Mandella’s last spring

As the embattled community garden enters its final growing season, some refuse to give up the fight

Chris Ruch just planted a garden in Mandella for the first and maybe the last time.

Chris Ruch just planted a garden in Mandella for the first and maybe the last time.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Take a look! If you’d like to see more community gardens in Sacramento, be sure to look for the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition booth at Sac State’s Earth Day festivities this weekend.

Walk through the gate at the Mandella Community Garden and the first thing you’ll notice is the sweet smell of orange blossoms. That sweetness can only mean one thing: it’s spring, the beginning of what’s likely to be the final growing season for many Mandella gardeners.

For one hopeful gardener, it could be his only season, although that isn’t something he’s willing to concede.

Amid the yellow calendulas, fragrant rosemary and a riot of scrambling vegetables sits Chris Ruch’s labor of love. As he surveys his hard work, his thoughts are bittersweet—just as his plot is coming to life, most people would say the garden is doomed.

Call it denial or hope, but he isn’t fazed. For Ruch, the best way to keep the garden alive is to commit himself to this land, whatever its fate, a fate that he says is about so much more than just a bunch of gardeners who want to grow flowers and vegetables.

Planting the seed
For Ruch—a 24-year-old substitute teacher for Sacramento City Unified School District—an average day at the garden is rich with experiences. He chats about lima beans with a Damascus native, grows food for the homeless, learns about composting and whether the use of garlic and onions will help keep his garden pest-free.

It’s a wild place in the middle of concrete where people readily share anything from seeds to ideas, where children are safe to run free and people can congregate without having to spend money. He sees it as a model for what a community can be.

“It’s the only place in Sacramento where I’ve seen a homeless person and a middle-class citizen smile at each other and say ‘hi,’ ” Ruch says. “I think it gives people a good feeling just to know it’s there, whether or not they garden.”

But 60 percent of the garden, including Ruch’s plot, is scheduled to be ripped up by next spring. In its place the Capital Area Development Authority (CADA) wants Portland developer Homer Williams to proceed with plans for the Freemont Mews Development, a mixed-use housing complex.

Beyond composting and lima beans, the garden also has given Ruch a load of real-life lessons in land use, urban politics and the priorities a city sets every time it decides what to allow on a piece of land.

Ruch is new to Sacramento and the Mandella Garden, not to mention the long-standing controversy surrounding the land. He moved to downtown Sacramento in January to enroll in a teaching credential program. Around that time, he was riding his bike home from work, when he spotted the garden.

“I saw the signs that the garden was threatened, but I couldn’t imagine they would really tear something like this down,” he says. “Especially when I read that the mayor was in favor of it.”

Soon thereafter, Ruch rented a plot and grew increasingly involved in efforts to save the garden, joining dozens of others who have fought the war for many years.

The big city
Having spent his entire life in either the sprawling suburbs of Orange County or comparatively small places like Tacoma, Washington, and Santa Rosa, Ruch worried that Sacramento would be too much city for him. One of his main concerns was finding a place to garden within walking distance—no small challenge for anyone who has lived in an apartment and yearned for a small patch of green.

“Gardening is as close to nature as you can get in a city environment,” said Chris.

While living in Santa Rosa, Chris turned a trashed alleyway behind his house into a garden wild with herbs and vegetables. Neighbors came by to thank him for adding some beauty to the neighborhood.

“It was something I could do—something I like to do—to make my community a little nicer.”

Today he would love to use community gardens like Mandella to help children better understand their world. While teaching a first-grade class at John Cabrillo Elementary School, Ruch sees firsthand the limits of traditional education.

As the day nears its end, bored children flop in their seats while fading in and out of the lesson. The classroom is hot and landscaping equipment buzzes outside the window. Ruch walks through the room, tapping on notebooks, quietly encouraging stragglers to pay attention. A couple of the students refuse to participate despite Ruch’s guidance. These are the kids, he explains, who would benefit from an alternative setting like a garden.

“So many kids are overstimulated in traditional classrooms,” he says. “Gardens like the Mandella could host after-school programs where kids could learn about science and ecology firsthand. Or they could just have a quiet place to listen to birds and smell the smells. Just imagine all we could be accomplishing if we weren’t so busy fighting for the garden’s survival.”

Gardening community
Ruch’s plot is among the neatest in Mandella, featuring mounded rows of peas, garlic, flowers and herbs. He’s adopted a few abandoned plants and started everything else from seed. Four times a week, he spends one to two hours tending his plot, as well as the garden for Food Not Bombs, a nonprofit that provides food for the homeless and hungry in the Sacramento area. Walking through the garden, he points out their plot, where all of the food grown goes to the group’s cause. He’s added a few more vegetables to the plot and carved a couple of raised rows separated by foot-deep trenches.

