SLUGging It Out

Under the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, community gardeners get down and dirty

Like blades of grass in the cracks of sidewalks, they pop up in implausible places: on a triangle between busy streets; on a sliver of land separating apartment buildings; on a lot next to a highway. But San Francisco's 40-odd community gardens, beyond representing the old-fashioned ideal that people who have no back yard can still exercise their green thumbs, occasionally sprout trouble along with tomatoes.

A recent case in point: the garden on Clipper Street, a patchwork of plots terraced out of a steep hill near Diamond Heights. Neighbors who toil there on weekends and in the hazy sunrise hours during the week grow an assortment of staple vegetables and gaudy flowers. Over the years, a number of the gardeners have outgrown their single plots, encroaching on empty and unused spaces that might have gone to the next person on the waiting list. Though more than 1,000 urban growers tend their plots throughout the city, hundreds more want plots of their own. (In popular gardens, waiting lists grow disproportionately to available space: Fort Mason has 150 people on hold; Clipper has dozens in line.)

For a time, no one said or did anything about the land grab. (Indeed, none of the gardeners on Clipper Street wanted to discuss the issue on the record, preferring to work the matter out in private.) Because the garden is on city property, however, it falls under the jurisdiction of the nonprofit San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), which since 1987 has been under contract with the city's Recreation and Park Department to administer the hodgepodge of community gardens, ranging from the one-third-acre Potrero del Sol (near Army and Potrero) to Page Street Garden, a much smaller lot near Webster Street across from city housing.

According to Executive Director Mohammed Nuru, one of SLUG's jobs is to keep the gardens in sync with public land-use standards. Along those lines, SLUG developed a manual (in conjunction with the Recreation and Park Department) that spells out a few ground rules (one plot per person, for instance, or how the coordinator elected by the gardeners must establish a waiting list).

Still, those who have transformed fallow earth into fertile soil at Clipper Street and in other community gardens are naturally proprietary about what becomes of the territory they have reclaimed -- if not indignant over meddling by authorities. ("We do things the way we choose as a group," one of the gardeners from Clipper Street avers, "and shine SLUG on when we can.") Generally Nuru concurs, acknowledging that disputes within gardens should be settled by members: "SLUG has no intention of running the gardens" in an autocratic fashion, he asserts.

But when word of the plot disparities on Clipper Street eventually reached Nuru, he had to put his foot down. "Those are public gardens" -- the city provides water hookups, sheds, and other necessities like fences -- "so the gardeners have to adhere to the one-plot-per-person rule."

"We are living in a democratic society," he maintains, explaining that the rule is in keeping with SLUG's mission statement that "[a]nyone who wants to should be able to garden." The implications of greedy gardeners amassing more public land than they are entitled to had the potential for name-calling -- if not comparison to land-reform struggles that plague developing nations (but certainly not liberal San Francisco).

To resolve the matter, SLUG arranged a meeting in early November between the Clipper Street gardeners and Brian Lease, SLUG's community gardens coordinator. He reiterated the rules and guidelines and emphasized SLUG's desire to see the gardeners work out a solution on their own. Although all sides played down the squabble (the garden's coordinator even asked that the "painful" dispute not be written about), the meeting often crackled with tension. One of the gardeners felt that SLUG wanted to bring in professional landscapers to dictate a garden's direction -- anathema to the free-spirit, no-government-interference ways of the old-time gardeners. Others fretted that SLUG does little to alleviate vegetable theft and homeless people camping out in their gardens.

As Lease explains: "When a status quo exists in a garden and someone from SLUG says they should try to adhere to the rules, it's naturally going to make some people upset. But once we have a meeting, most gardeners feel that the rule is reasonable."

Ultimately, Nuru characterized the gathering as an example of one of the best things SLUG does -- push for compromise. Lease reports that the Clipper Garden's coordinator is now close to agreement on the plot redistribution. "Overall," he says, that "makes the city feel that these gardens are being run in a logical, fair way."

Mike Morlin, the Recreation and Park staffer who oversees his department's teamwork with SLUG, gives Lease high marks for his role in resolving the dispute. "Brian, quite the opposite from being a bad guy, was trying to get all the gardeners to understand that they have to share public land." Morlin observes that many people at Clipper Street had "much more than recreational gardening space," noting that "it's a privilege, and not a right, to have one plot, and not more than one plot, regardless of how much work you've put into it." The goal, he maintains, is simple: "We want the most people possible to participate in a pleasurable pastime, a chance to get a little dirt under their fingernails."

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