A report by Alexis Parkhurst, La Jolla Country Day School
On April 15, I found myself walking along the busiest street in City Heights — University Avenue — at one of the busiest times of the day. As cars rushed past, I couldn’t imagine that a garden could exist in the middle of this concrete world. I, however, knew the New Roots Garden of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) was immersed in this culturally diverse community, but prior to walking there I didn’t realize how significant this was. The moment the garden came into view, it was a surreal jungle in the midst of a bustling cityscape.
Our guide, Keegan Oneal of the IRC, led us to the garden. As we passed a lot that was only home to weeds, he pointed out that this was what the New Roots Garden had looked like at one point. The IRC helped turn the unused land into a place for local refugees with no place to grow their own food. People who had been farmers prior to coming to the United States desired a place to resume their cultivation, and the 2.2 acres rapidly filled up. There are currently 83 individual plots in the garden, and a long waiting list for a spot.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the garden was the variety of growing methods. With a mix of farmers from Asia, Africa and Latin America, there truly is a wonderful blend of culture within the garden, reinforced by the proximity of the plots. One moment we walked around heads of lettuce, and the next we went under trees with bananas growing. Then I heard a rooster’s call and faced a chicken coop — with not only chickens, but also two peacocks. The farmers share the animals, and by doing so promote a self-sustaining environment that provides inexpensive resources and helps the land. The area is a USDA certified organic farm, run by the community. Oneal described it as a “community farm.” While in the beginning the IRC helped get the paperwork in order, the farmers have formed a leadership council and now have a more active role in all aspects of its maintenance.
Recently, the IRC established gardens similar to that in City Heights in other big cities across the United States, including in the Bronx in New York. Although the space in City Heights is limited, the garden is a reminder that land is more than just space. As Oneal noted near the end of our tour, “Each food item that we have has multiple impacts behind it: social, environmental and economic. By growing a garden, whether to feed yourself or to sell at a Farmer’s Market, you can make an impact on those around you, and ultimately the planet.”
Again, I was amazed that such a place could exist in the middle of a city. When I walked under branches and past vegetation, it felt like I was in a remote location, but then the sounds of passing cars brought me back to reality. The idea that an environment such as this could exist peacefully between neighbors prompted me to pay more attention to my surroundings, specifically the different cultures that exist in San Diego. When we walked away from the triangle-shaped jungle, I saw a papaya tree sprouting fruit through the fence. To me, it symbolized the expansion of shared culture throughout the neighborhood — beginning at the New Roots Garden.