Did the Hayes Valley Farm occupation help or hurt the cause of liberating urban space?

Activists who occupied the former Hayes Valley Farm site held the space and posted this sign before being evicted by police.

Did the recent activist occupation of a temporary urban farming plot help “liberate the land,” as they claimed, or might it actually make property owners less likely to allow community-based temporary uses on land awaiting development? And did the farmers of this once-fallow land inadvertently provide a new toehold to challenge a proposed housing project?

Promptly after Hayes Valley Farm ended its three-year stint to make way for long-planned housing that would be built on the lot, a group of activists (many from Occupy San Francisco) calling itself Liberate the Land took residency for nearly two weeks, renaming it Gezi Gardens in solidarity with protesters at Gezi Square in Turkey. At 2am on June 13, Gezi Gardens was raided by police and the activists ejected.

The rise and fall of Gezi Gardens has had some people within the San Francisco urban agriculture community questioning whether or not the occupation was helpful in promoting the cause for more green space in the city. For some involved in the urban agriculture community, the end of Hayes Valley Farm reflects a not-so-distant future for other green spaces in the community.

Pastor Megan Rohrer is executive director of Welcome: A Communal Response to Poverty and project coordinator for The Free Farm, a community garden on St. Paulus Lutheran Church’s land on Gough and Eddy Street. That plot, temporarily turned into green space with permission from the landlord, St. Paulus Lutheran Church, is scheduled to end its three-year stint in December to make way for housing construction, much like Hayes Valley Farm.

The Free Farm’s land will sprout a housing project with all low-income housing units, whereas the project being built on the Hayes Valley Farm site will have 40 low-income units out of 180 total condos. Regardless, the possibility of a similar situation to what happened with Hayes Valley Farm has Rhorer on edge.

“I have a nervous feeling that what happened with Hayes Valley Farm may happen with my garden. I just want everything to end smoothly and peacefully,” Rohrer said. “I respect what the Occupy folks are doing in bringing awareness, but feel that what they did was a little disingenuous. Since the start of Hayes Valley Farm, there was an understanding that condos would be built over it. It was going to happen eventually.”

Longtime San Francisco activist Diamond Dave Whitaker was one of the people that occupied Gezi Gardens. He’s not sure if the occupation will be prove helpful to the urban agriculture movement in San Francisco.

“I’m not sure. What I do know is that Gezi Gardens was one of the few wild spaces left here,” Whitaker said. “Not everything has to be done within the law. Time will tell if what happened there helped urban agriculture here.”

Katy Broker-Bullick, a site steward at the 18th and Rhode Island community garden, told us the occupation of Gezi Gardens served to spark a dialogue about green spaces in San Francisco.

“I appreciate what the Occupiers are doing at Hayes Valley Farm in so much as it draws attention to innovative, community-based green spaces in San Francisco, and serves to foster a balanced, open discussion of the function and importance of such sites for community connection and innovation in urban spaces,” Broker-Bullick said.

Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-SF) is also weighing in on the discussion of urban green spaces in the city. Although he does not have a stance on the occupation of Gezi Gardens, he has made strides in trying to make urban agriculture more accessible with San Francisco’s Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, Assembly Bill 551. It calls for property owners to sign a contract that would zone their land strictly for agriculture for 10 years in exchange for decreased property taxes.

Ting doesn’t necessarily support those who occupied Gezi Gardens, but said this: “What I do believe is that we should be doing what we can to keep green spaces in San Francisco.”

Some groups in the city may respect what the Liberate the Lands attempts at occupying Gezi Gardens, but the politically active Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association wasn’t one of them.

On June 7, nearly a week before the raid of Gezi Gardens, HVNA President William Bulkley penned a letter to Mayor Ed Lee, pleading to end the occupation of that land: “The HVNA board of directors feels that the current situation on Parcels O and P places a health and safety risk to both the participants and our neighbors. We respectfully request that, as mayor, you direct your staff to take appropriate action in a swift and timely fashion.”

