Joel McClure once walked the streets surrounding his Bayview district block with envy.
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“I used to come up Quesada and look at the beautiful oasis and became frustrated when I came to this ugly duckling,” McClure said of the plot of land next to his home, before it was transformed into a garden. “I was so frustrated; this was a dumping ground.”
McClure decided he needed to do something “or stop complaining.” He and wife Mary took a small plot of land at Newhall Street and Bridgeview Drive and transformed it into a food-producing educational garden.
First they cleared debris and weeds. Then they contacted Jeff Betcher of Quesada Gardens to find out how to do more.
Under the Quesada umbrella, more than 35 projects, including the Bridgeview Garden, have sprouted up in the Bayview on various blocks since 2002.
The group operates on an annual budget of $168,000 and hundreds of hours of volunteer work. Quesada has received money mostly through government grants, yet the funds are drying up quickly and there is little available to replace it.
But the group is not going to let a little thing like dollars and cents get in its way.
In a neighborhood associated more with crime and poverty than its landscape and views, knowing your neighbors and standing together to ward off the negative stereotypes makes all the difference.
Betcher is a co-founder and one of many leaders of Quesada Gardens. He said the organization is more than a garden, it’s a community.
Quesada was started 10 years ago by a semiretired woman who was tired of watching drug dealing, prostitution and other illegal activity occupy her block. She started by planting a small strip of flowers on Betcher’s property.
Now a street that was widely avoided a decade ago is a destination — with towering palm trees and 5-foot-tall shrubs, lilacs, aloe and roses, among other plants.
Betcher said even residents’ attitudes have changed.
But the group is facing a funding dilemma. Money runs out in July, the end of the fiscal year, and that could determine whether Quesada continues as an organized entity.
“Even if it dried up tomorrow, I don’t think we’ll go away,” Betcher said. “Too many people are invested in it.”
Much of the funding keeping the garden alive was awarded through the federal Environmental Justice Small Grants Program and nonprofits that support the physical activity and nutritional value of a garden.
The problem now is that the community is supposed to pitch in and help fund the project it has grown to love, under the grant program’s rules, but many residents come from low-income households and often cannot afford to donate money.
Betcher said Quesada will remain in some form because there is a strong need for it.
“We’ve arrived at a place where we value our work,” he said.
Mohammed Nuru, director of the Department of Public Works, said programs such as Quesada Gardens are vital. He said there are 500 acres of unusable land throughout The City. When communities use those spaces, it greatly benefits a neighborhood.
“If these spaces are not used for gardens, they would become a dumping ground or an eyesore,” Nuru said.
Betcher agreed. He said the area often gets a bad rap, but Quesada Gardens is helping to change that.
“You don’t have to be in Bayview long to see it’s a pretty special place,” he said.
Palou effort is determined to keep blooming
After nearly three years, the Palou Community Garden is ready to open — whether or not it has funding.
Garden leaders say the effort to create the space at Palou Avenue and Dunshee Street has already given them plenty in the form of community rewards. But they will have to work a little harder to keep it afloat since their parent organization, Quesada Gardens, is struggling financially.
“Every nonprofit has its difficulties getting funding,” said Chris Waddling, one of the leaders of the Palou Community Garden.
The Palou garden, roughly one-third of an acre, is on an arched piece of land above the Caltrain tunnel. Instead of letting it remain a blighted mess, nearby residents banded together in 2008 to turn it into a garden.
Project leaders, including Waddling, hope it can thrive as an educational center.
Jeff Betcher, co-founder of Quesada Gardens, said he and the organization’s board of directors help other garden projects in the Bayview, such as Palou, get started because it can be a discouraging process.
“Permission takes years to get on a piece of land,” Betcher said.
Quesada Gardens grant funding is expected to run out by July, but Waddling and other members do not expect the Palou garden to fold.
Waddling said he knows all the work that went into the garden’s creation — securing rights of way and other permissions from The City, and countless volunteer hours — is just the beginning. The group needs to test the soil, continue mulch work, create elevated plots and teach neighbors how to use the space.
But Waddling said he’s already seen results.
“I’ve found this community to be really open and friendly,” he said. “When I read about it in the news, it doesn’t feel like where I live.”