Proyecto Jardín, a community garden and organization in Boyle Heights, serves as a cultural hotspot for the surrounding working-class neighborhood, providing nearby residents with both a space to grow their own produce and a central location to congregate for meetings, workshops, celebrations and everything in between.
It is these components of Proyecto Jardín that motivated its members — “Guardians of the Garden” — to stage a 24/7 occupation of the garden that has been under way since Jan. 30 in response to White Memorial Medical Center (WMMC)’s termination of their lease. According to Urban and Environmental Policy (UEP) major Elena Lopez (senior), the occupation is complete with tents and media coverage.
Proyecto Jardín is located on a one-third acre plot of land that was originally leased to its founding community members by WMMC in September 1999. Despite constant efforts on the part of the community to renew the lease and renegotiate its terms, it expired Dec. 31, 2015, according to Proyecto Jardín’s website.
Alicia Gonzalez, on behalf of WMMC, said that the hospital hopes to maintain access to the garden for community members. WMMC previously proposed a six-month lease extension that would relegate Proyecto Jardín to one-third of its current land, require a name change to “White Memorial Hospital Garden,” cede management and site control to WMMC and abide by the Sabbath, as WMMC is an Adventist institution.
Proyecto Jardín proposed a counter offer, expressing an interest in reaching a compromise that would address both its own and WMMC’s concerns. On Jan. 6, WMMC rejected this offer and told Proyecto Jardín to surrender the premises by Jan. 31. In response, Proyecto Jardín commenced an occupation of the site.
Lopez feels that Occidental’s own occupation of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center (AGC) by Oxy United for Black Liberation last November allowed her to better relate to Proyecto Jardín’s and gave her a firsthand understanding of the toll such dedication can take on participants.
“We know from the AGC that it’s tiring, and we were only there for a week,” Lopez said. “They’ve been there for multiple weeks. I don’t think I would approach this situation the same way had I not experienced the movement here with Oxy United for Black Liberation.”
Partially in response to the commonality between these two occupations, Lopez, along with Dana Rust (senior), UEP Professor Rosa Romero and Valerie Lizarraga, Occidental’s program coordinator for community engagement, is in the process of planning a College and Community Plantón event featuring art, music and food Saturday from noon to 9 p.m. The event, which will take place at Proyecto Jardín, incorporates into its name the Spanish word “plantón,” which means “rooting” or “taking root.” The event will be an opportunity for people to come together as a community in support of Proyecto Jardín, while also providing those occupying the garden extra support and temporary relief from the stresses of constant occupation.
Lopez hopes that this event will spark conversation among students about relevant issues of social justice such as that of gentrification, which she said is particularly prevalent in the surrounding Highland Park area. Gentrification is a trend in urban planning that sees increased property values boost the appeal of a given neighborhood while displacing existing smaller businesses and families.
Gentrification-induced displacement is no small issue in Los Angeles, according to Lopez, and Proyecto Jardín is not immune to its consequences.
“If we as an institution, we as Occidental College, want to uphold ourselves as people that fight for social justice and fight for the rights of marginalized people, then [the displacement of Proyecto Jardín] should be something we take interest in,” Lopez said.
The garden supplements a general lack of green spaces in the surrounding area while also aiding community members to withstand the challenges of living in a food desert, according to Lizarraga. But it is far more than just a space for people to grow food and enjoy nature; Proyecto Jardín reflects the community’s cultural pride through gatherings such as workshops and art displays, according to Lopez and Rust. Lizarraga also said the garden demonstrates the collaborative efforts of community members in creating positive solutions to the food access limitations of their neighborhood as well as opportunities both for themselves and for each other.
“Throughout the years they have cultivated the space from a blighted residential lot into a thriving place that promotes and celebrates culture, art, healing, health, local food sovereignty, youth empowerment, fitness and more,” Lizarraga said via email.
According to Lizarraga, Proyecto Jardín is a long-standing community partner of Occidental that has provided students with invaluable learning and service opportunities, enabling them to experience the intersection of cultural pride and ties to the environment — which, to Lopez, is what Proyecto Jardín embodies. Lizarraga said that it is unclear how long Occidental’s partnership with the garden has existed, due to the fact that multiple departments have separately collaborated with Proyecto Jardín in the past.
Proyecto Jardín has hosted student interns, collaborated on wellness campaigns and worked together with students in the garden for days of service. Lizarraga feels that because Proyecto Jardín has been a welcoming host to the college in the past, Occidental should support them in their current time of need.
“True partners stand together in solidarity when facing challenges, and thus we should stand in solidarity with Proyecto Jardín,” Lizarraga said via email.
Rust, who works for the Office of Community Engagement (OCE), served as the site leader for Proyecto Jardín during Occidental’s Jan. 23 Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. She, with 10 other students, spent the day there clearing out weeds and grinding branches into mulch. Rust recalled feeling welcomed by the community and noted that Irene Peña, executive director of Proyecto Jardín, explained the situation with WMMC to them so that they would understand the full significance of their volunteer work in light of the garden’s lease situation.
“It felt like we were able to give our time and energy into something that was greater than just taking care of the garden,” Rust said. “It was at this time when they needed help more than they normally did.”
Although Rust was not involved with Proyecto Jardín before the MLK Day of Service, she now recognizes its immense value to the Boyle Heights community and has devoted herself to the garden’s preservation.
“Everything [at Proyecto Jardín] has some significance to someone because it was built by someone voluntarily,” Rust said. “You would lose the accumulation of all this love and work that was put in by community members.”
Lopez also values Proyecto Jardín as a site of great cultural significance. Although she is not from Boyle Heights, the cultural pride and sense of community there reminds her of her own home in San Antonio. She was pleasantly surprised to find that the members of the garden were open-hearted, generous and readily accepting of her despite the fact that she was not a member of their community.
“When I go there it makes me feel prideful to identify as a Latina,” Lopez said.
Jose Campuzano (sophomore), who is from Boyle Heights, has been a patient at WMMC on multiple occasions and recalls seeing Proyecto Jardín out of the hospital’s windows. He expressed a desire to visit the garden but never had the chance to, and hopes that it will be preserved so that he will one day be able to visit.
Lopez stressed that the garden — a green, beautiful oasis — is special because of the community members who work hard to sustain it. She described it as a unique cultural gem, a refuge from day-to-day life that makes one feel calm and at peace.
“There are very few spaces in this world where people, especially working-class people, can get that [calm and peace],” Lopez said.
The Occidental community can support Proyecto Jardín by attending the OCE’s event Saturday, as well as by signing the petition on Change.org addressed to WMMC. Anyone interested in participating in the occupation should contact Lopez at [email protected]