Backyard Gardens

Backyard gardens have always had a traditional place in the historically working class neighborhood of West Oakland. Fruit trees from the original 19th century European immigrants still loom above the rooftops and power lines. The personal narratives of the African Americans whose families migrated from small rural communities in the southern United States during WWII speak of chickens kept for fresh meat and eggs, and rows of collard greens and tomatoes that filled the yards of their family home for generations. However, as the original rural to urban migrants pass-away or relocate, much of the gardening traditions have left with them. These rural traditions of the past have often been stigmatized and lost to modern, urban practices whereas food consumption habits are distanced from the pastoral traditions of parents and grandparents.

The subjects of this project, Backyard Gardens, are West Oakland residents who share the belief in using the land to grow food. Through the “Backyard Garden Program,” developed by the community-based urban farming non-profit, City Slicker Farms, teams of staff and volunteers have collaborated with homeowners and renters in West Oakland to install vegetable gardens and plant fruit trees in over ninety backyards. This program was created, according to City Slicker Farms to, “provide a complementary alternative to food banks…increasing access to fresh, organic foods and other charity-based emergency food programs” and as a way of promoting healthy eating habits.

Both newcomers to West Oakland as well as descendants of prior generations of migrants who might have lost touch with the gardening traditions of their ancestors are currently participating in this program. Through the cultivation of the land for food production and consumption, the Backyard Garden Program participants share not only relationships as neighbors but also their desire to establish deep roots in the actual soil of their common geography.

Backyard Gardens seeks to highlight the importance of individual contributions to the neighborhood by bringing the faces and stories connected to urban gardening into the consciousness and field of vision of the Oakland community at large. I hope to raise awareness about the benefits of gardening for access to healthy foods and to reconnect residents to the gardening tradition of their forbearers. I hope to attract policy makers who focus on issues of food security, hunger and poverty as well as historians and urban planners who take interest in the future of this part of Oakland.

(Artist statement originally used for exhibit at Mama Buzz Cafe and Gallery, 2318 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. Accompanying gallery postcard shown in Images section.)