Right about now, Irene Peña says she should be finalizing the curriculum for Proyecto Jardín’s Youth HEAL leadership program for Boyle Heights teens and preparing to plant the first crop for the urban farm’s mobile farm stand, which is expected to begin delivering fresh produce to the Ramona Gardens housing development this summer.

Instead, Peña is worried that Proyecto Jardín may not be able to meet those commitments, because the non profit group has been asked to vacate the land it tends –a one-third acre plot behind White Memorial Hospital. The hospital, which owns the land, says it has opted to turn over the garden to two as-yet-unnamed organizations that specialize in community gardens.

“Our main goal is to increase public participation and access to the garden,” said César Armendáriz, vice president of business development at White Memorial, who said he hopes the garden can help the local community combat chronic conditions such as diabetes. “The idea is that the garden can support a much larger goal of caring for the health of the community.”

Armendáriz said the hospital’s lease with Community Partners, the organization that acted as fiscal sponsor for Proyecto Jardín, ran out in December. Proyecto Jardín has been given until Sunday, January 31, to vacate the garden.

“It’s been very stressful,” said Peña, Proyecto Jardín director. “It’s been very difficult to focus on what we would be doing at this time. We’re all kind of  heartbroken that we can’t because of the stress, the anxiety.”

Irene Peña, director of Proyecto Jardín, at the garden in dispute.
Irene Peña, director of Proyecto Jardín, at the garden in dispute.

A great deal of Peña’s frustration, she said, comes from the fact that she has no direct communication with White Memorial. The orders to vacate where delivered to Community Partners, not Proyecto Jardín. “The last time I had a conversation with any decision maker at White Memorial was last November,” said Peña. “Now the only conversation White Memorial wants to have is with our fiscal sponsor.”

Peña said Proyecto Jardín severed its relationship with Community Partners on January 15.  “We wanted to separate because we could not  follow their instructions to leave the garden and go somewhere else,” she explained.

Peña said that she has known for several months that White Memorial management was dissatisfied with Proyecto Jardín, where over 40 volunteer gardeners tend to crops of kale, lettuce and chard and harvest persimmons, guayabas and other fruit. “The criticism was that we don’t have enough members and that we’re not producing enough food,” she said.

Armendáriz said that Proyecto Jardín was originally offered an opportunity to share the garden with the two other organizations.  “There was a period this past year of unproductivity in the garden, and that is really not meeting the greater need of a garden producing for the community,” he said.

Peña acknowledged the garden was closed for a six month period, from November 2014 to April 2015, when Proyecto Jardín held its annual Earth Day celebration.

“We closed for the winter, so that we could finish three construction projects that were very difficult to manage with lots of people in the garden,” said Peña, who detailed that volunteers replaced the roof to the garden’s seed storing hut, installed a water harvesting system and replaced a nursery that was falling over because of termite damage.

“When you work with limited resources and volunteers,you don’t have the luxury of cranking out a project in one weekend, you have to go with when the volunteers are available,” Peña said.

She explained that Proyecto Jardín was first told in July that White Memorial would not be renewing the lease, and that the group initiated a series of meeting with hospital management to try to come up with a compromise. The hospital did offer a six-month extension of the lease in December, but Peña said they rejected the terms, which included a requirement to adhere to Seventh-day Adventist sabbath policy. Proyecto Jardín made a counter offer on December 1, which was rejected by White Memorial on January 6.

Armendáriz said that the sabbath policy is included in every lease given out by White Memorial, an Adventist hospital, but that it simply called for Proyecto Jardín to be respectful of religious practices at a nearby church by keeping the noise level down. “There is no imposing of religious values onto the people from the garden or the community,” said Armendáriz, who added that the hospital did not intend to close the garden on Saturdays.

The White Memorial executive said that it would take some time for the garden to adjust to the changes, but that in the end the community would be pleased with the two new non profits. “Eight months from now, when you start seeing the fall harvest, I think you’re going to see quite a beautiful transformation, building upon what is there and supporting the mission, a really beautiful thriving garden with more organizations and more people involved.”

Armendáriz also said that the families that currently tend plots at Proyecto Jardín would be allowed to continue doing so. “There is not going to be a mass eviction of people uprooting whatever they planted, there’s none of that,” he said, adding that he asked for but never received a list of Proyecto Jardín members.  

Many of those members –as well as a number of community activists and friends of Proyecto Jardín– have signed a petition asking White Memorial to reconsider the decision. The petition on change.org asks for White Memorial to rescind the order to vacate the garden, a six-month moratorium on all evictions and an opportunity for the two organizations to negotiate a new agreement.

In an effort to increase community awareness, Proyecto Jardín is organizing “Encuentro en el Jardín,” a community forum on Saturday, January 30, that will include community testimonies, an action-planning forum and a songwriting workshop.

Peña says she is holding out for a last minute solution that would please both White Memorial and Proyecto Jardín volunteers.

“I think what needs to happen is a softening up of the thinking process next door at White Memorial, because they’re giving us a very mixed message, it’s very confusing for the members and myself,” Peña said. “They’re telling the members, ‘you don’t have to leave, we’re not displacing you and you don’t have to pull the crops out of your plot. You can stay, all of you can stay, just Proyecto Jardín has to leave.’”

“But the membership says,  ‘What do you mean? We are Proyecto Jardín,” said Peña, adding she she was uncertain of what will happen once the January 31 deadline arrives.

”As long as the members are here,  Proyecto Jardín is here,” she said.

The ‘Encuentro en el Jardín’ event will take place Saturday, January 30, from 9 am to 3 pm at Proyecto Jardín, 1718 Bridge Street, Los Angeles. Information of the Facebook event page.

Photo above: Proyecto Jardín volunteer José Cruz works on a protest sign for Saturday’s event. It reads ‘No to displacement’ in Spanish. Photos by Antonio Mejías-Rentas.

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Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Antonio Mejías-Rentas is a Senior Editor at Boyle Heights Beat, where he mentors teenage journalists, manages the organization’s website and covers local issues. A veteran bilingual journalist, he's...

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