Andromeda Brooks is changing the way we look at vacant lots.
Tired of staring at the litter outside her window, Brooks decided to turn a blighted lot at Chanslor Avenue and First Street into an experiment in urban agriculture.
“I’m gonna put food on the corner instead of drugs,” Brooks said.
Starting the project solely on her own, Brooks turned a 14,000-square-foot lot full of weeds and debris into a thriving farm growing two dozen varieties of fruits and vegetables, a multitude of chickens and ducks, three rabbits, and even a quail.
She calls it the “Happy Lot Farm and Garden.” The enterprise has continued to grow and with it so has the surrounding neighborhood.
Brooks’ farm transformed a space previously used for loitering and illegal dumping into a source of healthy food for the neighborhood. Brooks gives away most of the produce to community volunteers, random passersby—and even the occasional driver who leaves a car door unlocked.
Community members help during monthly volunteer days. People have dug holes, planted seedlings, mucked out the chicken coop and built a pergola for the grapevines.
Karen Earby, a veteran Happy Lot volunteer, has been coming out to the farm for nearly three years.
“I don’t normally work with my hands,” she said. “I’m in finance. So to come out here and do something with my hands, it’s rewarding. It just makes you feel good.”
Nonprofit groups are reaching out to Brooks, offering volunteers and services. Most recently, a mothers’ organization, Jack and Jill of America, came out for volunteer day in November.
“We’ve had a great time—the kids are really enjoying the hands-on opportunity to be in the garden or actually working with the farm animals,” said Karla Fields, a member of the Jack and Jill group.
Nearly 30 moms, dads and children converged on the farm for the latest volunteer day. After a brief introduction and rundown of the farm rules, Brooks split everyone into groups and sent them off to their tasks.
Easily the most enjoyable task of the day was mixing new adobe clay to repair a section of the garden’s greenhouse. Children sat around a large trough filled with a mixture of mud, hay and water. Eight kids got to throw dirt-free standards to the wind and dug in for some good old-fashioned mud-pie-making. By the time they had finished, each one of them came away with mud splattered up to their elbows and smiles plastered across their faces.
It all sprouted from a plan Brooks started drawing up five years ago. Every detail of the future garden went into her early sketches, which showed where each planter bed would go, the placement of a driveway, even the heights of plants, so she would be able to see all the way across the garden from her house.
“Growing has always been a part of me,” Brooks said. “I guess in hindsight, working on that piece of paper, it’s always been in me.”
She recalled hours as a child running barefoot through her parents’ gardens growing up in San Bruno. Some of her earliest memories are of chickens. After her family moved to Vallejo, she had a whole backyard lined with fruit trees.
Now, her lifelong love of playing in the dirt has begun to change her neighborhood.
Not much dumping and loitering happens when Brooks is outside in her garden. If she suspects someone might be up to no good she may well enlist their help to work in the garden.
She dreams of expanding.
“It would be nice if it could be like a community-supported grocery store,” Brooks said, “where anybody and everybody can come and buy our food.”
Brooks wants the farm to sustain itself someday on its own resources. Already, she is part way there, using the greens from the garden to feed her rabbits and chickens, and in turn using their waste for fertilizer.
Nearly everything that went into building Happy Lot Farm was donated or built with reclaimed materials. Even the dirt for the driveway was donated by a Richmond supporter.
Her adobe greenhouse was built by Massey Bourke, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco. The 12-foot structure is made entirely out of recycled and reclaimed materials, even down to the clay soil that makes up its walls.
The greenhouse started from a piece of glass Brooks’ parents had given her from a sliding door.
Soil from her parents’ backyard in Solano County make up the walls. The roof panels are made from reclaimed shower door panels. The wooden structure of the roof is made of leftover deck material. Hundred-year-old handmade glass windows comprise part of the back wall, obtained from a family home in Oakland that was being demolished.
The striking chevron-patterned shed door, made from former fencing material, was designed and constructed by a group of students from Marin College. Colorful glass reclaimed bottles, stacked in the curving pattern of a leaf, are embedded in the walls on either side of the greenhouse. Rays of blue, green and yellow light beam through the bottles.
“The greenhouse has been essential here on the farm,” Brooks said. Having the ability to germinate her own seedlings and work year-round allows her to give more plants away while still maintaining a supply for the garden.
Brooks doesn’t worry about end-of-year produce tallies, or how many hours of work she puts in each week. Her big concern, she said, is to educate people about their food.