by Andrew Engelson
A community garden planted at Jimi Hendrix Park by the activist group Black Star Farmers is still growing lettuce, pumpkins, cucumbers, and other produce despite recent demands from Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) that activists remove it. Planted about two months ago, the garden is part of a network of six food plots across the South End designed to draw attention to the need for equitable use of public space, environmental equity, and the lack of access to fresh food near Communities of Color.
On Thursday, July 8, staff from SPR arrived to remove the garden but left the site when several activists surrounded the shed and garden plots.
Marcus Henderson, the creator of Black Star Farmers, was behind the effort to plant a garden in Cal Anderson Park during the Capitol Hill Organize Protest (CHOP) in the summer of 2020. Since then, the group has now expanded its activist efforts throughout the South End.
“The privatization of public space is a huge issue,” Henderson said in an interview with the Emerald. “The system has evolved to prevent mistakes, but now it’s so cumbersome and huge that these spaces are not being utilized because the processes to access them are over-managed. We’ve also very much focused our public spaces on recreation and not actually sustaining our community.”
According to Henderson, SPR posted notices and informed him this week that the group needed to remove the plants and a garden shed or “face eviction.”
Rachel Schulkin, a spokesperson for SPR, said in an email to the Emerald, “The community who erected the garden and shed were notified and verbally agreed to remove the structure and the plants. However, yesterday when staff went to remove any remaining debris, the structure was still there, and there were protestors on site blocking the garden’s structure and later erecting a fence around the garden. Staff left the site because of safety concerns.”
Henderson said he’s had extensive conversations with SPR staff but disputes that the group has agreed to leave. “They’ve [SPR] basically said, ‘We don’t want the structure, we don’t want the garden,’” Henderson said. “They have offered to help us move it to a different location. The difficulty with that is most of these plants are full-grown plants at this point, so trying to pull them up out of the ground now would totally ruin their food production cycle. Stuff is deeply rooted here.”
Henderson anticipates a sweep will occur in the next few days. “Parks said they will not be part of the sweep — that will be the Nav Team [Navigation Team] that comes in. They said the Nav Team will likely bulldoze it and haul everything off.”
Technically, the Navigation Team, formerly under the control of the Seattle Police Department (SPD), has now been replaced by the Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) Team, which is run by the Department of Human Services (HSD). Various city departments that have jurisdiction for the land in question, such as Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR), undertake sweeps, often with the assistance of HSD and SPD.
“The HOPE Team, within the City of Seattle Human Services Department (HSD), does not lead encampment removal operations,” said Kevin Mundt, a spokesperson from HSD. “Removals are led by City departments that either own or manage public property. The HOPE Team’s role is to coordinate outreach and referrals to shelter once an encampment is identified as a priority by the City, with the goal of getting all those onsite referred into shelter. Unlike the former Navigation Team, SPD officers are not embedded as part of the HOPE Team.”
When asked if SPR has future plans for removing the garden, Schulkin replied in an email, “I am not aware of any scheduled follow-up plans.”
Henderson hopes that food from this garden and five other sites across the South End will be made available to members of the community, many of whom live in neighborhoods where it can be difficult to access fresh, organic produce
“We’re just starting to get the first produce out of it now,” he said. “There are zucchinis coming in; the lettuce is pretty much ready to harvest.”
Black Star Farms has created four other community gardens in the South End in addition to the one at Jimi Hendrix Park, Henderson said. They’re growing food at a garden at the MLK FAME Community Center in Madison Valley; the group is working with the New Holly Market Garden near Othello Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way; and it has established a vegetable garden with the help of Hip Hop is Green at 20th Avenue and Cherry Street.
“I’ve always been interested in climate change and environmental sustainability,” Henderson said when asked why he created Black Star Farms. “I needed to find a more sustainable way of living that wasn’t centered around technology or policy — closer to the earth and natural cycles of living.” After getting a master’s degree focused on urban sustainability, Henderson traveled the world for several years, working on farms in Trinidad and Dominica as well as stints in green building and construction in Utah and Seattle.
But CHOP and the ongoing protests demanding police accountability and racial equity in 2020 galvanized Henderson to create gardens that inspire and educate. “We were at Cal Anderson every day,” Henderson said, “… actively thinking about real gardening and ways to reactivate public space and ways to reimagine public space — and also redefine the idea of what public space is.”
The current gardens provide an opportunity to reach out to Communities of Color about the importance of growing your own food.
“Similarly to Cal Anderson, this is a demonstration garden,” Henderson said. “A lot of folks don’t understand where their food is coming from and don’t have the skills or experience or self-confidence or awareness to feel comfortable enough to start a garden.”
Henderson believes the City should rethink its use of parks and other public spaces. “We really need to create more opportunities for folks to be able to grow food on the land — and the P-Patch system isn’t enough.”
For now, Henderson and Black Star Farms will continue to shovel compost and tend their vegetables, awaiting whatever SPR has planned for them.
“I started the garden in Cal Anderson as a space to take back the land. And [we’re] just continuing to do that work,” he said, “working my way closer to the South End, as someone who’s new to this area and starting to really get to know the community. And we just keep dreaming big about what we can do in a city.”
Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 07/12/2021 to clarify the communities the garden hopes to serve as well as the role of the HOPE Team when it comes to homeless encampment removals. A previous version of this article described the garden serving communities in “‘food deserts;’” the article was updated to describe them as “neighborhoods where it can be difficult to access fresh, organic produce.” The previous version also implied that the HOPE Team always leads removals (sweeps); the article was updated to clarify that “various departments that have jurisdiction for the land in question, such as SPR, undertake sweeps, often with the assistance of HSD and SPD.” A quote from Kevin Mundt, spokesperson from HSD, was also included to provide further clarity.
A previous version of this article mischaracterized the relationship Black Star Farms has with Black Farmers Collective. On 07/21/2021 this article was updated to remove Ray Williams and the Black Farmers Collective from the list of organizations Black Star Farms collaborates with.
Andrew Engelson is a Seattle-based writer and editor who lives in the South End.
📸 Featured Image: Marcus Henderson started Black Star Farms at Cal Anderson Park during the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) in 2020. A year later, a community garden Black Star Farms created in Jimi Henderson Park has been threatened with removal by Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation. (Photo: Andrew Engelson)
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