Yet Rohrer also said Occupy activists are a much-needed part of San Francisco’s urban agriculture community. “It’s because of the hard work from people who have been connected to Occupy that spaces, like the Free Farm, are running,”  Rohrer said. “We have a lot of Occupy folk who volunteer that put their hearts and souls into the soil.”

There are efforts to halt building on Gezi Gardens, though many of the people who had occupied the lot have “scattered to the wind,” Whitaker said.

Mona Lisa Wallace, an attorney working with Liberate the Land, is attempting to halt construction based on the grounds that an accurate environmental impact report was not done because the land was found to be exempt from a more current report. Wallace said the last report was done five years ago when Parcels O and P were classified as “disturbed land.” Since then, plants and wildlife have flourished on Hayes Valley Farm.

She said an appeal to the exemption from a current environmental impact report will be filed at the the Board of Supervisor’s office on Friday. “Over the years a habitat has been created for hummingbirds, bees, crows, and quail,” Wallace said. “The exemption from the environmental impact report does not free them from being in compliance with federal and state law.”





is generally counter-productive. It leads to a growth in disrespect for the law, it emboldens government to pass stricter laws on squatting and aggravates public opinion.

You may as well ask what the original Occupy achieved. For all it's sound and fury, hindsight shows us that it was a classic "15 minutes of fame" episode that changed nothing.

Whatever you think of it, we have due process, we have an edifice of established law and we have a strong tradition of property rights. While there will always be some people who think we need a cute little farm over housing or commerce, in the end we have to trust the democratic process? Why? Because it involves everyone, and not just a small group of activists with an agenda.

Nice balanced piece tho, Erin, and hopefully this is a sign of more balanced coverage and less partisan bias here.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

They picked the wrong one this time.

Posted by dawdler on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

I believe that there is only case in all of SF history where squatters ended up acquiring legal title to a property via adverse possession.

As a strategy, it has a near 100% fail rate, and so I cannot help feeling that it is more a matter of rampant opportunism than anything rational.

Posted by anon on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

The reporter and the commentator above are missing the point of non-violent, peaceful protest and civil disobedience. Although I had some problems with the liberate the land folks and the way they liberated the site, we need to support the people who speak out against things that are wrong in our society. If we don't use our voice and actions to speak out in a free society then we will lose our freedoms., People like Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, and the Occupy Movement showed us a good way to speak out against injustice and other issues. In my opinion, we should put a moratorium on developing open space in the city or it won't be very livable. We need as many gardens and trees for our environment and for our spiritual selves.That is one of the points that I heard.the Gezi Gaardens people make

Also, when it comes to building low income housing, I question what that really means. I was told that what is going to be built is affordable housing which sounds more confusing. More people are sleeping on the streets since 2007 (approximately 6,436 people). An estimated and 220 homeless families with children are on a waiting list to get temporary shelter. Right now there are only 239 long term beds available (3-6 months max stay).for homeless families. Are these affordable or low income housing units going to help get people off the street? Shouldn't that be our highest priority when it comes to development if there is going to be more development?

I actually am the project coordinator for the Free Farm and yes we will have to move at the end of the year. Next door to our Free Farm are three vacant buildings that have been occupied at least three times that I know of and I think homeless people are still getting in there and sleeping. I am glad that those buildings were occupied at one point, because to me it is morally wrong for buildings to sit vacant and not be used to help people who are struggling to get by. Especially since those buildings are owned by the Catholic Church which is supposed to be supporting the poor and down and out.

I agree with Megan that we want to end our project on a positive and peaceful note. We have been very grateful to St. Paulus Lutheran Church for letting us grow food for those in need for three years (plus they paid the water bill). .So we will do all we can to say thank you and move on
However, one of the frustrations many people feel is that they are losing gardens and farms that are contributing to the positive benefit of San Francisco. One of our projects, the Free Farm Stand, is going to lose a big source of it's produce that is distributed for free to help prevent hunger and food insecurity. We are also losing Esperanza Gardens in the Mission.
I think people would feel less upset if we could find a new home that was more permanent. This is the challenge since finding permanent vs interim spots is difficult (especially since we want to be in the Mission), not to mention that right now vacant land is super expensive.

