Latino Gardeners in Santa Cruz Fight To Keep Culture, Community Garden Alive

The Seaside Company owns a large portion of Santa Cruz property, including the land that the garden occupies.

The Beach Flats Community Garden has been something of a touchstone for Santa Cruz residents for two decades.

Over the years, people within the Beach Flats neighborhood have soaked in the sun and cultivated fruits, vegetables and flowers in the garden's loam-rich soil. The predominantly Latino gardeners and their supporters claim that during that time, the space has transformed into something much more than public land: It’s become an invaluable meeting point where vibrant, culturally rich traditions are kept alive.

But that could all come to a grinding halt if an agreement isn’t reached between the city of Santa Cruz, the Beach Flats Community Garden Coalition and Seaside Company – a Goliath-sized corporation that owns a significant swath of Santa Cruz property, including the Boardwalk and the parcel of land the garden sits on.

For years, the Seaside Company has been renting out the 26,000-square-foot garden space to the city, which in turn has been letting the public rent it for a low cost. But now, after months of back-and-forth negotiations, Seaside officials have said that they need the space back – or at least a large chunk of it for its own landscaping needs.

Seaside "claims that it wants a nursery for some reason," garden supporter Rachel O'Malley said. "But this seems suspect to the garden coalition because the company owns many vacant lots and doesn't currently have nursery operations. Honestly, it seems most likely that they are just trying to move the garden along so that in the long run they will be able to build." 

After tense talks, the company – which originally tried to evict gardeners from the entire space but faced immense community pushback – offered to re-up the city's contract with a no-cost, three-year lease. However, the plan stipulates that the company will occupy 40 percent of the land, while gardeners would be able to rent the other 60 percent. The Santa Cruz City Council passed a resolution to accept the deal, but it's a split that most members of the coalition are not happy about. Some have said that it's a cutting defeat that will change the culture and productivity of the garden forever.

“Many gardeners and garden supporters have continued to say what a horrible loss [it] would be if the company took away this land,” said coalition member Michelle Glowa. “[That 40 percent] right now is over 50 percent of the productive garden.”

Others, like supporter Chris Krohn, suspect that the deal is a temporary fix to a recurring situation. He says that the gardeners fear that three years will pass from the time of the lease agreement, and Seaside will then come back and need 40 more percent.

“The Beach Flats garden has been kind of institutionalized,” Krohn said. “The neighborhood has no park space. It has a concrete park, but it doesn’t have any green space. And, you know, the reason people are consistently opposed to this agreement is because they think it would mean having another struggle over it again.”

Seaside officials, however, assert that the company has been more than generous with the gardeners. The company has agreed not to split the garden until Jan. 5 at the earliest, and representatives have met with coalition members and city officials on a few occasions to discuss solutions that could work for everyone.

“At some point though this becomes a cautionary tale to others that be careful what you contribute,” said Seaside Company spokesperson Kris Reyes in an email to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Because some will be aggressive in their criticism that it is never good enough.”

The next few weeks will be critical in determining what will happen to the garden space. At this stage, however, it seems unlikely that the gardeners will be able to continue using 100 percent of the plot, said coalition member Gloria Nieto.

But she remains hopeful.

“Things are fluid. They change every single day. I think there’s a solution in here somewhere that could make everyone happy, but we’ve got to look for it. We’re talking about a complicated situation that deals with ownership, education levels, language, elected officials and non-elected officials. It could take some time."

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