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North Richmond project transforms gardens — and gardeners, too

on November 20, 2014

Kids with trowels dug holes into colorful raised beds for collard greens starts. Two guys, sweaty from the effort, hacked at tangled blackberry vines and tall grass, rolling the mass into a large bundle and heaving it across the garden onto a pile. Some older folks with shovels dug moats around fruit tree saplings, telling jokes in Spanish.

The Davis Chapel community garden in North Richmond didn’t always look like this: twenty members of the community planting and digging in the angled November sunlight.

“You probably couldn’t even find the gate two years ago,” said Thomas Jackson with a laugh. Jackson is a Davis Chapel volunteer who comes to the garden every two weeks to, “keep everything afloat.”

Over the last year, Davis Chapel— a Methodist church on Chelsey Ave and 4th in the heart of North Richmond— partnered with Urban Tilth to develop and revitalize the garden.

Urban Tilth is a nonprofit that runs 13 school and community gardens around Richmond and North Richmond.

“The collaboration between Urban Tilth and Davis Chapel is so great because we want the spaces we work on to be open to the community,” said Tania Pulido, Urban Tilth Community Engagement Manager.

Both groups were successful with grassroots outreach leading up to the event: they passed out flyers in the immediate neighborhood. Jackson said the turnout on Saturday was the largest— about twenty people— and the most diverse he had seen at the community garden.

The garden’s recent revitalization seemed to be taking root in the bedrock of the neighborhood.

Jorge Hernandez lifted his shirt to reveal three large scars running the length of his left ribcage towards his heart. He had almost died from a punctured lung after being attacked on the streets by his house.

He got sober by completing a six-month program at the Oakland Salvation Army, and now he volunteers to water the plant beds every night— he leans over the fence that his home shares with the garden, and sprays the plants with his own hose.

“I’ve moved lots of blackberries in the last six months,” Hernandez said.

The executive director of Urban Tilth, Doria Robinson, said that the mission of the organization is to provide, “a safe, welcoming, healthy place for people to hang out.”

“There’s nothing out here,” she said. “There’s no cafes… There are two liquor stores and that’s it.”

For Josue Hernandez, 23, (no relation), the citywide garden project means a job. He’s almost halfway done with a yearlong apprenticeship at Urban Tilth, during which he has learned about soil, plants, gardening and teaching. Over the summer, he worked with “a lot of youth,” seeding, weeding and making beds. “Anything to do with organics and permaculture.”

“I will use this knowledge in the future,” he said.

Jorge Hernandez rolled another huge green tumbleweed of grass and blackberry vines and pushed it on top of the pile, which now stood nearly five feet tall. He laughed and scrabbled to the top. “Someone take my picture,” he said, raising both hands in the air.

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