Flashback Fridays: Once a Community Garden…

Lately I’ve been delving into the history of some of these Echo Park locations that have development “drama” revolving around them these days. Last week we wrote about the history of Barlow Hospital as it develops plans to upgrade hospital facilities by selling land for who-knows-what. This week we’ve got the Sunset Flats, planned for what was the former community garden, on our mind. So today we reflect on how that garden came to be, how the community came together to keep it thriving for years, and more importantly, what happened to it?

Date unknown - looks very 1990s. Flickr photo via Glen Dake

Flickr photo via Glen Dake

The garden was started in the late 199os as part of an effort to use land that wasn’t being used (deemed a “nuisance” property), but was privately owned, and really helped empower and improve the neighborhood. Located at 2223 Sunset Blvd, where now you’ll see a lot of overgrown weeds and possibly still some edible plants, they sold honey, grew and sold flowers, fruits and vegetables. It was literally the heart and sweat of many long-time Echo Park residents, including, we’ve heard, our friend Jesus Sanchez of The Eastsider LA.

The plight of the garden began around 2004, where our research begins to pick up the chatter that the land owner needed to sell the property. This is when things get a little complicated and messy, and is an issue that I am continuing to explore in interviews with residents and community leaders. Apparently the community got together and started raising money to purchase the land, and things were looking really promising in June of 2004 – the owner was willing to sell the land, and all they needed was a grant to finalize things. Sometime after that, things went south, and the manager of the garden had apparently been taking that money raised to purchase the land, stringing along the landowner and everyone else along. The Echo Park Community Garden had been bamboozled.

That’s the long story short. Without money to buy the property, the land was sold and there was little hope for the future of the garden. A 2004 issue of EPIAn Ways describes the frustration of being locked out of the garden for months:

The current landlord bought the land two years ago and has no idea the importance this community places on the garden. He seems to be unaware of what existed before the garden formed and therefore sees little value to keeping the garden as a tenant. The Echo Park Community Garden has been a collaborative effort between hundreds of families, individuals as well as social service agencies, neighborhood groups and government. It has also served as an environmental, educational and nutritional resource for the neighborhood families and schools.

Around the same time in 1994, the Council District and community organizations were in the midst of developing a “community plan” and debating the controversial issue of adopting a Floor Average Ratio (FAR) rule that would allow projects to double in size, and thus encourage “mixed-use projects,” those that have storefronts along Sunset along with residential housing attached.

Fast forward to 2008, when developer Jay Vanos came into the picture with plans to develop 2223 Sunset Blvd. Ironically, that same FAR rule is allowing the current development of the community garden property to be a high-density project. Using the FAR rule, he might allowed to build (if the city approves) the 142,000 square foot mixed-use project “Sunset Flats” on the land that once grew tomatoes and corn.

We’ll close out this article with an excerpt of an article called “Growing the Garden” by Alexis Rivera, published in the February 2003 issue of EPIAn Ways (the Echo Park Improvement Association’s long-standing newsletter). The article announces a “get Organic” annual garden party and fundraiser for the Echo Park Community Garden in April 2003, and continues to describe what’s going on at the garden:

Garden-wise, there’s a lot of work going on, and if you haven’t stopped by 2223 Sunset in a while you might not recognize it. Roger the architect turned lumberjack, managed to cut back our eucalyptus trees without killing anyone and is in the process of carefully crafting and magically manipulating the wood into benches and tables. The trees, which were not taken care of before the garden’s time, will be replaced by old growth cherry and almond trees (thanks to Tree People), as part of our 20 year permaculture master plan. Cactus czar and “metal artiste” Doug G. recently completed a series of steel bottoms for the new wood benches that dot the lower portion of the garden (which will soon be shaded by our new citrus orchard) and is working on a steel sculpture for the garden entrance. Doug G. and Douglas are radically redesigning our front slope using steel plates to stop erosion and repurposing the old billboard into a grape arbor. The wonderfully warm winter has produced early flowering, and the 1200 bulbs we planted this fall, in addition to the 400+ types of plants found at the garden, have created a mini Huntington Gardens, and just a few feet from Route 66.

On our Feb. 8th workday, the garden was lucky enough to welcome the return of 50+ USC students, who volunteered their Saturday morning to help with a variety of tasks, including leveling the back wall area for our new compost compound, starting the first stages of removing our shed (which will eventually be replaced with a shed/greenhouse), and prepping the side fences for our new blueberry, raspberry, and grape vineyard. We’d like to thank these crazy kids and their director, Paras Bhakta.

The sad part is the community garden is no longer part of Echo Park on Sunset and Elsinore. Thankfully, we still have wonderful projects that will continue to improve our community. Solano Canyon Community Garden is around, and we continue to work at saving our land for everyone’s use.

I will also continue my research on the experiences people have had with the Echo Park Community Garden for additional articles. Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments field below, or email me at kelly@echoparknow.com.

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