In the meantime, I hope the activists stay active and also spend some time doing what Gandhi said was the constructive program (positive work as an alternative to things that are not right .growing food as a good example to feed people who are going hungry). This is needed to balance out the Obstructive Program of non-cooperation to oppression and injustice (I heard the ratio is 1 part Obstructive 99 part constructive).

Posted by Tree on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

justified as long as you are in the right, but of course being in the right is a highly subjective notion. Indeed, that is why we have the law and property rights, because people cannot agree on the best use of land, and so we use elections, governments and the courts to make those decisions, and not a group of squatters who think they are "right" (and who doesn't think they are right?).

As for buildings being kept vacant, much of the reason for that is our local land use laws which, whether they are limiting rents or deterring development, make it more economic to leave a building vacant rather than utilize it.

You can quote MLK and Ghandi all you like but we're not talking about slavery, segregation or colonialism here. We are merely talking about alternative uses for land and of course everyone has their own idea about how to use land.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

Yes, a well balanced piece of reporting. The problem with this occupation is that it completely ignored a long and democratic process which involved local residents, the city, and the developers. No, I'm sure it wasn't perfect, but it certainly wasn't arbitrary either. It doesn't help that many of these occupiers were either homeless (not there is anything wrong with that, mental ill (not there is anything wrong with that), or political extremists who latch on whatever seems trendy to achieve their goal of revolutionary change (OK, maybe there is something wrong with that). Just because you hold the position that farms need to be in cities instead of, um, farmland, doesn't make you the moral equivalent of the Freedom Riders. The spectacle of these guys wandering from place to place the day after they were kicked on, finally deciding that lying down in front of cars was the way to go, was just sad.

Posted by visit on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

about the crew that show up for things like this.

Freedom Riders, they are not. Opportunists? Probably so.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

She took the trouble to talk to parties on both sides and presented balanced coverage.

I cannot imagine Tim or Steven ever doing that. They'd want to present an agenda rather than actually cover a story.

Well done, Erin. Stick around.

Posted by anon on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

I started reading this article and after a few paragraphs I realized that the writer was leaving it up to me to make up my mind based on arguments presented by both sides.

At first I assumed that the SFBG servers had been hacked.

But then I remembered that Tim has left and Steven Jones has decided that he, personally, is the only thing important enough to write about.

So...maybe there is a useful role for the SFBG after all.

Posted by Troll on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 6:22 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 7:05 pm

you win it is set in stone and a win for "the people," the people being a handful of rent mob types.

When things wind through the governmental process and you lose everything is unfair and you are a righteous persecuted soul.

Posted by matlock on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

you win it is set in stone and a win for "the people," the people being a handful of rent mob types.

When things wind through the governmental process and you lose everything is unfair and you are a righteous persecuted soul.

Posted by matlock on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

1) Crowd out public meeting with "usual suspect" activists, and try and create the false impression that the majority of SF'ers support the extremist position.

If you win, act smug.

If you lose, adopt #2:

2) Regard due process and the courts as a fascist dictatorship existing only to protect the one percent and use that to rationalize criminal behavior in the name of "justice".

Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

When the actual citizens went down to city hall and had their voice heard and complained about the parking thing in the Mission, now "senior progressive journalist at the Bay Guardian," complained about the citizens taking part in the process.

There is a varied level of involvement that progressives appreciate in government.

Citizen involvement is good, unless it is bad. It all depends on what justification you are working with today.

Posted by matlock on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 12:01 am

It is urban space in a urban area which in part should be urban. If you want to grow food, have a farm or raise livestock. Go live in the Central Valley or the Midwest, leave the urban land to housing urban workers. We need the housing in the very urban Bay Area.

Posted by Garrett on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

Really? I find that hard to believe. As for hummingbirds and crows - those two species are incredibly resilient and have adapted to urban areas well. They are not gonna miss that area.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Jun. 24, 2013 @ 7:41 pm

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