Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 11, 2010

Green Urban Island

I have seen this place for years, now, and wondered about it. It’s down across the railroad tracks along Gaffey Street in San Pedro, at the foot of the hill below us. There’s still one more rise of land before the harbor, but this out-of-the-way location puts it on the very edge of Los Angeles. Here, next to smog testing shops, a DMV location and a Target store is a lush, intensely cultivated hillside of little plots climbing a forlorn hillside, the top of which is occupied by a Los Angeles County Department of Sanitation service center. It’s called San Pedro Public Gardens. You know just by looking at it that it’s some sort of  grassroots urban gardening area. I wondered if it had developed completely outside of official red tape, with people more or less “squatting” on undeveloped land, or if it were something more formal.

After years of wondering, I went to find out. I drove across the railroad tracks, parked along the ragged macadam that leads up to the sanitation facility, and climbed up into a warren of little paths that threaded between tiny plots planted with sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, strawberries: private gardening enclosures.

As it  turns out, it’s official, not off-the-map. It’s sponsored by the Los Angeles Community Garden Council, who have something like 70 enclaves like this, scattered across the landscape. Any big city like Los Angeles has its worlds-within-a-world, hidden in plain sight, and this is one of ours.

I was walking through a private, encompassed place, hidden in plain sight within the distance of a batted ball from the Harbor Freeway. Little plots, each defined by the tastes and culinary style of the people who hold them, were wedged one against the other. The plotholders pay $20 a year. They have access to water and abide by a few rules, including the prohibition of any activity after dark. Another rule prohibits the “construction of shacks or sheds of any kind.” Hmmm.

Since the metropolitan LA area is infested with sub-par construction of every description, this is hardly the place to start enforcing rules, so one hopes these enterprising gardeners can continue to slide by.

As I hoped I would, I encountered an unusual vegetable I’d never seen, cultivated by a man who could talk to me in English. He called this vegetable simply, “long squash.” He shut off the hose he was using to water his plot and posed with his impressive crop, which hung from a profuse growth of squash vines from an overhead arbor.

With the right amount of water and reasonable care, almost anything will grown in the Mediterranean climate of LA, and here’s an impressive example. Is it any good to eat? How many meals can you get out of a six foot-long squash? I’m sorry that I didn’t ask more questions. Poor journalism on my part. Next time, send a professional.

These are not “showcase” gardens. They’re working gardens, and they are ragged and crowded. The steeply sloping hillside makes it a bit of a challenge, but gives the place an extraordinarily interesting character. There probably ARE spiffier-looking garden areas in other areas of LA, but I like this one fine.

In another world not served by mega-chain grocery stores, in cities all across the world, there are innumerable upstart efforts where even urban dwellers get much of their food. It’s reassuring to know that all across oh-so-urban yet ever-suburban LA, including Santa Monica and Encino and Watts, there’s a provision to use otherwise waste land to provide a verdant setting for cultivation. In some parts of town, these efforts are seen as core components of neighborhood-building and -regeneration. A local populace that can connect this directly with the place they live, the thinking goes, feels more connected with the welfare of their town.

I have to say that I’d give a lot to have a fresh ear of corn. The best I can do here in the midst of the metropolis is what we did this weekend: visit the local farmer’s market and buy some ears that are proudly advertised as picked only yesterday. That means they were picked somewhere up in the Central Valley, maybe by Bakersfield, driven down at dawn across the Tejon Pass, and set out on a table in a parking lot in Rancho Palos Verdes. It’s a far cry from the world of my Aunt Winnie, whose summertime goal in life was to dash out the back door of the kitchen, grab a couple of ears off the stalks in the garden and plunge them into boiling water with no more than one minute elapsing between picking and eating. I was sorely tempted to find someone tending one of those seven foot-tall stalks of sweet corn and ask them what they’d take for a couple of ears!

Click on photos for larger views.



  1. Fresh corn? Had some this weekend that, while not just picked, was surely no more than 4 hours off the stalk. Brought home, shucked and straight to the pot. It was very, very good – a nice, crisp central Kosciusko County ’10 vintage. Sweeter and a bit more plump than the memorable ’07 southern Hamilton County, and just a bit too variegated in appearance to match the all-time classic ’79 Warren County.


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