Unpaving paradise

Posted on | March 9, 2011 | 5 Comments

This photo essay tells the story of a successful effort between 2003 and 2007 to intercept a re-paving project at 24th Street School in West Adams, Los Angeles. The bid: stop replacement of old asphalt with new asphalt and instead seize the opportunity to introduce teaching gardens, shade, play equipment and freeway buffering into the schoolyard. What military strategists call “mission drift” led to it also involving a full-blown garden teaching program.

My interest in the school began because I lived down the street. Reporting on school gardens in the late 1990s showed me what was possible when a campus had shade, gardens and safe playgrounds. None of that was available to my neighborhood kids at 24th Street School, which was then one of the poorest-performing and most crowded schools in Los Angeles.

Work to devise a plan with more plants and less asphalt began in earnest at the campus in 2003, and roughly two years were spent badgering the Los Angeles Unified School District to take a growing band of dreamers seriously. By 2005, our stage army consisted of a handful of teachers, principal Grace Yoon, a few neighbors, chef Nancy Silverton and a garden designer, Melinda Taylor, who we paid for an alternate plan.

We made steady progress getting the project permitted, but Taylor’s firm was tiny and we were demanding. As the build start date approached in 2005, she was on the verge of dropping out, doing it strictly her way, or charging what she was worth. Early that year, a second designer was contracted and second plan done. When the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to build to a playground design by the Santa Monica firm Nancy Goslee Power & Associates, a non-profit was formed to conduct a capital campaign to pay for the elements over and above the publicly funded asphalt.

I asked Power, a veteran of many boards, to lead it. My status then as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times meant I was forbidden from membership of any board, even one dedicated to my local school project. The more involved the project got, the closer I was to violating every ethical guideline in the book. Hovering dangerously at the edge of these guidelines for years on end eventually led to the decision to leave the Times staff in late 2006.

But by that point, Power and I detested one another and I was not welcome on her board. The friction was almost instant after she took over in 2005, with her not so subtly alleging that I suffered from an array of personality disorders and my doing everything possible to keep the experimentation open at 24th Street until we had a workable model. I hewed stubbornly to the idea that this should be a product of the school for the school, with us in the background. The ultimate prize would be a model that fit LAUSD and could be replicated by any campus in the system. To Power and others on her board, it seemed straightforward to aim for the Chez Panisse model in Berkeley.

Neither of us is to blame for the vagaries of rich trustees who came to populate the charity’s board. During my time working on the project, it was a brutal education to see trustee after trustee promise thousands and rarely deliver it, and never on time or in full, if at all. These same trustees thought nothing of demanding PR material, handholding, tours and progress reports. The kookiest board member became churlish after I shot down the suggestion that he should get the superintendent of schools drunk at his restaurant to secure backing for the project.

One figure who bragged in the press about giving us money in fact gave us old computers and even a typewriter. “Do people dump their old electronics on you?” Marsha Guerrero, the manager of the Chez Panisse school garden, once asked me in passing. I nodded.

While the trustees on the board proved far needier than the poorest child at the school, the build went south. No one checked the grading so the blacktop drained into the playing field instead of the native garden. Shaded play equipment called for on the plan was lost in a series of debacles caused by our failure to oversee construction and brief, disastrous meddling by a consultant from the Trust for Public Land, who while supposedly doing our business plan found time to promote an expensive alternate type of rig designed by a friend of hers. After TPL promised the superior equipment, our plans were scrapped. Then TPL breached, leaving the kids with asphalt.

Her friend, from memory, was called Gilda. Odd, these fragments of detail out of chaos.

But there were also glorious successes. In May 2005, a courtyard test garden was dug to enthuse teachers about the coming network of gardens. This produced a rude shock. Not one of the teachers, not even the original and biggest enthusiast for the idea of a garden, had the first idea of how to use it or tend it. Rather than admit this, this early garden crusader, a second grade teacher, appeared in a back brace and announced herself unable to dig. So began an all-consuming year-and-a-half reaching beyond our original remit of simply introducing gardens and turning on a dime to establish a garden teaching and maintenance program.

We hired outside professional gardeners, one of whom became the soul of the program. When third grade teacher Michelle Ereckson and our hire, UC Berkeley horticulturist Nick Tan, began to fall in love, we had a winner. Soon Nick and Michelle had teachers fighting for garden lesson slots and we spent every Friday afternoon refining lessons, devising field trips and organizing special events. They became the toast of monthly teacher parties at El Cholo. But as the teaching program flourished in a way that astonished all of us, Power’s charity sought control.

To my eyes, this wasn’t just mission drift, but also specialty slip. We were in breach on every aspect of the build and the playground designer wanted to take over the garden class program? For Power’s part, if she was going to run things, she wanted to run them. As enmity between the two of us peaked, everyone on the project suffered. It became a question of tear the baby in half, or let go. In December 2006 I let go. Power took over just as the main garden was made available.