Later, a young child runs by with a mini shovel, shoes dirty, hair tousled. Ruch watches the little boy for a few seconds. “Once you see a child play, you understand that the garden is not just for the gardeners,” he says.

Sitting in one of the garden’s focal points—a grouping of handmade wooden benches surrounding a fire pit—Ruch and others list the many benefits the garden brings to the community: composting and organic gardening classes, green space for a nearby preschool, a venue for seasonal celebrations and the second largest oxygen-producing site downtown, to name a few. These are the tangible benefits. Yet perhaps more powerful are the intangibles Mandella offers: an environment where a person’s demographic doesn’t matter; a place where people cooperate and make things work without laws or bureaucracy; a little piece of anarchy that breathes life into our city.

“There is such an opportunity, not only with this, but in all areas of open space, to understand how your actions fit in with the greater environment,” says Dave Shorey, central city representative for the citizens advisory committee to the Department of Parks and Recreation. “That kind of opportunity to build a greater sense of community is lost every time we destroy something like this.”

The question for many, however, is whether the benefits of a garden untouched outweigh downtown’s growing need for housing. Unlike most community gardens, the Mandella Garden sits on state-owned land, and CADA’s mission is to redevelop vacant lots.

CADA’s executive director, John Dangberg, thinks the Freemont Mews proposal has provided the best possible compromise by incorporating 40 percent of the garden into the housing development and providing an alternate site at 5th and W streets to replace the remaining 60 percent.

“We’ve come as far as providing 100 percent mitigation on the garden space. There has never been one millimeter of movement on their part,” says Dangberg, adding the gardeners are fighting for their “own little personal uses.” He and Mandella supporters differ on what’s in the interest of the greater community.

“We wouldn’t have the moral authority to fight for this garden if it wasn’t what people wanted,” says Evan Tucker, a Mandella Garden board member. According to Tucker, hundreds have shown up in support of the garden at City Council and neighborhood meetings, only to have their wishes ignored or diluted by bureaucratic compromises.

But these things don’t happen in a vacuum, says CADA’s Dangberg. “This project follows decades of planning and efforts. I don’t think I’m stretching it to say that we’ve had hundreds of meetings with the community about housing. We have a clear mandate for housing.”

Uprooting the garden
Most of the current gardeners say they cannot imagine moving from a 30-year-old organic garden to a “toxic pit” across the street from the Business 80 and Interstate 5 interchange. Seen through their eyes, the discontent is understandable. On one hand, you’ve got a mature garden with dozens of fruit trees, a central location and history.

At 5th and W, you’ve got environmental cleanup, the roar of freeway traffic and a vacant lot. Despite the Southside Neighborhood Association’s enthusiasm about a neighborhood garden and CADA’s promise to replace the top 18 inches of the new site’s soil with original Mandella soil, the deal is small consolation for the gardeners, on both a political and philosophical level.

“The Mandella Garden is an obvious metaphor for urban politics and land use,” says Tucker. “This is about priorities. You can’t realize it’s a priority after it’s destroyed.”

Yet to many observers, the vocal Mandella gardeners ought to be thankful for the concessions they’ve won. “I think this could have been a lot uglier,” says Bob Waste, professor of urban policy at California State University, Sacramento. “It’s not perfect, but two gardens is better than a concrete cap and no garden any day.”

That’s small consolation to those who decry Sacramento’s lack of open space. In 1999, downtown Sacramento was short 55 acres of green space, according to National Recreation and Parks Association standards. That deficit is expected to rise to 167 acres by 2015, the size of almost five McKinley Parks.

“City Council and CADA want to see the central city developed,” says Shorey. “They want an active downtown, houses built on vacant lots, a revitalized K Street, but I think they’re relying too much on the building of buildings and not enough on recreational opportunities and green space.”

A final season
At home, Ruch leans against his kitchen counter and smiles while discussing the garden’s fate. He’s not discouraged by talk that the garden is doomed. Sure, the conceptual approvals are finalized. But the project must still get its design approved, the official property transfer and subsidies still haven’t been finalized, misfortune could befall the development company and even a lawsuit is always possible. Until it’s over, Ruch says, it’s not over.

“I’m not giving up hope in it,” Ruch says. “A lot of people see it as a done deal, and that’s what’s going to put the final nails in it.”

So Ruch tends his garden, talks with community members and writes to local and state officials. He knows it’s an uphill battle but truly believes that if more people, including the City Council, looked deeply enough into this issue, the garden would survive.

“It’s the same idea as voting for the third party guy,” says Ruch. “Things don’t happen when people assume it’s a done deal. For me the victory is in the effort.”

It’s a lovely time of year at Mandella Community Garden, with its crunchy wood-chip path, the house made of grapevines, the charming chaos of vegetables, homemade trellises and each gardener’s unique mark. And for Ruch, every effort to nurture his garden is a step closer to creating the world he seeks.