October 23, 2020

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A Community Garden With Radical Potential Blossoms in Los Angeles

A community garden has sprung up along Echo Park Lake, a collaboration between Echo Park Rise Up and artist Paige Emery (all photos by Sara Suárez)

LOS ANGELES — Ayman Ahmed, who lives in a tent in Los Angeles’s Echo Park, wanted his roses to live. He had planted the small rose bed — “my babies,” he called them — in the community garden a few weeks before, a painted white cross staked in the soil.

The garden is a collaboration between performance artist Paige Emery and Echo Park Rise Up, an autonomous collective of unhoused people living at Echo Park Lake for the past seven months. While most guerrilla gardens are situated in vacant lots and abandoned pockets of the city, this one sits in a highly trafficked public park, slivered along the grassy edges of Echo Park Lake, where giant, swan-shaped pedal boats bob in the water.

Paige Emery and Ayman Ahmed

Emery, a housed neighbor in Echo Park, is a multimedia performance artist with a keen interest in ecology. A co-director of the activist group the Future Left, she became involved with Echo Park Rise Up after attending a memorial for Brianna Moore, an 18-year-old resident of the park who overdosed in August. Now, where Moore’s tent once stood is a small cross, her photos tacked onto the wood, surrounded by onions and tomatoes growing in recycled dresser drawers.

Paige Emery and a member of Echo Park Rise Up working at the community garden at Echo Park Lake

In the encampment, residents have jobs: cooking meals, organizing and distributing food donations, working security, or cleaning up the trash in the park. Everyone who participates receives 40 dollars per day from a communal pot sustained through donations to the collective’s money-sharing apps.

“We’re building our own kitchen, we’re building our own medical tent, we’re building our own garden, and we’re building our own way out of poverty,” said Ahmed, one of the group’s main organizers. And yet, the encampment is still threatened by the routine police sweeps that regularly strip the houseless of their belongings. “This could be taken down at any moment,” said Emery.

Sign at Echo Park Lake, “Mayor Eric Garcetti Took Our Showers”

The garden lends itself to metaphor, inviting language about rootedness, biodiversity, and sowing seeds for the future. Emery views it as regenerative work, bringing people together across difference. “All of it has been a collective work between housed people and unhoused people, and between humans and nonhumans, kids who walk by, and adults who live here,” she said. “That is an eraser of edges.” Every day, she says, something new appears that had not been there the day before: a new footstool, a fresh plant bed, a bouquet of flowers with “For Brianna” scrawled on the thin, pink tissue wrapping.

Ana Bega, the community’s cook 

The garden grows fruit and flowers, and also medicinal plants, like chamomile, to ease chronic stress. “It’s free healing food,” Emery said. One evening, I found Emery and Ana Bega, the community’s cook, cutting up aloe vera. Bega had grown up on a farm in Honduras, and had worked for many years as a housekeeper in wealthy neighborhoods like Beverly Hills. The harsh chemicals used in the cleaning products could hurt your hands, she said. She sliced the thick stalk of aloe in half and knifed off the clear thick gel, rubbing it over her palms. Later, she would apply a section of the plant to the wound on another resident’s shoulder, pressing it against the raw, whitened part where the skin had abraded.

The community-sourced garden, Emery said, models an alternative to the capitalist values of private property, scarcity, speed, and individualism. “We have so much scarcity with food. And we don’t have to, you know?” she said. “This is what I’ve been calling an economy of gifting, because everyone’s giving each other these things, including from nature. The plants are gifting, and we’re gifting to the plants. There’s no capital involved in this. It’s an economy of care.”

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