I Want Community Gardens in Old Town

Sage Alexander, Guest Author

On Sunday afternoons, workers from the Green Lily break up fights on the streets of Old Town, Eureka. Patrons peer over their mimosas and egg benedicts to watch a pair battle over parking spaces or lost backpacks, shoving and yelling. The waiters are much tougher than one would expect from an upscale brunch joint, defending their turf with strong words and sending the intruders on their way.

This is why I love Old Town. I love the artists and the constant string of markets with the music and bubble machines. I love the scummy bars and I love the waves of sea stench when I walk on the boardwalk. I like seeing old fishermen getting a drink after work and the magic of the fog rolling into the marina at dusk. I like to talk to my neighbors and learn about their lives and I even like the creepy hallways of my apartment complex. I sometimes get afraid when I wake up in the middle of the night to someone screaming and I get mad at the sound of the generators during the Friday Night Markets.

But something is missing from the area I call my new home. There isn’t a community garden for me to walk my compost to, a place I can tend to and see the fruits of my labor.

Eureka City Council is in the beginning stages of a development plan for downtown Eureka (visit waterfronteureka.com for details). Eureka has a less-than-mitigated vibe with the urban layout, like many American cities based around the car. Near Old Town, there’s this lovely mesh of industrial waterfront buildings and retail spaces, dominated by small businesses, restaurants and bars. The waterfront has tons of empty lots, with a line of abandoned warehouse buildings near the boardwalk.

In San Francisco or somewhere else in California near the sea, that kind of unused space downtown wouldn’t exist. I moved here recently from a brief stint in the Bay Area, where anything adjacent to the water has long ago been bulldozed. Land is more expensive there, and investors can make good money renting out gentrified apartment complexes.

Can’t the flippers and air bnb-ers and financiers see downtown Eureka on Zillow? Have they just never come across it on Instagram or never made the drive north? I just know they’d ruin it with vacation home rentals and luxury condos. 

No, there’s a kind of breathing room here, in a place where people get mad about the destruction of a concrete dolos in a parking lot. I never really get the sense the point is about investments and passive income here, it’s something a little more human.

Part of my impression of humanity is these nice empty lots. The spot next to Los Bagels or the train track corridor is fascinating. While I like seeing the stark history of the abandoned industrial sites, this isn’t quite what’s so compelling about these lots. It’s the greenery. The lots aren’t by any means ideal habitat for wildlife, filled in with mostly non-native weeds and grass. But it’s somewhere for my eyes to rest on between the bars and gray flat walls and overly stimulating storefronts. I like what they represent. It feels human, as if everyone is collectively saying to the world “we haven’t sorted what we wanna use this for” or, at least, “we’d rather let it rest”.

These lots, however, aren’t tended to. Parks are usually trimmed and watered, and there’s intention behind the shape of the land. These are no parks – I see rusting metal and litter, and even though there isn’t much going on, they’re fenced off. I wonder, who ‘owns’ them, the city? Or is it a private party, not willing to give it up but not also ready to find the momentum to develop it? The plan fills me in a little, telling us some land is actually polluted in some way, unfit to build residential buildings. There’s the balloon track, the rail yard near Old Town where underground fuel tanks contaminated the soil. Outside this contamination, the commercial bayfront still includes 29 acres of vacant/underutilized land. 

I guess I don’t want all those lots to turn into convention centers or work / living space or storefronts or hotels or businesses – some of the things that are included in the plan. With sea level rise, a lot of it will go underwater anyway. The plan accounts for this incoming threat and when I looked at it, I realized my apartment building will be underwater in 80 years. I, however, live on the third floor, so I think I’ll be alright. 

I’d like a couple of these lots to grow food. I want to see people who live and work here,  homeless people from the Mission, students, gas station attendants, city workers and old people who are bored all working on these plots of land to make gardens and organic vegetables we can eat. I want people to tend the land, and I want this land to be owned by the Wiyot tribe and also I want the birds and the bugs to hang out there.

What I like about Old Town will change, either from sea level rise or development or just the march of time that turns a place into something else entirely. When this happens, it should at least feed people, equitably. The City Council should consider allowing space for community action. This isn’t just a hobby – a community garden inside the heart of Eureka would do more than just feed and entertain people. It would allow agency and action from the folks that call this place home or their place of work. It allows people to touch the land and feel the real depth of what it means to tend one’s home. This city already has a thriving network of community gardens in the North Coast Community Garden Collaborative. It’s a matter of setting aside the space for real greenery and agency. Our meditative and social practice can be tending to land, feeding the hungry, and working together. This can do nothing but heal the wounds many of us carry with us.