyecto Jardin which has invested 15 years of what Peña calls the sweat equity of so many is being seen as a move by WMMC to appropriate the result of the community’s hard work and labor, without consulting with the community.
Many people, such as Edwin Valencia, a financial strategist, have stepped up to help the jardin.
“From a legal standpoint it’s really difficult to do anything, from a financial standpoint it’s really difficult to do anything…I think the next step that needs to happen, from a strategic standpoint, from thinking of this holistically is community involvement,” said Valencia.
Proyecto Jardin has approached WMMC to continue talks and negotiate, but according to Valencia they aren’t budging. “I think the talks at this point are kind of stalled…from my understanding White Memorial doesn’t want to have any kind of dialogue at this point anymore,” said Valencia.
Right now the garden is looking to the community for support in any way they can and in order mobilize as soon as possible. “We’re asking folks in the community to dig down deep into their soul and ask themselves, what is the value of having an empowered community that can identify a problem in their neighborhood and put their muscle to fix it,” said Peña.
Asked why it took Peña so long, just a week from the deadline to go public, Peña says prior to WMMC’s refusal to renew the lease in December, she was warned that if she made the matter public, all options would be off the table. Even after she was given a deadline to vacate by January 31, Peña remained optimistic and hopeful for WMMC to come back to the table in the spirit of community consensus and collaboration that has always been a guiding principle at Proyecto Jardin.
We reached out to both WMMC and Councilman Jose Huizar‘s office, who Peña says has been a supportive mediator, to give all parties a chance to respond. Repeated messages to Huizar’s Communications Director were not returned and until a WMMC representative is available for a direct interview, Alicia Gonzalez from WMMC provided the following statement:
“White Memorial Medical Center has a long standing tradition of investing in and supporting the community which its serves. We firmly believe our commitment and investment in the community goes beyond providing quality and award winning healthcare services.
In keeping with that tradition, Proyecto Jardin was founded 15 years ago by a White Memorial Medical Center (WMMC) physician who had a vision of bringing the healthful benefits of gardening to our community. WMMC has supported our community garden since its inception and will continue to do so moving forward. More recently, Proyecto Jardin has operated as a Permit Project under its fiscal sponsor, Community Partners, which was provided a no-cost lease for the garden by WMMC. Proyecto Jardin, which operated as a fiscally sponsored project of Community Partners, elected not to renew its lease, which subsequently expired on December 31, 2015 and Community Partners elected to terminate its relationship with Proyecto Jardin.
We are committed to supporting the creation of a thriving, inclusive community garden to provide fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs and educational programming on an on-going basis. We thank Proyecto Jardin for all the good work they have done in caring for the garden to this point; however, we believe the time is right to expand the program under a partnership with two outstanding organizations with extensive experience in community gardening and good nutrition education. The garden will remain open and expand its access to include the additional community partners. WMMC firmly believes in the spirit of the thriving community garden, and we look forward to continuing to work with the existing families and volunteers who currently tend to the garden to ensure a smooth and collaborative transition as we expand and improve the community garden program.”
Peña says the lease that Proyecto Jardin elected not to renew is the lease that stipulated they could only use 1/3 of the garden for 6 more months. Peña says there was no other lease WMMC offered that would have allowed Proyecto Jardin to continue overseeing the garden as it has the last 15 years and they used her refusal to sign that lease and their rejection of her counter-offer to take over the community garden against the wishes of the community that uses the garden. [More on this story as it develops….]
[Edited Jan 28, 2016: Full Disclosure: While Oscar Bautista and Tom Nguyen, EnClave LA’s founder/editor, had not been to the garden nor met Irene Peña in person before this interview, Tom has supported Proyecto Jardin in the past by donating to one of their fundraisers, as he does with many Boyle Heights non-profit and activist organizations as a Boyle Heights resident.]