Alice Waters always says that you should start a garden near where you live, because proximity will keep you active. She never said what to do when it breaks your heart but it’s still in your face every time you step out of your front door.

Virtually all of the teachers key to the genesis of the project have left 24th Street School, though it merits stressing that the exodus of more than half the teaching staff was not over the in-fighting between me and a Santa Monica-based garden charity. It was a change of principal. The original teaching staff gathered at my house late last year to hold a leaving party for Michelle Ereckson, who after more than a decade, left 24th Street. The emotion on the faces in pictures from that party is almost too much to bear.

After changing schools, the founding teacher in the project, the one with back problems, claimed nervous wear and tear and got early retirement compliments of the taxpayer. From hearsay, she’s now herding alpacas or some such thing in northern California. Pete Barrale, the endlessly patient LAUSD facilities manager, who saw through the district’s side of the build with unfailing politeness and dedication, then personally saw that the kids got a play set when we breached, twice, has retired.* (See correction below). He remains un-thanked and un-credited.

In 2008, it emerged that Power’s charity was a shell corporation. Our side had been not just a shambles, but also a sham. It eventually did file papers and vote officers.

The crowding at 24th Street has lessened thanks to an epic district building plan and flight of the working poor from the area. Academically, the school is still failing and looks likely to be taken over by a charter. Michelle and Nick married last year. Nick has a successful garden design-build business. He no longer teaches. Power’s charity, finally incorporated, continues to run the gardens. How it survived civil war between the teachers and principal, I’ll never know. Whether at her behest or that of the principal, most of the gardens are now fenced. Power’s staff carries the keys. Ironically, when the gates are locked, there is less publicly available green space than when we started.

Silverton, who I still count as a cherished friend, and one neighbor, are still involved. I envy them, and I don’t. I support the project, and I don’t.

If I have advice of any worth to someone considering embarking on a school garden project, it’s to keep it simple, keep it local and staff it with people who see the parents, teachers, facilities managers and kids as their equals, not charity cases. Prepare yourself for unalloyed joy when you succeed and even when you fail. Fail, try again and, in the words of that delightful English columnist Bel Mooney, “fail better.” Repeat until you succeed, or your heart breaks.

But I digress. These pictures tell their own story, one of unpaving paradise.

*This post has been updated.

Correction: A comment from a LAUSD Facilities executive (see blow) indicates that Pete Barrale still works for the district. My apologies to Mr. Barrale.

 

 

Comments

5 Responses to “Unpaving paradise”

  1. Jessica
    March 9th, 2011 @ 7:37 pm

    Where’s that danged Facebook “like” button? I want to “like” all your photos. Commendations for doing so much to create a little beauty in your neighborhood, and for speaking your truth.

  2. Tracy Bartley
    March 9th, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

    At least 5 years ago you took me on a tour of 24th. It was in its early stages – but the vision changed my life! With my community we tore over 100 tons of asphalt out of our neighborhood school. I now work as one of two LAUSD Sustainable Schoolyards Ombuds helping other communities do the same and ensuring schoolyards are not repaved without green spaces being included. Whatever the failures – and successes – of the 24th Street project it holds many lessons for those of us dedicated to unpaving as much paradise as possible. Thank you!

    (More on LAUSD’s renewed support of campus greening at: http://mo.laschools.org/green-spaces/ and on fb at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Los-Angeles-Unified-School-District-School-Gardens/180490725323486)

  3. Barbara Eisenstein
    March 9th, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

    As always your honesty and clarity when discussing the complexity and difficulty of change leaves me in awe. What a story! I know that I will be going back to revisit both pictures and text. I’d like to believe that even more good will come of your efforts but regardless, you and others at the school showed the kids that you value them enough to try to improve things at their school. Well done!

  4. EmilyGreen
    March 10th, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    Thank you Jessica, Tracy and Barbara. There were several motivations for writing this. I return in a small way to writing about school gardens this week and because I dropped that beat on conflict-of-interest grounds when I started the 24th Street project, I needed to draw a line for re-entry, one that makes clear I have history in this department, but am no longer involved. Anyone who wants to know my biases, there they are, for better or worse. The second reason was that drawing a veil over the real genesis of 24th Street School’s garden, while it’s held up as a model by people who did not do anything close to the heavy lifting (many were paid handsomely), isn’t fair to teachers or parents who want to do the same thing. Leaving out the hard part while promoting the result is like selling a map of a swamp without the quicksand. Cartography over and on to new debacles. Thank you all again for such wonderful comments.

  5. Patti Gagan
    March 28th, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

    This is a great and yet terrible story. You were such a catalyst for a wonderful project, and I know how it broke your heart when it went sideways. I’m glad you wrote it all down and am especially glad that you’ll be writing about school gardens again.

    BTW, Pete Barrale still works at LAUSD. I will share this with him.

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