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A farm blossoms in Hayes Valley where a freeway once cast a dominating shadow

SF Public Press
 — Dec 27 2010 - 11:24am

In 1990, Madeline Behrens-Brigham and Russell Pritchard opened art boutiques in a crime-ridden section of Hayes Valley. They called their part of the neighborhood, from Laguna Street to Market Street, the “Tenderloin of the ’90s.”

"It was only 20 years ago that you’d drive down Octavia Boulevard and on all corners it was prostitutes everywhere, like the Tenderloin is now,” Pritchard said.

The self-proclaimed neighborhood activists were barely making rent. They began attending meetings between Caltrans and city officials, petitioning to get the Central Freeway taken down. The double-deck structure had crumbled in the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and laid fallow for two years.

“The freeway was huge, it was immense, it was a monolith,” Behrens-Brigham said. The underpass “was all prostitutes and drug users. You really took your life into your hands to walk under there.”

Caltrans began to demolish the Central Freeway in 1992 and a battle rages over what to do with the 22 vacant parcels where the structure stood. On two neighboring parcels in particular, on Laguna Street between Fell and Oak streets, an experiment is taking place. Over the past 20 years, the spot where the freeway used to touch down remained a magnet for crime and homelessness. But, in January, the Hayes Valley Farm opened.

Volunteers cut the rusty chain-link fence, picked up vodka bottles and disposed of hypodermic needles that littered the vacant lot.

Though at least half the land is still filled with decades’ worth of lead-based oils, carbon monoxide and other toxins from vehicles driving on and off the freeway, the Hayes Valley Farm is abloom.

Farm co-director Jay Rosenberg said he never expected the farm to attract so many people to the 2.2-acre plot.

There was a lot of crime, a lot of prostitution, a lot of drug use and distribution,” Rosenberg said. “Many people considered this a black spot in their memories and forgot about the vacant lot.”

The farm met its August goals six months early, attracting more than 7,000 volunteers. Rosenberg said he was only hoping for 20 volunteers a week, but upward of 150 people a week have been showing up.

FARM ISN’T PERMANENT

The farm, an agriculture project, is funded by a $50,000 grant from the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development — and it’s not meant to be permanent.

The city and the Redevelopment Agency, which each own one parcel of the farm, confirmed eventual plans to develop condominiums on the plots any time between three and 18 years from now.

“It’s an interim use, until the housing market turns around,” said Rich Hillis, deputy director of economic development for the mayor’s office. “It’s been difficult to find financing to build new housing.

“We’re activating many of the underutilized parcels but we fully expect to build between 700 and 900 total housing units on the parcels,” Hillis added.

Project planners say they are ready to move the farm when they have to do so. The goal of the farm, they said, is to inspire people to grow their own food, rather than just grow food on the site. Classes and materials provided to the community are helping the idea of community gardens catch on, they said.

“We intend to be a neighborhood partner, so when the mayor says, ‘It’s condo time, you have to leave,’ we’ll go wherever he says to go next,” Rosenberg said. “We want to be able to do this over and over again in vacant lots all over the city, and that’s not going to happen if we chain ourselves to the trees and say, ‘Don’t build here.’

“But if we can actually prove that this is better for the world than another condo, it’s perhaps possible that somebody may decide not to do that,” he added.

On Sept. 19, the farm’s “university” was launched, offering classes such as Soils 102: Introduction to Worms and Methods, and 101: Permaculture Design Basics. The goal, farm directors said, is to create a model for urban sustainability — exactly what Mayor Gavin Newsom said he had in mind when he issued an executive order in July 2009 for healthful and sustainable food for San Francisco.

“Sustainable food systems ensure nutritious food for all people, shorten the distance between food consumers and producers, protect workers’ health and welfare, minimize environmental impacts and strengthen connections between urban and rural communities,” Newsom wrote.

Aimee Hill, 31, is a volunteer at the farm and a high school science teacher at the Urban School in San Francisco. She teaches many of the soils classes at the Hayes Valley Farm.

“We’re teaching classes on microbiology,” she said. “We’re building soils with food scraps, newspaper and worms.”

PROBLEMS PERSIST

On any given day, the farm is buzzing with people. They’re planting herbs in the greenhouse, rotating compost pits and watering fava beans.

“The problem is at night,” Rosenberg said. “For 20 years, since the earthquake, people have come here to sleep, to do drugs, to solicit prostitution.”

Rosenberg pointed to the killing of more than 200,000 bees overnight last July 19-20 as an example of the ongoing problems.

“Someone or a group of people jumped the fence and sprayed some sort of household bug spray on the hives,” he said. “When we got here in the morning, there were literally thousands of bees piled up right outside the door.”

In response, Rosenberg and the team at the farm have launched a neighborhood watch program. The morning after the bees were killed, the Department of Public Works, along with a public safety team, patched holes in the fence line.

“We’re getting spotlights that are motion activated so that if someone breaks in at night, the lights will go on, and anyone who sees the farm out their windows light up will know to look,” he said, and call the police at Northern Station. “When that’s in place, I’ll feel comfortable putting bees in here again.”

ANTI-FREEWAY LEGACY 

Behrens-Brigham and Pritchard said the freeway revolts of the 1950s paved the way for the Hayes Valley Farm.

In 1959, the Board of Supervisors gave in to pressure from neighborhood activists and voted to cancel seven of 10 freeways planned to dissect the city. The most fiercely opposed freeway would have extended through the Panhandle and tunneled under Golden Gate Park, then turning onto Park Presidio and finally across the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We looked at the history of freeways in San Francisco, and thought if people back then could stop a freeway running through the Panhandle through Golden Gate Park, we could certainly get this one taken down,” Behrens-Brigham said.

What would go in its place, though, was a question that always gnawed at her. Back in 1992 she told the San Francisco Independent that she thought reclaiming the landscape from cars was possible: “We would like to put community gardens and a sculpture garden on the land in the interim.” What she didn’t know was that her humble dream of neighborhood transformation would be a decades-long project.

A version of this article was published in the fall 2010 edition of the San Francisco Public Press newspaper. Read select stories online, or buy a copy.