From empty lots to garden plots

Neng Vang

Photo By Larry Dalton

You can tell a lot about a neighborhood by counting the number of its vacant lots. Neighborhoods that are in trouble, that have high crime and poverty rates, invariably are riddled with abandoned properties that become dumping grounds, crime magnets and a general drag on a community’s spirits. Of course, it’s much easier to count vacant lots than it is to do anything about them. But in a predominately Hmong and Latino section of North Sacramento, near Del Paso Boulevard, citizens are working together to turn one neglected property into a community asset. SN&R spoke with Area Congregations Together (ACT) organizer Neng Vang about Sacramento’s newest community garden.

What was here before the garden?

This used to be an empty lot, full of computer monitors, TVs, appliances, refrigerators.

People were just dumping that stuff here?

Yeah. Even cars. Abandoned cars. Stolen cars.

How long had it been a dumping ground?

For as long as I can remember—at least 15 years.

Whose idea was it to turn it into a garden?

It was the people here, the Hmong and the Spanish folks who wanted to clean up this area. They thought, “Hey, let’s get together and try to clean it up and make it a garden.” For years, we’ve caught a lot of people dumping here. We told them not to, but it has been a persistent problem.

So, what had to be done to make it a garden?

The owner of the property is the man who owns the doughnut shop and the laundromat over there. His name is Boua Kham Nonhprasith. It hasn’t been an easy thing for him to keep people from dumping, as you can see [points to a spot outside the fence where someone has dumped a washing machine]. That wasn’t here on Friday. Someone dumped it over the weekend.

Anyway, he gave us temporary use of the land for three years for the garden. We can negotiate after that, but he doesn’t have any immediate plans for the land. And we help him by keeping it cleaned up.

This garden is part of a larger neighborhood effort to curtail drug use and crime here. We had a big meeting in 2002 with [Sacramento police] Capt. Ricky Jones and [Sacramento City] Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy. We all agreed to work together in this area.

It took about four years to get it done. It was a very long process. Sandy Sheedy really helped by getting a lot of fees waived. She saved us thousands of dollars. The county WIC [Women, Infants and Children, a food-assistance program] paid for the fencing. We now have a monthly meeting with the police to address neighborhood safety issues in the north area.

Who is going to garden here?

There will be about 56 families on about a quarter of an acre. It’s really multicultural. But mostly, it’s Hmong and Spanish, about half and half, from this neighborhood. They are the two largest monolingual groups in this area. The majority of them don’t speak English.

Each plot is owned by one family. And to garden here, you have to have a youngster under the age of 6. Part of our funding, through the WIC program, requires that you have a young child.

It looks ready to plant. What will be grown here?

Yes, you can see the earth is all turned, and there are several raised beds and plots marked off.

For the winter crop, families are planting lettuce, broccoli and bok choy. But for the Hmong folks, it will be primarily mustard greens. You can cook it any way you want. You can fry it, sauté it with oil and stuff. In the spring, you’ll start to see melons, corn, beans.

And does it help with the grocery bill?

To the Hmong and the Spanish, it’s a matter of eating or not eating. They will use everything that is grown here. So, yes, it will really help the families.

Aside from stopping dumping, what good is a garden like this?

It brings people together, the Hmong and the Spanish. Before, the Hmong were saying, “It’s the ‘me,'” you know, it’s the Mexicans. And the Mexicans were saying, “It’s the Hmong; it’s the ‘chino.'” And they were blaming each other for the drugs and other stuff that is happening around here, all of the negative things. But by working together, they begin to see that they have a lot of commonalities.

And it’s really working. We have 30 or 40 people who come out every month. [ACT] provides the translation because, otherwise, the community members wouldn’t be able to communicate because of the language barrier. And one of the things we are seeing at the monthly meetings is that, before, the people in the community were very hesitant to speak out. There was a distrust of the police. But that’s beginning to change.