When it started, it was just a parking lot for the employees of the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant at 17th and Valencia. As staff at the plant began to dwindle, nearby residents began to garden there, with, they claimed, the permission of the staff. It was the seventies. As a story, it seems true enough.
Certainly, when Pepsi sold the plant’s land to the city (the Mission Police station now stands there) the parking lot was donated to the recently formed San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (aka SLUG) with the stipulation that it always be kept as open space.
When the organization had to hand it over to the city Tuesday the garden’s keepers lined up at the microphone at a meeting of the Land Use and Economic Development Committee to ask the city to hold to the garden’s ideals.
“Dearborn garden is our backyard,” said Rob Geller to the assembled crowd and group of seated supervisors. “It teaches the relationship between nurturing a project, and the eventual results. My kids have become the little horticultural experts of their school. Which I am proud of.”
A man asked the city not to build condominiums on the site because the view of the garden out his window was the only thing keeping him in San Francisco. A woman asked the city to take good care of the plot because of its ability to produce exceptionally good collard greens. The entire meeting began to feel like one great mash note to dirt, and growing things in it.
But, it was an end to a long arrangement and lots of Mission history.
SLUG was a nonprofit of convenience, formed more or less with the purpose of accessing leftover federal HUD money that community gardens were unable to spend after state budget cuts eliminated the agencies that had once dispensed it. The former parking lot on Dearborn Street became the first, and only, piece of property that the organization owned. They named it the Dearborn Community Garden.
SLUG got big. It began to get substantial grants to run job-training programs for the city. By 2000 it had a budget of more than $2 million per year. It managed a full-time staff of 30, and employed the people enrolled in its job-training programs in 40 gardens around the city and at a 4-acre organic farm in Bernal Heights.
Then came the scandal. Mohammed Nuru, at various points both the director of SLUG and the second of command at the city’s Department of Public Works was the focus of an expose by the San Francisco Chronicle. Among the claims: funds used to dubious ends, and employees paid to canvass for mayor Willie Brown’s reelection campaign. A subsequent article by the San Francisco Bay Guardian pointed out that, according to the limited information available, only 32% of the people who began job training actually completed it. Those who did were funneled into jobs so low-paying that they still qualified for welfare.
An investigation by the City Attorney’s Office substantiated the charges and barred SLUG from doing business with the city.
SLUG remained in legal limbo, laden with debts that it cannot pay. But through all this Dearborn Community Garden continued to silently flourish. It now has one of the longest waitlists in the country, according to Marko Serpas, who has had a garden there for years. “We had an actuary do the math,” says Serpas. “And the people at the bottom will wait an estimated 21 years to get in.”
In 2002, a group of gardeners- including Pam Peirce, once SLUG’s founder – accidentally found out that the garden was on the auction block: SLUG had never finished the paperwork to transfer the title to itself. They organized, collected the money to pay off the $14,000 in unpaid back taxes, and began to look into transferring the park over to the City of San Francisco. They’ve continued to pay around $800 in yearly taxes on the project in order to keep it from being sold to a developer, but they’ve also worried that the garden could be seized and sold to pay off debts that SLUG still owes.
Tuesday’s meeting appeared to settle all of that.
It was decided that Dearborn garden be handed over to the city. At 1:35, more or less, the gavel went down and the garden officially became a part of the city’s landholdings. Sighs of relief were heard in the courtroom.
The garden, visited briefly on the path home, offered up no comment. It did, however, appear to be growing some fine-looking artichokes.