San Antonio Park stretches a full city block on each side, in a lush area near Foothill Blvd and 18th Avenue in Oakland. About 15 years ago, the park was considered a dangerous eyesore. Since then, through the help of people who care about healthy public spaces, like Grey Kolevzon it has become an important example of what can happen when people pull together to build something up.
Early on a recent Saturday, the park is already crowded. It’s a place where cultures intersect and people of all ages come together. People exercise on the trails and in the tennis court, kids play at the playground and on the soccer fields, but the real party is just getting started here at the northern edge of the park. The monthly garden workday is in full swing – and that’s not unusual, says Community Garden Coordinator Peter Collier.
“We actually have a waiting list at all the community gardens,” says Collier, pointing to a nearby plot. “Including this one – I think we have a nine person waiting list.”
Many of the gardeners are immigrants who bring techniques from their home countries, he says. “They do a really good job of maximizing the space. They grow a lot of greens, which grow so well in Oakland. Most of these women have years of experience from their childhood – they bring with them that cultural style.” Collier compares that style to permaculture, “where every inch of the soil is being taking advantage of, growing something, so a lot of companion planting.” That makes the garden a high food producer.
About 25 people work in the garden throughout the week, growing things like garlic, lettuce, greens, and snow peas. The food they produce is for their own consumption, but they also share or trade with people from neighboring plots. The gardeners pay $30 a year for the use of the plot. The money goes to compost, starter seeds, water, and most recently the protection of a silver chain link fence.
The garden is thriving with all kinds of variety, but they have had some difficulties with theft. Now that the fence is in, that’s come to a stop.
It turns out that this community garden is only one part of San Antonio’s transformation. The park has come a long way in the last twenty years. And many of those changes are thanks to the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC). The center is a short distance from the Park. Executive Director David Kakashiba says he got involved with San Antonio Park in the late 90s, when it looked a lot different than it does today.
“San Antonio Park had become sort of a central location for a lot of gang related violence,” says Kakashiba. “Also, even though it is a pretty significant size of real estate and a lot of open space, there weren’t that many amenities and facilities for recreational play for young people, for families and for adults.”
It was basically just an open lot, which become overgrown and completely left to nature. So, EBAYC worked with the local city officials to improve the park. They held a series of listening sessions and meetings with students, parents, and neighbors to see how people wanted to use the park.
“The city agreed and put in an artificial turf field and a surrounding track, says Kakashiba. “They also installed some basketball courts and created a new play area for children, small children. Then this idea of having a community garden, sort of carving out some of the land for, to allow neighbors to basically grow vegetables.”
What used to be a crime-ridden eyesore, is now a place where people of all ages and backgrounds come together. That makes Kakashiba proud of the early work EBAYC did to bring neighbors together, he says. “It’s great to hear that the residents and gardeners are just taking real ownership of it.”
Now every morning at the park, people walk and stretch, getting their blood flowing and starting their day here. They are doing things that bring them closer to each other, which also makes the community safer. They have reclaimed the park and are building on those initial victories. Like the fence that now protects the growing food in the garden, members of San Antonio neighborhood protect their park one playground, soccer game, and vegetable at a time.